Friday, 2 August 2013

John Paul II & the Vocation Innovation

If there's one thing that drives a 20 year old devout Catholic crazy, it's the notion of vocation as state-in-life.

When I was just a little girl
I asked my pastor, what I would be.
Would I be single?
Would I be wed? 
Would I be Sister Aimée, O.P.?

When I was 19 and utterly immersed in the Canadian pro-life movement (at the time the spiritual equivalent of the Warsaw Uprising, and just as effective), I sweated a lot over "my vocation." I wasn't sure I could ever attract the right guy, and I was underwhelmed by what I had seen of religious orders, and yet being Single was the worst thing I could think of. What if God called me to be Single? Eeek! Eeek!

There was not a lot of trust involved in my worries about vocation. But at some point I bludgeoned my heart into acceptance and told my mother I thought I had a Single vocation. She burst into tears and told me not to let "that man" (whichever priest whose books I was reading) blight my life. Yeah, so much for acceptance.

Part of the reason we go so insane over Is-Single-Life-really-a-vocation, mes amis, is that the notion that anything except religious life and the priesthood are "vocation" is an innovation of the post-Vatican II era. The multiple-choice-tick-the-box Single/Married/Religious Life/Priesthood division does not date back before 1978.

John Paul II was a very creative man. He invented World Youth Day. He invented five more decades for the rosary. He internationalized a very local Polish devotion by inventing Divine Mercy Sunday. He cut a deal with conscience-stricken members of the SSPX by inventing the FSSP. There was a lot of innovation between 1978-2005, and our current attitude towards vocation is part of it.

The tick-the-box Single/Married/Religious Life/Priesthood notion of vocation is not doctrine. It is theology. Recent theology. And nobody has worked out a notion of Single Life as vocation yet, and as far as I know, the only person who bangs on about all priests being Single, Religious or Married men is me.

True, I wrote up a nice summary of Single Life for the Archdiocese of Montreal, and pointed out the different and innovative ways non-married unconsecrated people have served God, His Church and the poor. But I would have had a really hard time finding a pre-1978 source stating that unconsecrated Single Life was "just as good" as consecrated Single Life, i.e. religious life, or "a vocation."

I would also have had a hard time finding a pre-1963 source saying that married life was "just as good" as religious life. The highest form of Christian life has always been a life of permanent celibacy and chastity--bluntly called virginity--lived in the service of God. Religious life, even in its most embryonic first-century form, has always been number one. And since priests, despite penalties and punishments and what-all, kept on getting married until the First Lateran Council (1123), not even priesthood has had the caché of religious life. Before the Council of Trent, priests were on par with village blacksmiths. Only bishops, monks and nuns were all that and a bag of chips.

Every other way of life was second-best. I hope this doesn't depress you. Personally, I'd love to be as beautiful as Rosamund Pike, and as rich as J.K. Rowling, and as good as the holiest nun in St. Cecilia's Abbey, and as confident in my place in U.K. society as the daughter of a Scottish earl. However, the fact that I am none of these things doesn't depress me. I do okay. Occasionally I think about nun friends and smother a sigh, but I am awfully fond of B.A. And maybe God will grant me martyrdom. St. Augustine said that was even better than being a nun. Martyrs go straight to the top of the ontological tree.

The only thing that makes marriage ontologically "better" than unconsecrated Single life is that it involves permanent vows. According to Church tradition, vowed life is superior to unvowed life. But that is no reason for married people to look down on Single people or argue red-faced that married life is "just as good as" religious life. Yawn.
To return to John Paul II, I absolutely love his Mulieris Dignitatem and his use of the work of St. Edith Stein.  His thoughts on "motherhood" and "spiritual motherhood" are fantastic. But there's just one thing.

In Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul does not mention unconsecrated Single women. He mentions married ladies (the mothers) and nuns (the spiritual mothers). He seems to forget there are a whole bunch of unmarried, unconsecrated spiritual mothers out there. And no wonder. He lived most of his life in Poland. Have you seen the statistics for Poland? I have. And until recent decades, there were almost no Single Polish women. Polish women got married, or they became nuns. The only Single Polish women were the tiny fraction who got divorced before the year 2000 and widows.

Anielskie Single (2011) is apparently the first book in Polish about the unconsecrated Catholic Single Life.  And unconsecrated Singles are so looked down on, the Polish word "Single" (pronounced seen-gluh) is an insult, and kindly priests firmly call them "spouse-seekers" instead.

I hope all you people writing theses on Blessed John Paul II have realized that he was not just Polish and Catholic. He was a Polish Catholic. You cannot divorce the theology of Blessed John Paul II from his unique, concrete, historical Polishness, and it occurs to me that anyone who writes about Blessed John Paul II without learning Polish is cutting corners, George.

Dear me. This is not a very coherent post. What I'm trying to do is liberate you from the multiple-choice-tick-the-box sense of vocation because I do not think it is sufficiently well-rooted in the tradition of the Church. If it were, it would give you a great sense of freedom and enthusiasm, not existential angst, dread and confusion. Maybe the problem is not that unconsecrated Single life isn't really a "vocation" but that our whole contemporary notion of "vocation" is wrong.

Christian life is about service, and people find different ways of serving others. Most people find it through marriage, serving spouses and children. Some feel strongly drawn to the religious life and serve others through that. Some Single men find themselves strongly drawn towards the priesthood, and a fraction of them get ordained. Some Catholics get a strong sense that God is calling them to this or that, whereas other Catholics strain their ears in the dark to no avail. Some Catholics are just not sure what they are "called" to, but make a guess, take a plunge, and are delighted that they did so. As a dear Jesuit friend of mine says, "I guessed right."

Speaking personally, I strained my ears for years. And I worried that I had ruined my vocation to marriage, having been married-divorced-annulled.  I very much hoped my fears weren't true, and that I would get a second chance at something. Anything. Even if it was being happy about being Single. And one day, on the Feast of Saint Jude, Patron of Lost Causes, I realized I could be happy about being Single. And, having been looking in vain for some kind of service to do, I felt called to blog about it.

That moment changed the entire course of my life. And it changed the course of other people's lives, too, since my writing has helped some women be happier about being Single and smarter about dating, which helped some of you get married and even have babies. (I'm very happy about the babies.)

That moment of grace didn't tick any vocational boxes. It certainly did not set a seal on the concept of Unconsecrated Single Life as an Official Call. But it showed me one way in which Singles could serve others: through offering other Singles companionship and solidarity on the margins of vocationland.

The question should not be "What box do I tick?"  It should be, "How can I serve?"  So I suggest that, instead of asking God to show you your vocation, that you ask Him to show you where to serve. He'll take care of the rest.

Update: Here Mary Beth Bonnaci defines "vocation" as giving oneself totally to another. That is trés, trés John Paul II, and therefore a post-1978 understanding of vocation--at least outside of Poland.

My problem with that is the erotic implications of "totally," thanks to Theology of the Body, which, incidentally, is not called Doctrine of the Body. Sigh. I would say that Jean Vanier, a Single man, has committed himself to L'Arche, wouldn't you?  And that Dorothy Day, a divorced woman and Single mother, committed herself totally to the poor.

Update 2: B.A. adds that THE call is the call to holiness, no matter what your circumstances in life. We agree that we are a bit uncomfortable with the whole "giving oneself totally to another" definition of marriage, let alone vocation. It's that totally thing. And it sounds just too darned shiny and romantic and open to manipulation to abusive spouses: "You gave yourself totally to me, so do what I want!"

Marriage is basically what human beings do--or did, if they wanted to (or their parents made them), could afford it and historical circumstances (like war or today's unprecedented decadence) did not get in the way. Christian marriage is, of course, a call to holiness within marriage. What changes is the circumstances in which you strive to be holy. And I think Saint Thomas Aquinas would be on side with this. In his day, marriage was just business as usual, and only religious life (of whatever kind) was something you were called into, out of business as usual.

Update 3: A married man's email reminds me to emphasize that it is state-in-life I am talking about here. He points out that although the priesthood may be superior to married life, a holy married man is better than a wicked priest.

I agree that holy people, no matter what their state in life, are superior to wicked people, no matter what their state in life.  However, I think "priesthood" vs "married" is a false dichotomy. There are married men, Single men, and male religious, and some of each of those group are priests. Most priests are Single men. As Single men, they have a lot to teach about the Single life, and they should.

Catholics belong to the laity or priesthood. Nuns, most monks, brothers and consecrated virgins are laypeople. So are most married men and all married women. The states-in-life are Single, Married, Religious. Keep this in mind if you ever meet an ex-Anglican, now Catholic, married priest and feel embarrassed.


Julia said...

'...the only person who bangs on about all priests being Single, Religious or Married men is me.'

Sorry, Auntie, I've had a long day and I'm tired so my brain isn't processing what you mean here. What do you mean?

There's a lot in this blogpost, and some of it I didn't know, so I think I'll have to read it a couple of times.


Seraphic said...

What I mean is that when it come to talking of the priesthood as a vocation is that priests are already Single men, married men or male religious when they get ordained.

Therefore, priests must have "two vocations." You can't just be "called to be a priest." And thus tick-the-box style vocation discernment isn't coherent. Single OR Married OR Male Religious OR Priests doesn't work.

sciencegirl said...

Haven't you heard people bemoan how the Catholic Church's rule about priestly celibacy messes up men who have a calling to the priesthood AND marriage? "What if God made him for both, but the Church only lets him pick one?" is a thought I've heard before. This confusion is due at least in part to the "Am I called to XYZ?" discernment culture.

Seraphic said...

Well, I hate to say it, but there a bunch of married priests around these days. Most obviously, there are the ex-Anglican married priests, and less obvious there are the Eastern rite priests. And this has led to some resentment and confusion among the faithful, who back home in my parents' parish could be heard to mutter, "How come OUR boys (i.e. cradle Latin Catholics) can't get married?"

Every married Latin priest is like a big neon advertisement for married priests, and it's all so pre-Trent it is so weird seeing them in a post-Trent context wearing post-Trent clericals and all, instead of humbly plowing their tiny farms with their lone cow, etc. But I digress.

But there is definitely a problem with the "What if God called him for both?" attitude. It's like asking, "But what if God called Joe to marry Mary but Mary won't listen?" If Mary doesn't want Joe, then too bad for Joe. And if the bishops don't want cradle Catholic never-Anglican married men as priests, then too bad for them.

Collegiate Catholic Girl said...

I like your emphasis on the service part of vocation. A lot of times I think we young Catholics forget the joyful-in-service theme of our life stories and just get paranoid about the ultimate "Calling" we hear from pastors. And like you said in Update 2, the real ultimate Call is the call to holiness.

I have to say, however, the "invention" of the concept of Single Life as a vocation may not be as *unrooted* in tradition as might assume. Rather than having invented the concept, JPII may have just innovatively emphasized that age-old (possibly theretofore largely unspoken?) truth--that vocation is the call to holiness. In the end of the 20th century cultural turmoil, the idea that the only vocations were EITHER the priesthood/convent OR the married life may have been just as confusing/scary for young people as the question of the Singlehood vocation question is for us today.

Seraphic said...

The fact that so many young Catholics--particularly in Canada and the USA--tie themselves into knots over this drives me crazy.

Priests discourage vocations to the priesthood by making altar service "for girls." Nuns discourage vocations to religious life by wearing pantsuits. There's no mystery or secret or sense of fraternity to attract a boy's or girl's imagination to religious life. And then, when the kids are grown up and really hungering for transcendence, along come vocations director to scare them into painful introspection.

Seraphic said...

Oh, and meanwhile there's a lot of talk about the "vocation of marriage" but not a lot of talk about how to GET married in societies which treat young marriages as disasters waiting to happen and think cohabitation just a step towards marriage.

Seraphic said...

By the way, I don't think JP2 ever said unconsecrated Single life was a vocation. I'm not sure WHO first came up with that. He emphasized marriage as a vocation.

I will have to do some more research into when and where the tick-the-box vocational approach first appeared.

Roseograce said...


Thank you so much for this post. Seriously, THANK YOU!

As one of those young people who has been struggling against "existential angst, dread, and confusion" in regard to my post-Vatican II understanding of "vocation" -- I am so happy and relieved to read your post. It's not wishful thinking that makes me say this. Your words ring true - they clearly encapsulate a vague idea I've had for a couple of years: i.e. "Isn't there some missing piece of the vocation puzzle that I'm just not seeing?"

I once blurted out my vocational concerns to a priest and he completely terrified me by yelling: "You are 24! It's time you choose a vocation! You can't waste any more time! *More drastic exhortation and yelling!*" Granted, he was of a different culture where women probably are well-established in their chosen state of life by the time they are 20.

I am 26 now, and that terror has subsided, mostly. I was able to discern, vaguely, a lot of what you have said in this post. But this post has definitely been confirmation and encouragement to me, so thank you!

Maggie said...

For what it's worth, I do have a few priest friends (to be precise, diocesan/secular priests of the Latin Rite, not Anglican converts) who wear wedding rings. A student asked about it once, and Father explained that he feels married to the Church, as Christ is, since he [Father] acts in persona Chrisit/etc...
or as a seminarian once joked, "Ah, the Church... a beautiful bride but a demanding wife!"

Gregaria said...

I'm sorry, I'm still a little confused. It sounds like you are saying that single life is not a vocation like religious or married life and if someone ends up single, that is ok as long as they are serving others and growing in holiness, right?

Or, to put it another way, serve others and be holy and don't worry about whether you are going to get married, become a religious, or stay single for the rest of your life because one of those things will happen naturally in its own time. We don't have to *make* one of them happen so that we can say we've figured out our vocation or feel like we have a purpose in life.

Am I understanding this?

Jam said...

I would really welcome more deep thinking about the supposed single vocation *on its own*. I feel like it has mostly been taken up by pastorally employed people who worry that they're making people feel bad by talking too much about marriage and priesthood. "Oh! and also you could be called to be single" with an encouraging smile toward us Dateless Wonders in the corner = unconvinced. ;)

Single life -- unmarried people making their own one-person households -- is a very recent development historically, one that really only occurs in mobile industrial (or post-industrial, whatever) societies, if I'm not mistaken. Also, over the last several generations, we've increasingly made the individual responsible for choosing his/her own path in life, and at an increasingly late age. So to be fair, the idea of single vocation would have to be rather new.

The idea of a "missed" vocation doesn't bother me as much as it used to do. God is always ready to bring order out of chaos and good out of evil, however low-level or unintentional that chaos and evil may be. You can't know what's coming any more than you can know for certain that taking such-and-such opportunity in the past would have worked out perfectly. I figure it's a matter of being as generous as possible and responding to the call that gets put in front of you whenever it comes. As you say, the key isn't "which of these clubs are you joining," it's "how are you serving others and doing God's work".

Seraphic said...

Gregoria, the latter. Grow in holiness, find some kind of service to do, live among others, find a way to make a living you enjoy, and let God take care of any change in your state in life. Get to know great Catholic guys as friends. Get to know great Catholic nuns as friends, if there are any around. Get to know elderly spinsters and widows in your parish; don't limit your social scene. Don't obsess on "where God is calling you" until/unless you actually see in front of you a major massive metaphorical signpost reading "Here are the vows I want you to take."

Meanwhile, the mediaeval sense of "vocation" always meant religious vocation, and only recently (probably since divorce really got going) has the Church started talking about marriage being a vocation. Unconsecrated Single life, which you can give up as soon as you want to/have the opportunity does not have the same "status" (as it were) as a way of life with BINDING VOWS.

That said, many Single people live ahd have lived fantastic Christian lives of service and holiness, Dorothy Day among them.

Seraphic said...

@Roseograce. My goodness. What a cranky priest. How can you "choose" a vocation if God hasn't put vocational opportunities in your path? It's not like you can go out and lasso any old bachelor or bang on the convent doors without having met any nuns. We're all on God's time, He's not on our time, and He doesn't arrange our change-in-state-of-life to coincide with college graduation!

Seraphic said...

@Gregora. Actually, also the former. If you never change your state-in-life from Single, that wiould be unusual, but it could be exactly what you're supposed to do--if you're living it in holiness and in service to others.

Incidentally, not all married people and priests or nuns are really living lives of service. There are ways to cheat in all ways of life!

Gregaria said...

Now that I understand, I have to say, that's a relief! I haven't felt any strong tug any particular way except maybe the single life, which is to say I can see myself staying single for the rest of my life. I am open to marriage, but the opportunity hasn't presented itself. I don't particularly want to be a religious.

I do keep my social circles open and expanding, so I'm going to take this as confirmation that I should just keep doing what I'm doing. Anything else would be forced and unnatural.

Seraphic said...

Gregaria, that sounds fine to me!

Although, er. You don't need MY confirmation! I'm just a lady with a blog.