Vocation - a Calling from God
The English word vocation has its root in the Latin word vocatio, which means a ‘calling’. God has His plan for each one of us; He calls us, and it is up to us to respond to Him. Our vocation may be to the religious life, or the diocesean priesthood, or to marriage, or to be single. We are all called to do God’s will in whatever state of life He calls us.
In this piece I want to write about the vocation to religious life. I write with twenty-two years personal experience in religious life.
There is no need for me to say that vocations to religious life - certainly in the Western World - have decreased dramatically in the last half-a-century or so: that is patently obvious to those of us over a certain age. However, this does not mean that God is no longer calling people to serve Him in the religious state of life. God calls us, but we need to listen to Him, and respond to His call.
Types of Religious Vocation
Firstly, let’s see what is meant by religious life. The Church includes a variety of Religious Orders (I am using the word ‘Order’ here to encompass all forms of religious life, as this is the word in general usage amongst most people in Ireland). For instance: the Mendicant Orders such as the Franciscans, Dominicans and Carmelites; the Monastic Orders such as the Benedictines and Cistercians; and the various teaching and nursing Orders of Brothers and Sisters. Some Orders of men will comprise priests and brothers; others will consist of brothers only.
Religious consecrate themselves to God, striving for perfection in a special way. They take three vows - poverty, chastity and obedience. You may recall the story of the rich, young man in the Gospel . The Evangelist tells us that this man was already keeping all the Commandments but he asked Jesus what was still wanting in him. Our Lord told him that in order to be perfect he must go, sell all that he had, give to the poor and follow Him. Hence, these three vows are sometimes known as the Evangelical Counsels.
Some Orders may impose a fourth vow in addition to those of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Living Religious Life
By living the religious life and making the vows, a religious is bound to live according to the Order’s Regula or Rule, and by its Constitution. Different jurisdictions within the Order may also have their own particular Customs.
Conventual Franciscan Order
Let’s go into some more detail: who religious are and what they do. I am a religious brother in the Conventual Franciscan Order, so I will use that Order for illustrative purposes.
The religious of the Conventual Franciscan Order are known as friars, and comprise clerics (mainly priests, but we also have deacons and bishops) and religious brothers. In the first instance, we are called to religious life as a friar; some remain as a religious brother, whilst others may be called to the priesthood or diaconate. There is no pressure on anyone to go on to ordination.
We live in community, in a religious house - in Ireland the house is generally known as a friary. The emphasis is on the common life - for example we pray the Divine Office in common, we eat a common meal daily.
The fundamental reason we are in religious life is to live our lives according to our Rule and Constitution; to sanctify ourselves in striving for perfection, and trying to bring others to sanctification too.
Our work is done both within and without the friary. In the friary the friars will carry out a variety of ministries or apostolates:
1. Priests will celebrate Holy Mass and hear Confessions, and carry out any other priestly duties.
2. Brothers are able to carry out any non-priestly duties. This can be very wide-ranging: for example, over the years I have worked as a guest-master, bursar, sacristan, parish administrator, catechist, and in various media apostolates. I have been in communities with friars who were engineers, carpenters, electricians and computer technicians prior to entering religious life, and were able to put these same skills to use as friars.
How to Discern one’s Vocation
God speaks to us in the silence of prayer. Once we listen to Him, He will tell us what He wants us to do. It is very important for one to have a Spiritual Director, ideally a priest, who can help one discern God’s calling. If one is called to the religious life one will in time make contact with the Vocations Director of a particular Order who will, inter alia, discuss the Order’s entry requirements (such as age limits). Both the Spiritual Director and the Vocation Director will accompany and guide the candidate step-by-step on the path to his vocation.
Of the sixteen documents of the Second Vatican Council there is one that pertains to religious life, Perfectae Caritatis . It is not a very lengthy document, and can be viewed electronically on the Vatican’s website . I would strongly recommend it to anyone looking into religious life.
Matthew XIX: 16 - 22; Mark X: 17 - 22; Luke XVIII: 18 - 23.
Perfectae Caritatis - Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, Vatican City, 1965
Bro. Solanus Mary OFM Conv.