Germain Grisez on Personal Vocations

«Generally I Do Not Think Lay People Have Grasped the Idea»

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EMMITSBURG, Maryland, OCT. 2, 2003 ( The faithful need to think in terms of their personal vocation — instead of their personal agendas.

So says Germain Grisez, professor of Christian ethics at Mount St. Mary’s College and Seminary, who has co-authored a new book, «Personal Vocation: God Calls Everyone by Name» (Our Sunday Visitor). Grisez expounded on his ideas for ZENIT.

Q: What is the basic idea behind your new book?

Grisez: Personal vocation and its meaning for Christian life have received comparatively little serious attention up to now. Shaw and I wrote «Personal Vocation: God Calls Everyone by Name» to remedy that. The idea is crucial to solving the so-called vocations shortage and enriching the spiritual lives of countless Christians.

We argue that there is no shortage of vocations — the shortage, if you will, is a shortage of vocational discernment. The old thinking — in particular, the idea that «vocation» refers only to a calling to the priesthood or religious life — is still widespread.

It discourages a lot of people from looking for their personal vocations, which in many cases probably include a calling to the priesthood or religious life — or both.

Q: Why should faithful Catholics take seriously your new ideas about vocations?

Grisez: Because they are not just ours. From the start of his pontificate — in fact since long before becoming Pope — John Paul II has spoken repeatedly of the unique calling each baptized person receives to a special role in God’s redemptive plan and in the mission of the Church.

There are excellent treatments in the encyclical «Redemptor Hominis,» the apostolic exhortation «Christifideles Laici,» and many other documents by this Pope. But the teaching has hardly been received up to now by the rest of the Church — even though the idea also is found in Scripture and in Vatican Council II and in classic Catholic writers like St. Francis de Sales and John Henry Newman.

Q: What exactly do you mean by «personal vocation»? How do you define it?

Grisez: We define personal vocation as God’s call and plan for one’s entire life. Ephesians 2:10 says: «We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.» Personal vocation is unique for each one, and it includes absolutely everything — all the good choices God would prefer one to make, all the things he allows to come one’s way and expects will be handled rightly.

Q: That seems very important for many reasons. But if you had to give just one, what would it be?

Grisez: Finding, accepting and faithfully fulfilling one’s personal vocation is the way to respond to the universal call to holiness, for that means doing God’s will in everything and accepting whatever comes as coming from, or at least permitted by, him, as described in Vatican II’s dogmatic constitution on the Church [«Lumen Gentium»] in Nos. 40-41.

Q: What are the similarities and differences between a religious or priestly vocation, and the diverse paths in the lay life?

Grisez: This is a question about states in life, not personal vocation. It might help if I spelled out the three different but complementary senses in which the word «vocation» is used in the Church.

First, there is vocation in the sense of the common Christian vocation that comes with baptism. This is the calling that comes from the commitment of faith, to love and serve God above all things, to love neighbor as oneself, and in doing these things participate in the mission of the Church.

Second, there is vocation in the sense of state in life. The clerical state, the consecrated life, the state of marriage, the single lay life in the world — these are state-in-life vocations. They are specifications of the baptismal vocation –broad, overarching commitments that set people upon certain paths that will fundamentally shape their lives by the countless choices and actions required to carry them out. Usually, when Catholics say «vocation,» they mean vocation only in this sense. And usually they mean a calling to be a priest or a religious.

Third, there is vocation in the sense of personal vocation. This concretizes the common baptismal vocation and a Christian’s state of life into the unique and unrepeatable part in God’s redemptive plan that the Father calls each of us to play.

He provides us with the necessary gifts and strengths to play that part, as well as with the opportunities for service that make playing it a real contribution to a better world and to the kingdom. He also allows the obstacles, weaknesses and sufferings that make playing our part a challenge to bring out the best in us.

So, it is by paying attention to all those things that we hear God’s call. And only by paying attention and hearing God’s call can anyone — cleric, religious or layperson — know, accept and live out the Father’s will for him or her.

Q. How do you see the general and specific vocations within lay life? The former would include marriage, presumably, while the latter would include dedication to public service, works of charity, etc. Is that a fair assessment?

Grisez: I’m afraid not. Let me go back to something I just said.

Being a layperson can take two general forms — marriage and the single life. For those who understand them in vocational terms, marriage and the single life are states in life. For most people, obviously, marriage is by far the more common.

But marriage and the single life also are elements of the personal vocations of those called to them by God. So are the other things you mention — public service, specific works of charity, and much, much else.

What makes them elements of personal vocations is that they are willed for particular individuals by God and, one hopes, discerned, accepted and lived out as such. From that point of view, the notion of «general and specific vocations within lay life» doesn’t work. What you call «general and specific vocations» are elements of personal vocations.

Q: How have Church writers and popes dealt with the theme over the centuries?

Grisez: There is a pretty good treatment in our book. As I mentioned, you find the idea in Scripture — for example, it is implicit in what St. Paul says about roles and charisms in the Mystical Body of Christ — and in other sources.

St. Francis de Sales writes about it in the Treatise on the Love of God. One of Newman’s Anglican sermons is an excellent exposition of the idea. Pope John Paul has spoken about it repeatedly for 25 years — and longer than that, as a matter of fact.

But the idea hasn’t really sunk in among many Catholics up to now. Without trying to explain all the reasons here, I think it has something to do with the fact that historically Martin Luther was a great proponent of personal vocation and the universal call to holiness. Good for him! Unfortunately, though, Luther also threw out priesthood and religious life.

One byproduct of the Catholic reaction against Luther was to delay Catholic assimilation of the idea of personal vocation.

Q: Have the laity grasped the sense of their own vocation? If not, why not?

Grisez: As a matter of fact, some lay people have grasped the sense of their personal vocations. We profile some of them in our book — people like Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, Jacques Maritain, and also some who were quite ordinary by most standards.

But generally I do not think lay people have grasped the idea. One reason is the pervasive secularization of our culture, which makes it difficult for many people to grasp the sense of vocation or any other spiritual reality.

Another is the old habit, rooted in clericalism, of thinking and speaking of «vocation» only as
a state in life — and, practically speaking, only as a calling to priesthood or religious life. This is a problem even for lay people who see the lay state as being a «vocation» in some sense.

Q: Many pastors have tried hard to implement Vatican II. Haven’t they taught their people about personal vocation?

Grisez: Unfortunately, not many have catechized the faithful about personal vocation. Most catechisms fail even to mention it. The widespread, well-meaning substitute is to encourage the laity to get involved in lay ministries.

Although this substitution contributes to what Pope John Paul calls the clericalization of the laity, there is nothing wrong in principle with having lay people do some of this work. But it does represent a shrunken, diminished idea of what it means to be a Catholic layperson with a personal vocation that embraces the whole of life and is absolutely central to his or her religious identity.

Q: Does this situation have an impact on priestly and religious vocations?

Grisez: The failure to catechize about personal vocation leaves everyone ignorant about this subject. One very bad result is that people who have the gifts for consecrated life or ordained priesthood may never get around to discerning their own vocations, but may concentrate instead on personal agendas of their own.

This can happen even with people who do think about priesthood and consecrated life, but think of them as possible objectives they may decide to pursue rather than elements of God’s plan for them. Much of the official literature about recruiting vocations seems to encourage that mentality.

Q: How could the laity be helped to see their own lives in terms of vocation?

Grisez: How could any of us — bishops, priests, deacons, religious, lay people — be helped, as all of us need to be? The answer is catechesis and formation on the subject of personal vocation, starting in the very early years and continuing throughout life.

The idea should not be to sign up a few people as priests and sisters. It should be to get each and every Catholic thinking and praying and discerning about what God wants of him or her.

Pope John Paul says in «Christifideles Laici,» No. 58, that «the fundamental objective of the formation of the lay faithful» — and I would add all the faithful, not just the laity — «is an ever-greater discovery of one’s vocation and the ever-greater willingness to live so as to fulfill one’s mission.» And although there is never a stage in life where this is no longer necessary, clearly there is a special need for it in the case of children and young people, including young adults.

Q: How does someone discover his or her personal vocation?

Grisez: Since God has a particular, personal plan for everyone’s life, he wants everyone to find out what the plan is. The process by which that is done is called discernment.

It is not something mysterious nor is it something reserved only for an elite group consisting of those who think they may be called to the clerical or religious state. Everyone needs to discern what God wants of him or her.

Discernment involves prayer, serious reflection, consultation with good spiritual advisers and levelheaded friends. Taking part in a retreat or something similar can be helpful.

The central question is not «What do I want out of life?» but «What is God’s plan for my life? Lord, what do you want of me?» People who approach discernment that way can be confident that God will answer their question.

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