What is a vocation? Typically, when Christians hear this word, we usually think of either a “calling” or further, one’s “call” be a pastor, priest, etc. When I’ve met people and told them that I’ve received a PhD in Theology, they will often ask, “Are you in the ministry?” Historically, of course, this makes a good deal of sense, but it does not exactly provide a full picture of what the term “vocation” might actually mean, whatever degree one may or may not have earned.
While it is another topic to point out that most of my academic colleagues were lay persons hoping to serve the Church by learning the history of theology so that they may later teach it, it is important to point out that the term vocation has never been restricted primarily to priests or those in religious life alone (like, for example, nuns, and monks). St. Thomas Aquinas says that a vocation is a particular call that “implies a certain leading to something” where we are called into existence by the means of creation (In I Sent. d. 41, q. 1, a. 2, ad 3 [source]).
In terms that the lay Catholic movement Communion & Liberation would use, one could say that in other words, God uses the circumstances of our life to lead (“call”) us back to the Good in God. (Aquinas says that both grace and creation lead us in various ways.) What I want to propose in this post is that there is one vocation in our life, but through “multiple calls”. Recall how St. Paul talks about gifts being different but in the “same spirit” (1 Cor 12:4).
With that in mind, as a husband to my wife, I am called to the vocation of participating in the sacrament of marriage; and within this call to marriage, my wife and I have both discerned a call to be parents. For us, because of the particular circumstances in our life, we have felt a specific call to be adoptive parents. And even more specifically, we have felt called to be foster-adoptive parents. The initial circumstances would warrant a whole post or series of posts in and of itself, but—briefly—we have been (as far as we know) diagnosed with infertility caused by endometriosis (‘endo’).*
Lumen Gentium, the Vatican II conciliar document on the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, has a number of sections describing the mission of the laity. It says that
… the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. (Lumen Gentium, §31)
And, Lumen Gentium later says that:
it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society (§40).
It should be clear that the vocation of charity is a universal call, not only to clergy and religious, but also to all of the laity.
Specifically on the place of the family, it says:
From the wedlock of Christians there comes the family, in which new citizens of human society are born, who by the grace of the Holy Spirit received in baptism are made children of God, thus perpetuating the people of God through the centuries. The family is, so to speak, the domestic church. In it parents should, by their word and example, be the first preachers of the faith to their children; they should encourage them in the vocation which is proper to each of them, fostering with special care vocation to a sacred state. (§11)
In connection with the prophetic function is that state of life which is sanctified by a special sacrament obviously of great importance, namely, married and family life. For where Christianity pervades the entire mode of family life, and gradually transforms it, one will find there both the practice and an excellent school of the lay apostolate. In such a home husbands and wives find their proper vocation in being witnesses of the faith and love of Christ to one another and to their children. The Christian family loudly proclaims both the present virtues of the Kingdom of God and the hope of a blessed life to come. Thus by its example and its witness it accuses the world of sin and enlightens those who seek the truth. (§35)
For Christians and especially Catholics,** the emphasis on the family as missionally part of the kingdom of God should not come as a surprise. Really, this emphasis is standard fare by now, although for Catholics in the last couple centuries, there was an odd tendency toward clericalism such that the authors of the Vatican II documents had to go out of their way to emphasize the role of the laity. At the same time, as I grew up in the Wesleyan/Nazarene Protestant denomination, it is clear to me that that tradition has its own form of clericalism such that having a “vocation” is typically always primarily referred to being a “pastor” or “minister”.
To get back to St. Thomas’s description of a vocation: he says that a vocation is a call toward something where the means of creation beckons our very existence into being. This is an “ontological” description of what a vocation is; in other words, St. Thomas is describing that the being of our own persons are not only defined by, but made whole and perfected by inhabiting such a call. As I am not yet a parent, I cannot fully inhabit what this means. However, because I am an uncle (3 times over), my wife and I do know what it is like to be with and take care of our nieces as nephews in a “parental” way. To use another example from my own life: moving from music to computer science and finally to theology/philosophy, I feel more “fulfilled” as a theologian and philosopher than when I engage in the other various attempts at a vocation. It seems more “fitting” that I be in this role or call.
Analogously, even though my wife and I are not yet foster-adoptive parents, this seems most fitting for us. We’ve made a decision based on the circumstances of our life (C&L calls this a “judgement”) that this is where God has called us. I do not know if it is correct to say this, but it seems as if within our marriage, this is also the place–by the means of our life together–where my wife and I call each other to the same place as foster-adoptive parents.
* For more on endo, I highly recommend the documentary EndoWhat? or to read the articles on Dr. Nezhat’s website here.
** Although it seems that the Orthodox and most Protestants would agree in general, and the latter at least unofficially insofar as their devotion to civil religion (at least in the USA) doesn’t compromise their witness (e.g. Focus on the Family). This is a completely different topic for another time, however.