Vocation is not a test it is a call from God,
by Gavin Kerr
Imagine a young man in his late teens, just finished school, comes home to his parents and tells them of his desire to be a priest. This young man has never lived away from home, has not travelled, has maybe had a few girlfriends but certainly no long-term relationships. Ordinarily his parents would tell him to go out and live life, to travel, to fall in love, to get heartbroken, and then maybe consider priesthood. In other words, before he discerns his call to the priesthood, he is advised to try other things first to see whether afterwards the vocation is still there.
This is not an uncommon attitude today in discerning a vocation, yet it is one that is peculiarly modern and in contrast with the attitude manifested by St Thomas Aquinas.
In the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas takes what could be called a rather cavalier attitude to the religious vocation. He holds that if one has a calling say to the priesthood, we do not need to test it to see whether it is from God; rather we ought to welcome it as a challenge from God to live a life of holiness and to ask God for the grace to live the life for which He is calling you. Thomas does not deny the need for various stages of vocation, e.g. postulant, novice, simple profession etc., wherein one’s vocation is nurtured and developed; rather, he has no time for the incessant doubtful criticism of a vocation, always treating it as merely possible, a last resort, until all other avenues have been explored. Aquinas does not see this as proper discernment of a vocation, but as doubting of one’s vocation in favour of worldly advice that would place God second.
God is the origin of every vocation, and so in discerning a vocation, we ought to remember that it is God who has called us. The stages by which a vocation is developed ought not to be seen as a period of stress testing to see whether the vocation will still remain.
It would be rather unsurprising if a young man with a vocation to the priesthood ‘tested’ that vocation by setting it aside for a time to embrace the world only to find later that he no longer had a vocation; for the world has a way of drowning out God’s voice. Thomas would say that such a man did have a vocation, he just set it (and God) to the side to embrace that for which God has not called us.
Hence, Thomas thinks that testing the spirits only applies in matters of doubt, but when it comes to a vocation for which God has called one, there is no room for doubt, in which case we need not stress test it to see if it stands up, but simply nourish and develop it.
Adopting Aquinas’ Approach What if we adopted Aquinas’ approach? What would we see? In general, there would be an increase in vocations to the priesthood, and especially in the younger age group. This is because many young men feel they have a vocation at an early age, but they put it off because they feel they need to go to university, to experience ‘life’, perhaps try a relationship. But on Aquinas’ view, just because the vocation comes at an early age does not mean that it is not a vocation and it certainly does not mean that one should put it off until one has lived life for a bit. So adopting his advice, young men who have a vocation to the priesthood should jump right in.
Two major barriers to our mission as Catholics are indecisiveness and lukewarmness. But taking Aquinas’ advice, if we just accepted that God will not give us a vocation without the grace to pursue it, then we would get on our feet and openly and fearlessly preach the Gospel.
Aquinas’ advice is the practice of the saints; the saints did not sit around wondering whether they were doing the right thing, or formed committees and advisory panels so as to devise initiatives: they got up and went.
So, don’t wait until tomorrow to do God’s work, do it now, for now is the time that the Church needs saints after the model of Aquinas, and Catherine, and Dominic.