Every person has a vocation, a calling from God. Unfortunately, many Catholics still understand vocations almost exclusively in terms of priesthood or consecrated life. As a result, a two-tiered spirituality persists among some Catholics, with clergy and religious deemed “called to sanctity,” while most lay people are given a “holiness pass.” Yet, as Vatican II stressed, not only does everyone have a vocation, everyone is call to holiness — clergy, religious, and laity.
Even so, not all vocations are the same. There is the one, universal vocation to holiness we all have as disciples of Jesus. But this is realized in several specific vocations or “states of life” — lay, ordained, and consecrated life.
While some lay people are called to “church work,” most should primarily “seek the Kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God” (Lumen Gentium, 31). In other words, most lay people should do their “church work” in the world by being the Church there, the “leaven in the mass.” “Lay ministry” and other lay activities in the Church are, in this sense, exceptions to the main lay vocation of bringing the Gospel to the world.
Ordained ministers, on the other hand, are called “to carry on the apostolic ministry in time” (John Paul II, Vita Consecrata, 31). That is, through Holy Orders they perpetuate the apostolic ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons in the Church. Without ceasing to belong to the Church, ordained ministers act, in their respective ways as bishops, priests, or deacons, in the person of Christ — the Head in relation to the rest of his Body, the Church.
Finally, consecrated persons (drawn from among the laity and the clergy, whether in religious orders, in secular institutes, or in other ways) bear “witness to the eschatological character of the Church, that is, the straining towards the Kingdom of God that is prefigured and in some ways anticipated and experienced even now through the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience” (John Paul II, Christifideles Laici, 55). They manifest the Church's holiness in a special (though not exclusive) way (John Paul II, Vita Consecrata, 32), showing that the things of this age are only relatively good, compared with the fullness of the age to come (the Kingdom of God).
After Vatican II, some Catholics have mistakenly treated all vocations as the same. Usually, they advocate a disguised clericalism, defining lay participation by how many clerical roles the laity may assume. In this view, a lay vocation means having a “ministry” to engage in.
Pope John Paul II has tried to straighten things out by emphasizing the value of all vocations, while not obscuring the distinctive features of each. Vocations, he writes, are “different yet complementary in the sense that each of them has a basic and unmistakable character which sets each apart, while at the same time each of them is seen in relation to the other and placed at each other's service” (Christifideles Laici, 55). No vocation is an end in itself; all vocations are first for the Church's upbuilding, and then for the personal holiness of the recipient.
When people speak of a “vocations crisis” today, they usually mean the so-called priest shortage or the decline in religious orders. In response to this “crisis,” some advocate radical changes in the life and structure of the Church. They argue that the drop in priestly vocations, for example, reveals that the Holy Spirit wants the Church to ordain women or eliminate the hierarchical view of Holy Orders.
One major problem with this argument — besides being diametrically opposed to Catholic tradition — is that the call for radical revision of the Church's life and structure has itself contributed mightily to vocations problems, whether confusion about the lay vocation, the “priest shortage,” or the decline of religious life. Where Catholics embrace the universal call to holiness and understand the specific nature of the various vocations, there are highly motivated and active laity, clergy, and religious. In short, no vocations crisis.
Take, for example, the “crisis” of priestly and religious life. Dioceses and religious orders that energetically present Catholic teaching are growing. The Lincoln, Neb., and Arlington, Va., dioceses — to mention but two examples — have numerous priestly and religious vocations, despite relatively small Catholic populations. Or consider a religious order such as the Legionaries of Christ. In 1971, the Legionaries had 423 priestly and religious vocations. Ten years later, the number had more than doubled to 915. Ten years after that, it more than doubled again to 2,010. This year, the Legionaries have some 3,000 priestly and religious vocations.
The lesson is clear. Vigorously and joyfully proclaim the universal call to holiness. Teach people about the various vocations in which this calling is realized — lay, ordained, or consecrated life. Challenge people to discern where God wants them to serve. Form them and provide them the opportunity to serve. Then get out of the way and let the Holy Spirit work.
Mark Brumley is managing editor of Catholic Dossier and The Catholic Faith magazines.