This week, the week of November 5–11, is National Vocations Awareness Week. This week is dedicated to prayer and support for vocations, or callings from God, to the priesthood, the diaconate and consecrated life — the life of those in religious communities and consecrated virgins.

So of course today’s readings are full of warnings regarding priests and religious leaders! God threatens to curse bad priests in the first reading from Malachi, and Jesus in the Gospel warns us about wanting to be honored and greeted with titles like “Rabbi,” “Master,” and, yes, “Father.” Clergy and consecrated religious are human and everyone enjoys respect, but human respect isn’t a good reason to want to be a cleric or religious.

So the Church says to us today and this week especially, Pray for vocations! Support vocations! Think, some of you, about whether you might have a vocation you haven’t yet confirmed and embraced. Oh, but don’t aspire to human respect, wanting to be called “Father” and all that. That’s not what it’s about!

We hear a lot today about a vocations crisis, meaning not enough priests and religious. Those aren’t the only vocations, of course — most people are called to the vocation of matrimony, of marriage — and the vocations crisis goes deeper than calls to the priesthood or religious life. There’s a crisis in our culture of people being unwilling or unable to commit definitively to any way of life or calling, including marriage.

This is something people used to be able to do more easily than they do today. The Church wants to promote a culture of vocations, but we live in an anti-vocation culture — a culture that makes it hard for people even to grasp the idea of a vocation, let alone try to discern or try to find out what theirs might be.

Things are what they’re for

What is a vocation? It’s a calling from God, but what does that mean? I could give you a theological explanation, but I’m going to do something simpler. Our psalm today talks about not being occupied with great and sublime things; about stilling and quieting our souls like a child on its mother’s lap. And one of the most important things ever written about vocations, as we’ll see in a moment, is from St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who taught the way of spiritual childhood.

So let’s be little children for a moment. Do you know how little children define things? There’s an old children’s book about it that some of you may remember from your childhood, or your children’s. It’s called A Hole is to Dig. It’s got illustrations by Maurice Sendak.

This book is full of examples of how little children define things by what they’re for, by their function in the child’s mind. I don’t know about you, but if someone asked me to define a hole, I wouldn’t find it so easy, but little children don’t have that problem: “A hole is to dig.” “Snow is to roll in.” “The sun is to tell you when it’s day.” “A face is so you can make faces.”

Children define things by what they’re for. So how does this help us understand vocations? You might think I’m going to tell you what a vocation is for. But actually, vocation is the answer to an even more important question: What am I for? What are you for? What’s my function, my role — my place in the universe, in society, in my community, in the plan of God? Where am I meant to be and what am I meant to be doing?

Love is all things

St. Thérèse was consumed with this question, and she felt somehow called to everything! She felt that she wanted to be a priest and call Jesus down from heaven in the Blessed Sacrament, but also to be like Francis of Assisi, who didn’t want to be a priest in humility, but remained a deacon, like me. She wanted to be a crusader knight and to die in battle defending the Church, but she also knew that she was small and weak, like a child. 

So Thérèse had all this inner conflict over her vocation — until she discovered the key. So she wrote:

Charity gave me the key to my vocation… Love embraces all vocations… Love is all things. Then in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: “O Jesus, my Love, at last I have found my vocation, my vocation is Love!”

Last week we heard the great Gospel in which Jesus sums up all the law and the prophets in the two great commandments that embrace them all: to love the Lord with your whole being and to love your neighbor as yourself. Love is the commandment that embraces all the other commandments, and Thérèse tells us that love is also the vocation, the calling, that embraces all the others.

So love is your vocation and mine: Love is what you are for. It’s what the people all around us are for. A hole is to dig, and people are to love. If we don’t love them, then we’re not treating them according to what they’re for. Whenever we’re uncharitable, impatient, condescending, dismissive, when we judge harshly people’s weaknesses or limitations — that’s not what people are for.

A hole for more than digging

So our vocation is love. But what then? What does this look like concretely in our lives? That depends on our particular vocation or calling. Love embraces all vocations, but that takes many forms. You can be for more than one thing. If you keep reading A Hole is to Dig, you’ll see that holes are for other things too. One child says “A hole is to sit in.” Another says “A hole is to plant flowers in.”

So every hole is to dig, but after that whether it’s to sit in or to plant flowers in depends on the hole. Each of us is for love, but after that there are different particular things we may be for.

I have two particular vocations, two callings in my life. My first vocation is to my wife Suzanne and our seven children. I am a husband and a father. That is who I am and what I am for. When I’m with them, loving them and serving them — never as much or as well as Suzanne serves me and them — I’m where I’m meant to be and doing what I’m meant to be doing.

God gave me that vocation on August 3, 1991, when Suzanne and I said our wedding vows. Last year, on June 4, God gave me a second vocation when Archbishop Myers placed his hands on my head and then prayed the prayer of ordination over our diaconal class, and I became a deacon. And when I do the things that God gives me to do as a deacon, I’m where I’m meant to be and doing what I’m meant to be doing. This is what I am for.

So many people never even ask the question “What am I for?” If we don’t know what we’re for, we won’t know how or where to seek happiness or fulfillment, because these things come from being where you’re meant to be and doing what you’re meant to be doing. Doing what you’re for.

Discerning vocations

God has a calling for each of us. Some of us know what that calling is. Others are discerning it. Still others may not believe God calls them to anything, but he does. How do we find or discern our vocation?

We need to do two things, and both of them are hard and countercultural.

First, we need to seek God in silence. Our world is full of so much noise that drowns out the still, small voice that would lead us. We need to turn off our televisions, take out our earbuds, put away our smartphones, and spend time in silence with God.

Second, we need to develop a habit of seeking to be useful to other people and serve them wherever we are in life. The reason we don’t have a culture of vocations is that instead of a culture of service to others we have a culture of selfishness. We need to look around and ask what needs doing. How can I help? Whom can I serve? Where can I contribute?

If we resist the culture in these two ways — if we seek God in silence and develop a habit of service — not only will this help us find our path, we’ll also help others around us find their path. So says our archbishop, Cardinal Tobin, who happens to be the chairman for the US Bishops Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life, and Vocations. I leave you with his words for National Vocations Awareness Week: 

As we go about our everyday life and most especially this week, we must keep vocations in our prayers, while, at the same time, being a mindful witness with our own vocation. We may never know how our lives may have an impact on someone else’s story. Simply living out our call as disciples of Jesus Christ fully and joyfully in the world bears witness to the love of Christ as He generously bestows on each of us our own personal call.