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American Religious Life in Historical Perspective

Chapter 5

Vocation, Vows, Commitment and Apostolate

Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Bellarmine School of Theology
Chicago, IL

In any discussion of the religious life two words are invariably associated: vocation and vows. They should be associated because they belong together.

However, there are two other words that should join their company: commitment and apostolate. These form what I consider the inseparable combination: vocation and commitment, vows and apostolate.

The interrelation of these four concepts is not a human invention, nor even an ecclesiastical construct, but derives from the divine plan of salvation and rests on nothing less than the supernatural providence of God.

The concepts are so closely identified with one another that if you remove one, you dislodge the others; each belongs to the other and the quaternary forms a unity that, once understood, sheds greater light on the dignity of religious life and gives extraordinary inspiration to live this life loyally even in the most trying times---like the present---when powerful forces are at work to weaken one’s fidelity.

Divine Plan of Salvation

Before entering on an examination of these concepts in their bearing on the religious life, we must begin with an idea that may seem far removed from our subject but is actually its very foundation, namely, the idea of God.

We can describe our relationship to God in two ways. We can think of Him as our Creator and Lord, which He is, and then we conceive of Him as our cause. Or we can think of Him as our End and Final Destiny, which He also is, and then we see Him as our goal.

It makes quite a difference which viewpoint we consider. For though both points of view are true, they evoke quite different sentiments in us as we reflect on our relationship to God.

Let us take each separately for a moment to see what happens. Looking upon God as our first cause, we think of Him as having made us out of nothing by an act of His sovereign will. We stress His divine attributes of power and wisdom. We see that this implies our complete submission to God as our Master and Kyrios. We know what response this ought to evoke in us: fidelity to the laws of God in perfect obedience. And the attitude that becomes dominant is reverential fear of God’s justice, if we refuse conformity to His will and infringe on His sovereign rights.

Now we change the focus. This time we reflect upon God as our destiny, and immediately the atmosphere is different. We think of Him as having made us for union with Himself in the beatific vision, and the attribute we now stress is His infinite love. This should draw from us profound gratitude for His unspeakable generosity. It should inspire us with the desire to grow in union with Him and to share that union with others. Finally the attitude that becomes dominant is a growing love of God’s goodness, to be possessed and shared with others for all eternity.

For our purpose the viewpoint we begin with is the second: God as our destiny and our attitude of love.

At this point faith steps in to tell us some wonderful things, notably that God became man for our salvation, and that Jesus Christ is the pathway to man’s destiny, which is God.

Without Christ no one can reach the goal of human existence or, for that matter, without His grace no one can take one forward step in the direction of heaven. “Without me you can do nothing,” is to be taken literally. If God is love, as the evangelist tells us, and God became incarnate in Christ, then Christ is Love incarnate--at once both the goal of our striving and the means of achievement.

This could have been all there was to Christianity---and a marvelous mystery at that---but then there would have been no vocations because there would have been no apostolate.

Here is the pinpoint focus of all the theology on vocation: that Christ willed to associate companions with Himself in the work of salvation. What He might have done He did not do: have performed the whole economy of salvation alone, with no one to share in the task of saving mankind and no one, therefore, to be called by Christ to partnership in His own apostolate from the Father.

Theology of Vocation

Instead of speculating on the subject, we can start with the Scriptures which, after all, have their basis in revelation, in order to substantiate what we believe to be the meaning of a vocation to follow Christ.

It is easy to associate what belongs together, here the concept of vocation and the apostolate. They were never separated by Christ and this we must remember.

The paradigm of a vocation to follow Christ in cooperating with His work of redemption is the story of Simon Peter. It takes three Gospels to bring out the full import of what revelation teaches about a vocation; but the final picture is very clear.

The first scene occurs shortly after the baptism of Jesus by John. As Jesus was passing by one day, John was standing in conversation with two of his disciples. John looked towards Him and said to his disciples, “There is the Lamb of God.” The two disciples took this to be a suggestion and began walking behind Jesus. Noticing they were following Him, He turned around and asked them, “What are you looking for?” They did not answer, but instead asked Him, “Where do you live?” He told them to “Come and see,” ---which they did and, in fact, spent the rest of the day with Him.

One of the two disciples of John who had talked with Jesus was Andrew. As soon as he got home he looked up his brother Simon to tell him, “We have found the Messiah.” He brought Simon to Jesus; who looked him in the face and said to him, “You are Simon, son of John. You shall be called Cephas that is, Peter, the Rock.” (John 1: 35-42)

The first stage in a vocation, therefore, aspires to some knowledge of Christ, who gently invites a person to learn more about Him and the redemptive purpose of the Incarnation. Notice, too, that Peter’s vocation came through Andrew, his brother. This is the usual pattern. Someone else, who already knows Christ, is the one who personally invites us to share in his own discovery. This is not yet the vocation proper, but an indispensable precondition; familiarity with Christ which generally (though not always) comes from a home in which the Christian life is faithfully lived.

The next Gospel episode shows Christ walking by the Sea of Galilee. When He saw the two brothers, Simon and Andrew, casting a net into the lake, Jesus spoke to them imperatively, “Come with me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They left their nets at once and followed Him. (Matthew 4:18-20)

This is the second stage during which the vocation is offered formally. It is an invitation, with no coercion; yet a peremptory call to “Come with me.” Its essence is in the prepositional phrase “with me,” as much to say: “This is a joint venture for the two of us together, you and me.” And the venture is plainly stated in the same sentence as the call. The purpose of a vocation is to join with Christ in His salvific work of fishing for souls.

Immediately a new dimension enters the picture. Christ gave the invitation to Simon Peter and his brother, but they had to accept it. We have record of at least one man in the Gospels who heard the same words of invitation but turned down the offer. The reason, we are told, was that he was rich and had many possessions. This contrast between a vocation accepted and a vocation rejected could be analyzed at length. At least we see the difference between good will and those qualities of character which are the normal prerequisites that are necessary even to respond to God’s call, let alone to remain faithful until death.

There is no substitute for good will, and without it God will not even offer a person the chance to dedicate his life to Christ’s service. But there must also be character, and I do mean character. I don’t mean intelligence quotient, or achievement capacity, or social compatibility, or any of a dozen abilities which can be tested or graphed or reported on by psychologists who are often not even Catholics and less often priests or religious. In my judgment this policy alone, if firmly adhered to, would help immensely to improve religious communities in America. Instead of setting up preconceived standards of intelligence or maturity based on age, or years in college or (as I have heard) the amount of dating a girl has done---the target of attention should be on religious character and spiritual potential.

The rich young man, who turned away from Christ, I surmise, would have shown up better than Simon Peter on any standardized test for admission to that first religious community. I think it is high time we asked ourselves if, maybe, we are looking for the wrong things in our candidates to the postulancy and novitiate and missing the right things.

As Americans we practically worship the intellect, and as religious we are probably paying the price of this idolatry. No one is suggesting that we burden ourselves with simpletons or tempt Providence by not screening candidates. But it makes all the difference in the world where we place the priorities. We are, or should be, religious first, and educators very much second. It is no coincidence, I feel, that some of the most cynical critics of priestly celibacy and religious fidelity are priest and religious who speak from the academic citadels of our country.

The third Gospel even in the development of Peter’s vocation took place at Caesarea Philippi, where Christ suddenly posed this question to His disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of Man is?” They answered, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” “And you,” He asked, “Who do you say I am?” Simon spoke up for the rest, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Then Jesus said, “Simon, son of Jonah, you are favored indeed! You did not learn that from mortal man. It was revealed to you. You are Peter, the Rock; and on this rock I will build my Church, and the forces of death shall never overpower it.” (Matthew 16: 13-19)

Peter’s experience is paradigmatic for all true vocations as they grow to maturity. He had been in Christ’s company for some time. He was already assuming a kind of natural leadership among the disciples. But he was not yet supernaturally enlightened. Then came the revelation. The Master He had been following all along suddenly was revealed to him for what He really was---the Son of the Living God. Peter was a changed man.

With the change, Christ further clarified Peter’s apostolic mission. At the Sea of Galilee it was to become a fisher of men; now it was to become the rock on which the Church would be built. Both were vocations to the apostolate.

Moreover, vocations are not static entities, a once-and-for-all beckoning by Christ and no more. A vocation grows and matures. God’s initial grace is the pledge of further graces, year after year and even day after day---in which He reveals Himself with ever-greater clarity and re-invites His chosen ones to a stronger loyalty.

Some, like Peter, may discover in one illuminating flash who this Christ really is whom they had till then been following only dimly. Others make the discovery gradually. But in every case, Christ becomes for them more and more visibly the Son of God---their God---who faith assures them is clothed in the vesture of a man.

From the day they first discover this, their lives are different; or at least, they grow progressively in depth and penetration, as the vision of Christ’s divinity is unveiled before the eyes of their mind.

But Peter’s vocation is not yet complete. He had still to go through the experience of humiliation, in his case of the humiliation of infidelity. Only St. Luke mentions this fact in describing Peter’s denial of Christ, but that is enough.

Peter had bragged about his loyalty to the Savior. “Lord,” he boasted, “I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” Christ reacted by foretelling Peter’s denial, but not before he had assured Peter that when he came to himself he would strengthen the faith of his brethren. (Luke 22: 31-35)

The triple denial soon followed and then the new call from Christ, as Luke puts it, “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.” There came an outburst of tears and sorrow for his sin. (Luke 22: 61-62)

Again a theological reflection on the progress of a vocation, which includes in most cases a growing realization of one’s sinfulness and the corresponding discovery of Christ as one’s Savior, is necessary to better understand one’s own vocation.

It is one thing to be attracted by Christ, to feel myself called, and even to come to know Christ as my God. It is quite another to also discover my own identity, to come to know what I am of myself, my weakness and folly; and then to look up and see, as did Peter, the Lord looking straight at me--my merciful Savior.

Some religious never make the discovery. They suffer from an identity crisis because they never learned who they are in relation to Jesus Christ. They picture Him poetically or they know Him theologically; but they have not found Him personally.

I am just not using words when I say that all personality development in the religious life must be grounded on this realization, that Christ is my personal Redeemer; that He suffered and died for me; that my sinfulness contributed to His passion and death; that He wants me to join my sufferings with His; and that He must love me intensely because He has forgiven me so lavishly. Any other estimate of a religious vocation is inadequate, if it is not illusory. In time of stress and trouble, I must call on this conviction, that I am a sinner, and deserve to suffer, and that Jesus is my Savior, so I am suffering for Him.

Notice, however, that Peter’s humiliation was intended to be of benefit to others. Strengthened by reason of his fall, he was destined to be a tower of strength to his neighbor. Temptation and trails, and even repented sins, are not only (or mainly) meant for myself. They are meant to be divinely ordained means of helping to save and sanctify the world.

And among those who need the help of my sufferings---especially my humiliations in trying to serve Christ faithfully--no one has more claim on my charity than other religious who are struggling with their vocations and pleading with God to give them the strength to persevere.

Then the final stage in Peter’s call to follow Christ is reached on the shore of the Sea of Tiberius where Christ appeared to His disciples after the Resurrection. He had breakfast with them and suddenly turned to Peter, asking him, “Do you love me more than all else?” Peter answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Two more questions and two more answers, including the last one exemplify this final stage. “You know everything: you know that I love you.” And after each reassurance that he loved Christ, Peter was given the climactic gift of his apostolate---to feed the lambs and sheep of the Savior’s flock. (John 21: 9-18)

This episode brings the idea of a vocation to its full completion. A vocation is a progressive call from Christ, from passing acquaintance with the Master to a deep sense of needing Him because I am a sinner and He is my Savior.

But He is also the one who loves me and wants nothing more than for me to love Him in return. Peter had to learn this---and so do all religious, if they can be safely entrusted with caring (according to their capacity) for a portion of Christ’s flock.

In its fullest sense, therefore, the call to follow Christ is a vocation to love---Him primarily and “more than all else,” but with Him and because of Him, those whom He confides to our care.

In Peter’s case the span from first invitation to complete maturity of vocation was less than three years. In the case of most people it takes a much longer time. For our purpose, the length of time is secondary. What is primary is the concept of a gradually developing and maturing call from Christ to the religious life.

There is more value in this notion than people might think. For one thing it should preclude the idea of looking for, as they say, only mature persons for admission to a community. Certainly we do not want children who have not seen anything of life. On the other hand, neither should we want only adults who have seen too much of life. If a vocation is, by its very nature, something that evolves over a period of time, we must be ready to receive persons who may be relatively young in years but by no means children, in their spirit of self-sacrifice, devotion to prayer, and the supernatural capacity for love.

Somewhere along the line, I fear we have been mesmerized by modern psychology with its emphasis on tendencies and its neat categories of personality types. We might remind ourselves that Christ wants all kinds of temperaments in religious communities and gives His grace as “no respecter of persons,” which biblical phrase can be accurately translated by “no respecter of personalities.” He invites all sorts of people to live by the evangelical counsels, and He allows them plenty of time to reach the maturity of their vocation. It is Christian wisdom for us to do the same.

Theology of Commitment—The Vows

Among the upsetting myths that have entered the stream of modern thought is the idea that a permanent commitment is next to impossible to make---and keep faithfully until death.

No less a theologian than Paul Tillich, in one of his last published writings stated categorically that to attempt such commitment is to tempt Providence and therefore should not be made.

This is not Christian thinking as the history of the Church eloquently testifies.

Christ raised marriage to the level of a sacrament precisely because He demanded of His followers a permanent commitment of one man with one woman until death. His help is assured to those who receive the sacrament of Matrimony and cooperate with the graces which the sacrament confers.

He did no less in the matter of religious profession. Those who are finally professed have the guarantee of His assistance to persevere in their commitment until He calls them in that second vocation which is eternity.

There are two sober facts we cannot afford to evade if we are to remain unshaken by what we see happening all around us. One is a fact of Christian history; the other is a fact of present-day culture, especially of American life.

What do sixteen hundred years of vow taking in religious communities teach? That the Church always received perpetual vows and promised the finally professed the grace of perseverance as God’s part of the covenant into which a religious entered with Christ.

At the time of the Reformation, whole religious communities were swept out of existence, as though a prairie fire had licked its way across Europe. The flames, which gutted convents and monasteries, were ideological. And the ideology was very simple: human nature is just too corrupt to keep even the commandments; so it is madness to suppose it could also keep the counsels.

This pessimism was built into the very fabric of the new religion that took over whole countries---like England, Norway and Sweden. It became crystallized in new confessions of faith that are still accepted today. The fourteenth of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church read in 1563 (and reads today) as follows, under the title Works of Supererogation:

Voluntary works besides, over and above, God’s commandments, which they call works of supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogance and impiety. For by them men do declare, that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for his sake, than of bounden duty is required: whereas Christ saith plainly, “When ye have done all that are commanded of you, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants.’

Given this mentality, which grew into an organized theology, is it any wonder that thousands went back on their promises and retracted their religious vows?

It is not coincidental, either, that the same ideology that evacuated the convents and monasteries also brought dissolution of marriage and legalized divorce into the Western world.

But the providence of God is never wanting. During the height of anti-monasticism in the sixteenth century, He raised up men and women who set the pattern for new and more apostolic forms of religious life than had ever been known before. It is heartening to read the witness of a man like Peter Canisius, speaking to religious on the three vows of religion. When he talked of being nailed by them with Christ to the cross, he was not indulging in idle rhetoric. He knew the kind of motivation that was needed in those days. It is just as relevant today.

Our vows are the most necessary means we have for attaining the end of our vocation, which is to seek and desire with all diligence our own and he neighbor’s salvation and sanctification.
They are the arms against the three greatest enemies in the way of our reaching that perfect charity which unites us to God: love of temporal goods, the flesh, and self-will or the spirit of pride. Through the vow of poverty we fight against the first enemy, concupiscence of the eyes; through chastity against the flesh; and through the vow of obedience we subdue the spirit of arrogance and the risings of pride.
By these three vows we offer to God the most complete oblation of external possessions, of our body and soul. They are the three gifts we make to the poor, virginal, the obedient Christ, after the example of the Magi who gave the infant Jesus their royal gifts, pleasing to Christ, which make those who offer them kings, conquerors, priests, and wise men, freeing them from the treachery of Herod, making them conformable to Christ, and giving them the perfection of love.
The vows of religion are beautifully symbolized in the three nails of the cross, because those who take them become like to the crucified Christ. A religious by his own vows nails himself to the cross with Christ; and as He paid no attention to the taunts of the Pharisees who said to Him: “If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross. If this be the king of Israel, let Him come down from the cross and we shall believe Him,” so a religious must ignore the temptations which urge him to leave his cross, and with Christ should persevere on the same until death. [1]

I said that there were two sober facts we have to face if we want to stay unshaken by what we see and hear all around us. First is the fact of the Church’s constant teaching, that a religious who makes his final profession has the divine guarantee of sufficient grace to remain faithful to his commitment until death. In the words of the Second Vatican Council, a religious by his profession “is totally dedicated to God” and symbolizes before the world “the indissoluble bond of the union of Christ and his bride, the Church.” [2]

The second fact that must faced, and its pessimism resisted, is the cult of instability that typifies present-day American society.

No aspect of American’s domestic life is under more crucial strain than this one of loyalty to free commitments freely entered into---especially in the state of marriage. A half-million divorces annually compared with less than two million marriages has gained for us the dubious reputation of being the most unstable society in human history.

Here, if anywhere, we see the paramount importance of a sustained Christian faith to undergird a sound American society. The liberty of which we are so justly proud is meaningful only when people are willing to abide by their free decisions and stay faithful to them, when they so promised God, to their dying day.

Walter Lippmann once wrote, “The liberties we talk about defending were established by men who took their conceptions of man from the great central religious traditions of Western civilization, and the liberties we inherit can almost certainly not survive the abandonment of that tradition.” [3]

Not the least of these freedoms that depends on the Christian tradition for survival, is the voluntary contract in which I bind myself, maybe for life, because I trust in the grace of God to carry me through to the end.

Any philosophy that questions this is from anti-Christ in the primary sense of that term. Where it enters the stream of American thought, its effect is disastrous, working havoc in human lives and making a shambles of the soundest institutions. The current scramble for release from celibacy and the religious vows, like the breakdown of marriage, is symptomatic of an alien spirit contrary to the one on which our country was founded and which gave it the greatness we have so far achieved.

What the Church needs today is a Jeremiah or a St. Paul to bring people back to their senses. They need to be told, in today’s language, what Paul told the Galatians in theirs: “You stupid Galatians! You must have been bewitched---you before whose eyes Jesus Christ was openly displayed upon His cross…Can it be that you are so stupid? You started with the spiritual; do you now look at the material to make you perfect? Have all your great experiences been in vain?” [4]

Knowing the Church’s history, we shall---please God---soon be hearing this kind of language again.


Chapter 5: Vocation, Vows, Commitment and Apostolate

  1. St. Peter Canisius, quoted in For Jesuits, John A. Hardon, (Loyola Press, 1965), p. 55.

  2. Constitution on the Church, 44.

  3. Walter Lippman, Herald Tribune, Dec. 7, 1938.

  4. Galatians 3: 1-4.

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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