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*Does Everyone Have a Personal Vocation?

William E. May, Ph. D.

Senior Fellow


Most of us were baptized as infants and, at that time, could not actually make free choices for ourselves. But others, our godparents, stood as our proxies, responding in our name to the call to die to sin and to live in a way worthy of God's own children, to be holy. And, as we grew in the household of the faith, we renewed our baptismal commitment when we received the sacrament of confirmation; and we are given the opportunity to reaffirm this commitment throughout our lives, particularly during the liturgy of the Easter vigil. Through baptism Christians believe that, through their faith and the redemptive work of Christ, they have “died” to sin and been raised to a new kind of life. They have now become truly “children of God,” members of the divine family, and called to be "perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt 5.48). Baptized persons, like Jesus to whom they are united, are now those one whose "food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work" (Jn 4.34). They have the God-given vocation to become holy, to become saints.

This great truth is, as most people now know, a central theme of Vatican Council II, whose dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, insists that "all in the Church, whether they belong to the hierarchy or are cared for by it, are called to holiness, according to the apostle's saying: 'For this is the will of God, your sanctification' (1 Thes 4.3; cf. Eph 1.4)” (no. 39). In this great document the Council also affirmed: “The followers of Christ... must hold on to and perfect in their lives that sanctification which they have received from God” (no. 40). Moreover, the way lay people are to pursue holiness, the Council insisted in its pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes, is in and through the commitments and ordinary activities of everyday life (see no. 43). 1

            All Christians have the common vocation to holiness. But in addition to their common vocation, each Christian has a unique and irreplaceable vocation within the family of God. Not only are different Christians called to different ways of life in the world--the married life, the priestly life, the religious life, the life of a single person in the world--but within each state of life each Christian has his or her own unique and indispensable role to play in filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions and in bringing his work of redemption to completion. Vatican Council II insists that each one of us has a personal vocation to carry out as a member of Jesus' people. Indeed, as the Council Fathers said, "by our faith we are bound all the more to fulfill these responsibilities [our earthly ones as Christians] according to the vocation of each one" (Gaudium et Spes, n. 43).

But most of the people in this world are not baptized Christians, and the percentage of baptized persons in our country is shrinking. What about all these human beings? Do they too have the common vocation to holiness and unique and indispensable personal vocations?

First of all, we know that God wills all men to be saved, as St. Paul clearly teaches in 1 Timothy 2:4 where he says that God “wills everyone to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.” And Vatican Council II’s declaration on religious liberty, Digniatis Humanae, declared in no. 2: “It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth.”

Conscience and God

I think that one can show that all human persons, whether baptized by water or by shedding their blood, have the common vocation to holiness and unique personal vocations by reflecting on the phenomenon of conscience and the reality of the one true God, the triune God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, whose Father sent his only-begotten Son, begotten by him from all eternity, to become man, one of us, precisely in order to redeem us and enable us to share in his divinity just as he shares our humanity.

Here it seems to me that John Henry Cardinal Newman’s reflections on conscience are very relevant and helpful. Considering conscience as our awareness of ourselves as moral beings and called to shape our lives in accordance with the truth, he wrote:"conscience...vaguely reaches forward to something beyond self, and dimly discerns a sanction higher than self for its decisions, as is evidenced in that keen sense of obligation and responsibility which informs them. And hence it is that we are accustomed to speak of conscience as a voice...and moreover a voice, or the echo of a voice, imperative and constraining, like no other dictate in the whole of our experience."2

Newman goes on to say in a particularly eloquent passage, conscience, precisely because it bears testimony to "how it is with one's self," is always emotional. "It always," he writes,

involves the recognition of a living object, towards which it is directed. Inanimate things cannot stir our affections; these are correlative with persons. If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies that there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claims upon us we fear. If, on doing wrong, we feel the same tearful, broken-hearted sorrow which overwhelms us on hurting a mother; if, on doing right, we enjoy the same sunny security of mind, the same soothing, satisfactory delight which follows on our receiving praise from a father, we certainly have within us the image of some person, to whom our love and veneration look, in whose smile we find happiness, for whom we yearn, towards whom we direct our pleadings, in whose anger we are troubled and waste away. These feelings in us are such as require for their exciting cause an intelligent being: we are not affectionate towards a stone, nor do we feel shame before a horse or a dog; we have no remorse or compunction on breaking mere human law: yet, so it is, conscience excites all these painful emotions, confusion, forboding, self-condemnation; and on the other hand it sheds upon us a deep peace, a sense of security, a resignation, and a hope, which there is no sensible, no earthly object to elicit....If the cause of these emotions does not belong to this visible world, the Object to which this perception is directed must be Supernatural and Divine; and thus the phenomena of Conscience, as a dictate, avail to impress the imagination with the picture of a Supreme Governor, a Judge, holy, just, powerful, all-seeing, retributive, and is the creative principle of religion...3

A half century after Newman’s Grammar, Pope Pius XII wrote similarly about conscience at this level of moral awareness: “Conscience is as it were the most intimate core and secret of a man. There he takes flight within himself with his spiritual faculties in absolute solitude: he is alone with himself, or better, he is alone with God, and his conscience resounds with His voice and with himself. There he determines himself for good or for evil; there he chooses between the way of victory or that of defeat.” 4 Surely, in this passage, Pius XII is articulating an experience common to everyone and is using the term conscience to designate this first level of moral awareness, conscience as bearing witness as to "how it is with one's self."

The Fathers of Vatican Council II, in Gaudium et spes, explicitly refer to this passage from Pius XII when, in a remarkable text, they write as follows:

In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of this law (emphasis added 5) when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.[Here footnote 10 refers to Pius XII’s radio message.] In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor [Here footnote 11 refers to St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans]. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence the more right conscience holds sway; the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.

To know that someone is approaching is not to know that Peter is approaching

This is a remarkable statement. St. Thomas penned it in his Summa theologiae, 1, q. 2, a. 1, ad 1, where he raised the question, “whether it is self-evident that God exists.” His exact words were:to know that someone is approaching is not the same as to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter who is approaching.”  It means that someone, for example a person who repudiates the claim that “man is the measure of all things” and recognizes that there is a more than human source of meaning and value knows implicitly that “some One” more than human is approaching even though he may not know as yet that this is the one true God who is approaching. It means that someone, for example a person who repudiates the claim that “man is the measure of all things” and recognizes that there is a more than human source of meaning and value knows implicitly that “some One” more than human is approaching even though he may not know as yet that this is God who is approaching. It means that the human person, as yet an unbeliever, is nonetheless impelled by his own nature to seek the truth and to shape his choices and actions in accord with the truth he finds. He is the kind of person whose heart and mind are not closed to receive the truth that in reality there is a God. I am thinking of people in the ancient world before Christ like Socrates or Cicero who firmly repudiated the banal relativism of the Sophists—the culturally elite of their day, in many ways similar to the cultural elite of our day. It was rightly said by early Christian writers that the philosophy of Socrates and Cicero and others like them was in a true sense a praeparatio evangelica. I suggest that the testimony given in our day by Buddhists like the Dalai Lama and by a Hindu like Mohandas Ghandi is an analogous praeparatio evangelica for our day. What they are doing, even if they do not realize it, is preparing the soil so that it will be prepared to welcome the culture of life and reject the culture of death. In this way, it seems to me, they are preparing the soil so that it is receptive of God’s saving word.

Some who consider themselves atheists (perhaps because of the bad example given them by some who hypocritically confess faith in God while hating their flesh-and-blood neighbors) may themselves recognize that there is a more than human source of meaning and value and they too, like the non-Christians who are may be non-theists but who are not a-theists, have the personal vocation I have tried to describe. Those atheists who are like hypocritical theists have, as it were, in reality embraced the sophistic, relativistic idea that man, i.e., they themselves, are the measure of all things and the source of meaning and value. What they have done is to harden their hearts to make it the kind of soil in which the seed of the culture of life—and of the gospel- cannot flourish.


1. Russell Shaw shows this beautifully in his essay, “Lay Mnistry, Lay Apostolate, and Vocation,” Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, 32, 4 (Winter, 2009) 5-9.

2. Newman, A Grammar of Assent, p. 107. Emphasis added.

3. Ibid, pp. 109-110, emphasis added

4. Pope Pius XII, "Nuntius Radiophonicus de conscientia Christiana in iuvenibus recte efformanda," 23 March, 1952; Acta Apostolica Sedis 44 (1952) 271. My translation of the Italian, which reads: "La coscienza é come il nucleo più intimo e segreto dell'uomo. La egli si rifugia con le sue facoltá spirituali in assoluta solitudine: solo con se stesso, o meglio, solo con Dio--della cui voce la coscienza risuona e con se steso. Là egli si determina per il bene o per il male; là egli sceglie fra la strada della vittoria e quella della disfatta."

5. Common English translations of Gaudium et spes say “the voice of conscience.” But this is not correct; the official Latin text reads as follows: “In imo conscientiae legem homo detegit, quam ipse sibi non dat, sed cui obedire debet, et cuius vox…”The antecedent of “vox” is not “conscientiae,” but “quam” and “cui,” both of which refer to “legem.”

* This essay was posted originally on
http://www.culture-of-life.org and is reprinted here with the permission of the Culture of Life Foundation.

Copyright ©; William E. May 2010

Version: 15th October 2010

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