In the Catholic Tradition, a vocation consists of two internal elements: (1) A good intention, and a firm will to make use of the means necessary to pursue that intention. (2) The qualities and capabilities needed in order to live the way of life one desires: this is sometimes described as a lack of obstacles or impediments.
St. Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologiae, explains that religious life, being founded on Christ's own advice, is the better way of life. And therefore, he says, if someone wants to enter religious life (has a good intention), and doesn't have any definite obstacles, then he should go for it!
St. Alphonsus de Liguori, giving advice to a priest on how to help young man in choosing a state of life, also mentions these two elements:
Let the confessor test well the vocation of his penitent, asking whether the penitent has some obstacle to it, due to incapacity, poor health, or the need of his parents. And let him especially weigh his purpose, to see if it is right, i.e., in order to unite himself more closely to God, or to amend the falls of his previous life, or to avoid the dangers of the world. But if the primary end is worldly—in order to lead a more agreeable life, or to free himself from relatives of an unfeeling character, or to please his parents, who push him to this—let him beware of permitting him to enter religious life. For in that case, it is not a true vocation, and entering in this way, without a true vocation, will have a bad outcome. But if the end is good, and no obstacle is present, then neither the confessor, nor anyone else, as St. Thomas teaches, (Quodlib. 3, art. 14), should or can without grave fault impede him, or attempt to dissuade him from the vocation.1
Explaining to a novice how he can be sure that his vocation was a true one, he mentions these same two elements, and adds a third one to them:
There is a true vocation whenever the following three things concur: First, a good end, namely, to get away from the dangers of the world, the better to insure eternal salvation, and to unite oneself more closely to God. Secondly, that there is no positive impediment due to poor health, lack of talents, or some necessity on the part of one’s parents, in regard to which matters the subject ought to quiet himself by leaving all to the judgment of the superiors, after having exposed the truth clearly. Thirdly: That the Superiors admit him. Now, whenever these three conditions are truly present, the novice ought not to doubt that his vocation was a true one.2
St. Alphonsus here adds a third, external condition for a true vocation: acceptance by superiors. This official approval is an important aspect of vocation, especially vocation to the consecrated life or to the priesthood. God does not call us to holiness simply as individuals, but as members of the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. And for this reason, it is the task of the Church to test and to ratify a vocation. Someone may feel called to the priesthood, yet not be accepted by the Church for this sacred position, because of his state or condition—e.g., because he is married, or because he suffers from serious psychological problems. Generally, such a person should humbly accept his situation and this decision of the Church as the will of God. Far from being a rejection of God’s inspiration, this humble obedience to the Church is a sign that his desire was from God, while a refusal to obey would be a sign that his desire was not inspired by God. St. Francis de Sales says, “When God puts inspirations into a heart, the first he gives is obedience.... Whosoever says he is inspired, and yet refuses to obey his superiors and follow their advice, is an impostor.”3 It is in fact sometimes good and right to persevere in the face of opposition from Church officials, and it can be hard to draw the line between this kind of perseverance and simple disobedience. Yet as a matter of principle, it is important for us to distinguish between a laudable perseverance in the face of opposition, and a wrongful disobedience. In the end, we must remain obedient to the Church, whatever our vocation may be.
Approval by the Church is not as essential for the vocation to marriage as for the vocation to the consecrated life or the priesthood. Yet also in the vocation to marriage, one must be obedient to the Church. If the Church does not permit a marriage between a certain man and woman, for example, that means that they are not called to that marriage, however they may feel about it. And again, once one has entered into marriage, it is necessary to follow the directives and guidelines of the Church in regard to marriage and the upbringing of children.
Though this ratification of a vocation by the Church is very important, it usually comes as a kind of completion of a vocation, rather than at the beginning of it. Just as it would be unusual for a woman to give her consent to marry a man before he expresses his love for her, so it would be unusual for superiors to give their approval to a vocation before a person actually seeks admission to a religious community or to a seminary. In a few cases it is clear that the Church cannot or will not give its approval, as in the case of a man baptized and raised Roman Catholic, who is validly married, and now desires to be a priest. But in most cases, one first makes a personal discernment and decision regarding vocation, and then seeks approval from the Church. And for this reason, though one should always keep the precepts and directives of the Church in mind, it is the first two elements listed by St. Alphonsus that are most relevant for someone who is seeking his vocation: his heart’s purpose or resolve, and his freedom from impediments.
If to the second condition mentioned by St. Alphonsus, that one be free from impediments, we add that one have whatever positive qualities are needed to make one fit for the way of life, then we have the conditions that the Church gives both as the requirements for entering religious life, and as the signs of vocation to it. Pope Pius XI writes that a priestly vocation is manifested by the combination of a right intention together with the qualities that make someone suited for the priesthood.
A vocation is, as you well know, Venerable Brothers, not established so much by some inner inducement of conscience and sensible feeling, which may sometimes be absent, but rather by the right aim and intention in those who desire the priesthood, together with those physical qualities and spiritual virtues which make them suitable for embracing this state of life.4
This same point is repeated later by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, in an instruction on the selection and training of candidates for consecrated life.
In the free acceptance of this counsel [to the religious life] there is discerned the special call from God or the movement of the Holy Spirit, who interiorly enlightens and inspires a person, who has the other qualifications, to pursue the evangelical counsels or to embrace the priesthood. For the divine inspiration required by St. Pius X in a true vocation, or that marked attraction for sacred duties mentioned by Pius XI in his encyclical letter, Ad Catholici Sacerdotii, is discerned in their right propensity and intention of mind or the choice of their free will (cf. can. 538), rather than in an inner urging of conscience and sensible attraction which may be lacking.5
As this point tends to be overlooked or misunderstood, it bears some emphasizing. These conditions are not merely legal requirements for being accepted into religious life, but are authentic signs of the vocation itself—in a certain sense they even constitute the vocation (insofar as they are the things by which God manifests his will and leads someone to a particular state in life). And of these elements, it is the firm will and intention to live a particular state of life (assuming that the choice is legitimate and good in itself) which pertains most properly to the divine vocation. St. Francis de Sales even says that such a firm will is a vocation.
A true vocation is nothing other than the firm and constant will possessed by the person called, to want to serve God in the manner and in the place where the Divine Majesty calls her. This is the best mark one could have to know when a vocation is true.6
This firm will should not be confused with a feeling of wanting to continue pursuing a path; it is rather the voluntary resolve to do so.
When I say “a firm and constant will to serve God,” I do not mean that from the very beginning she would do everything that is necessary in her vocation with such a firmness and constancy of will that she is free of all repugnance, difficulty or distaste in what depends upon her.... Every human person is subject to such passions, changes, and ups and downs.... We must not judge the firmness and constancy of the will for a good that was earlier embraced, on the basis of such emotions and feelings. But we must consider whether among the variety of different feelings the will remains firm to the point of not leaving behind the good that it has embraced. Even if she feels disgusted or very cold in her love for any virtue, she doesn't on that account stop using the means that are laid down for her to acquire it. So to have the mark of a true vocation, it need not be a sensible constancy, but one that is in the highest part of the spirit, one such as produces effects.7
St. Francis de Sales makes the point repeatedly: for a true vocation, what is necessary is not a multitude of virtues, or a disposition to practices of devotion, but a resolution to work perseveringly towards perfection.
We need not expect that those who enter religious life will be immediately perfect; it is enough for them to tend to perfection, and to embrace the means for growing in perfection. And in order to do this, it is necessary to have this firm and constant will such as I spoke of, to embrace all the means of growing in perfection that are proper to the vocation in which one is called.... If you see that she has this constant will of wanting to serve God and to grow in perfection, you may give her your vote; for if she is willing to receive the helps that our Lord will infallibly give her, she will persevere.... Consider a daughter who has strong passions; she is quick-tempered, she commits many faults; if together with this, she really wants to be healed, and wants people to correct her, mortify her, and give her the proper remedies for her healing, however much taking these things causes her anger and difficulty, you must not refuse her your vote.8
What about signs? Doesn't there need to be special signs from God that someone has a vocation to a way of life?
The idea that we need special signs usually comes from thinking about the fact that we ought to choose the way of life God wills for us. We sometimes forgot that God’s will is also, and usually found in the commandments and the counsels, in ordinary events, in the judgment of conscience, and in the inclinations of “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). It isn't strictly necessary to have “special” signs of God's will, because there are normal and general signs of God's will.
There can even be a certain danger in looking for special signs. The choice of “signs” or the interpretation of them may be colored by one's own desires—if one asks as “signs” from God things that one secretly, perhaps half-unconsciously, thinks are likely to happen; or again, if one interprets ordinary events as the fulfillment of signs. For example, a man might ask for a rose as a sign that he should propose marriage to a certain woman. If he does not ask for a specific way of getting a rose, it may already be too likely an event to be taken as in itself a sign from God. But if he then interprets the mere sight of a bouquet of roses as the fulfillment of the sign, it is evidently because he wants the “sign”; he is simply choosing what he really wants, and imagining or inventing the justification he is seeking, namely the sign from God.
But the main problem with this approach does not lie in this possibility of self-deception, but in the fact that God does not usually give such extraordinary signs of his will. In regard to the priestly vocation, for example, the Second Vatican Council says that “the voice of the Lord who is calling, should not in the least be expected to come to the ears of a future priest in some extraordinary manner.”9 Such extraordinary signs of God’s will are in effect sensible manifestations of God’s mind, and are thus equivalent to a sensible voice from God. And while God does sometimes speak in this way to indicate his will, it is not the ordinary way. “We must not wait for the Divine Majesty to speak to us in some sensible way or that he send from heaven some Angel to point out his will for us.”10 Rather, the way God speaks to our heart is by giving it the ability to see and to cling fast to what is good. “If we always try to keep our will very firm in wanting to discover the good that has been shown to us, God will not fail to make all redound to his glory.”11 God’s calling is not something external; God speaks within a person’s will itself, moving it to a way of life by which that person may draw near to him. “A true vocation is nothing other than a strong, unchanging will that the person who is called possesses, so as to want to serve God in the way and in the place where the Divine Majesty calls her.”12
1St. Alphonsus, Praxis Confessarii, Ch. 7, n. 92, in Theologia Moralis, Vol. 4, 578–79
2St. Alphonsus de Liguori, “Exhortation to novices to persevere in their vocation,” Opere Ascetiche, in Opere di S. Alfonso Maria de Liguori, Vol. 4 (Torino: Marietti, 1880), 439
3St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God, Book 8, Ch. 13
4Pope Pius XI, Ad Catholici Sacerdotii, n. 70, AAS 28 (1936), 40. See also the declaration of the Holy See in regard to the Lahitton’s work La Vocation Sacerdotale, AAS 4 (1912), 485
5Religiosorum Institutio, Instruction on the Careful Selection And Training Of Candidates For The States Of Perfection And Sacred Orders, Sacred Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, February 2, 1961, in Canon Law Digest, Bouscaren & O’Connor, Volume 5, Milwaukee, Bruce Publishing Company, 1963, n. 22, p. 465
8Ibid., 322, 323, 326
9Vatican Council II, Presbyterorum Ordinis n. 11