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Tuesday, 16 August 2016 23:29

On vocation and its implications for vocation ministry

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Br Julian McDonald cfcVocation ministry is about helping others to discern their gifts, to make decisions about how to develop and express those gifts and to do so in ways that they know to be true to themselves, writes Christian Brother Julian McDonald.

Introduction

The foundational concepts of contemporary Sacramental Theology would state that Jesus is the sacrament of God and we, the People of God, are the sacrament of Jesus. The implications of this, taken side by side with Incarnational Theology, are that we who call ourselves disciples of Jesus have a responsibility to make Jesus alive in our world. That message was brought strikingly to my attention at an Antioch gathering of young people in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney where I saw a teenage boy wearing a T-shirt with the words emblazoned on its back, “Jesus is not dead – He’s not even sick!” It struck me then, as never before, that Jesus is as alive in our world, in our homes and communities and work places as you and I, and others like us, make him.

God does not wander the world. Jesus no longer walks the streets of Palestine, Samaria or anywhere else. But we know from personal experience that God’s Spirit is alive and active in the evolving universe, in creation, in human beings, in the thoughts we think and in the feelings we feel. The whole point of the Consciousness Examen is to reflect on where and how we encounter the presence of the Divine each day of our lives.

No normally functioning person hears voices in her or his head. Yet, all of us who have received a traditional Catholic education were taught that a vocation to religious life or priesthood was a response to a call from God. (Marriage and the single lay state were somehow not regarded as vocations!) When we ventured into initial formation in postulancy, novitiate or seminary, we learned about the call to people like Isaiah, Moses, Abraham, Samuel Jeremiah, Amos, the Apostles, Paul, the Virgin Mary and countless other notably holy people. Very few women made the list. Are you surprised?

While the root meaning of the word “vocation” is a call, our teachers somehow forgot to tell us that the word “call” was a metaphor. Not a few who looked to join seminaries and religious congregations came believing that they had heard a voice calling them or with the expectation that they would eventually actually hear a voice calling them.

What follows is an attempt to explore vocation as a succession of personal choices made as one resonates with a particular charism, be it the charism of ordained priesthood or of a religious congregation. I will not venture into an exploration of the vocation to marriage or the single lay state or to a life of private vows. That would be scope for another article.

Vocation as Choice

In the first chapter of Genesis we read: God spoke: “Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature so they can be responsible for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, and, yes, earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of the earth.” God created human beings; God created them godlike, reflecting God’s nature. God created them male and female. (Genesis 1, 26-28)

The rest of Genesis is a succession of stories to demonstrate that God is good, creative loving, forgiving and free. Created in the image of God, all human beings have similar qualities and capacities. Each individual carries within himself particular gifts and qualities and the potential to nurture and develop them. We thrive as human beings to the extent that we identify and develop our gifts and express our capacities to love and grow free.

There was a time when it was believed by some theologians that finding or discovering one’s vocation in life was about following a process of prayer and discernment to discover what was something like a blueprint in the mind of God for each of us. There was a belief that vocation was literally a call from God that we had to listen for and respond to. The basis for such belief was the many scripture stories that were written using the metaphor of a divine or prophetic summons to action. Sometimes the invitation was delivered through an intermediary, an angel for instance.

However, if we accept that we are indeed created in the image of God, then we are being fully human to the extent that we pursue a path of self-determination by using our personal, God-given gifts, and matching them to our capacities to love and grow free in ways that we know are true to ourselves. This involves making free choices within the limits of our humanity and of the circumstances within which we live.

Personal freedom is limited both by our personal data and the rights of other people. Nobody who is 90 kgs in weight can choose to be a jockey and people who do not have 20/20 vision cannot be commercial pilots. We are free to get a driver’s licence but not free to run others down when we drive a vehicle.

One of the biggest challenges for all of us is to accept that we are fundamentally good, decent people. (People who have been taught to fear God, who have been given a moral code based on sin and punishment, struggle to believe that being created in God’s image means that they are basically good, though not perfect.) Then there are the additional challenges of accepting that we are truly human to the extent that we exercise with integrity our God-given freedom, use our creative ability and express the love in our hearts in the ways we believe are most true to ourselves. Rising to those challenges is surely best done through time dedicated to prayerful reflection and discernment. The skills of such discernment are not acquired by magic. Rather we learn them through practice guided by a skilled accompanier. Those in vocation ministry, therefore, need to be skilled accompaniers.

St. Irenaeus reminds us that “the glory of God is women and men fully alive.”

Surely God wants us to live our humanity to the full and to shape our lives in ways that are true to how we have been created. Pursuing one’s vocation in life is, therefore, a succession of “free” choices which we make as we discover our gifts, develop them, and seek to express them in ways which we believe to be authentic and which tap into our capacities to be creative, to reach out to others in love, and to become increasingly free.

Everybody has a vocation and vocation ministry is about helping others to discern their gifts, to make decisions about how to develop and express those gifts and to do so in ways that they know to be true to themselves. Given that everyone has a vocation, vocation education surely has a place in the Catholic Secondary School curriculum. Students have a right to be taught the practices of reflection and discernment - both essential tools for making wise and free choices.

Is discovering and pursuing one’s vocation in life, then, merely a matter of making a decision once one’s head, heart and will are functioning in harmony? And what’s the role of the person responsible for vocation ministry or carrying the title of “vocation co-ordinator”? Most of us need encouragement and reassurance as we launch into exploring the kind of person we want to become, the way we want to express our love and freedom, discover our gifts and use them creatively to find life and to give life to others.

The vocation minister’s role is to accompany others on that journey of exploration, to guide them in deciding how they want to live their Christian commitment, to assist them to discern and choose the state of life that best suits them for expressing the love in their heart. The very act of being born launches us into our calling or journey. Every human being experiences the desire to live true to his/her human nature - to be truly human. Christians, through their Baptism, commit themselves to live their lives in imitation of the way Jesus lived his life. We all choose to live that commitment by embracing one of four possible states of life - the married state, the single state, the consecrated lay religious state, the ordained priestly/deacon state. Every human being is imprinted with the desire to be truly human. Every Christian consciously commits to live in a way that resonates with the Gospel of Jesus, otherwise he or she is Christian only in name. This is the territory that belongs to vocation ministry, and clearly takes vocation ministry far away from recruitment.

Recruitment is about maintaining a work force. Religious Life and Priesthood are about the God search, they are about the life-long search for the only one who will satisfy us, the one about whom Augustine said: “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts will never rest until they rest in you.”

Br Julian McDonald cfc AO was Province leader of the Christian Brothers in Australia (NSW, ACT and PNG , 1990–2002), worked in Professional Standards National Office for 5 years, served as Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University for 10 years. He is currently a member of the Christian Brothers Congregation Leadership Team based in Rome until 2020.