This article is a summary of the section of the book Paths of Love: The Discernment of Vocation According to Aquinas, Ignatius, and Pope John Paul II that examines the teaching of Pope John Paul II on vocation.
For Pope John Paul II, vocation is fundamentally something personal that takes place between a person and God. Yet there is still a certain "objectivity" to vocation; for being a human person means being oriented to the truth, and truth is objective.
In the first place, then, a vocation is that which God uses to direct each and every one uf us to his task in life. "Jesus has a specific task in life for each and every one of us. Each one of us is hand-picked, called by name by Jesus! There is no one among us who does not have a divine vocation!"1 Some are called audibly by God, but the usual kind of call is internal, through the inner working of the Spirit. "What is a vocation? It is an interior call of grace, which falls into the soul like a seed, to mature within it."2
We cannot give an everywhere valid account of how a vocation takes place, since "apart from the universal elements that are found in every vocation, each call takes place concretely in ways that are always new and always differentóand let us add, always beautiful and wonderful, because God is always wonderful in all that he does."3 But we can give a general picture, as the Pope does in several places.
Do not be slow to answer the Lordís call! From the passage of the Book of Exodus read to us in this Mass we can learn how the Lord acts in every vocation (cf. Ex 3:1Ė6, 9Ė12). First, he provokes a new awareness of his presenceóthe burning bush. When we begin to show an interest he calls us by name. When our answer becomes more specific and like Moses we say: "Here I am" (cf. v. 4), then he reveals more clearly both himself and his compassionate love for his people in need. Gradually he leads us to discover the practical way in which we should serve him: "I will send you." And usually it is then that fears and doubts come to disturb us and make it more difficult to decide. It is then that we need to hear the Lordís assurance: "I am with you" (Ex 3:12). Every vocation is a deep personal experience of the truth of these words: "I am with you."4
The Pope describes the call as a dialogue between us and Christ.
In the hidden recesses of the human heart the grace of a vocation takes the form of a dialogue. It is a dialogue between Christ and an individual, in which a personal invitation is given. Christ calls the person by name and says: "Come, follow me." This call, this mysterious inner voice of Christ, is heard most clearly in silence and prayer. Its acceptance is an act of faith.5
Pope John Paul II frequently explains vocations by comparison with the vocation of the prophet Jeremiah, which the Pope calls a "universal model" for every vocation. Godís word comes to Jeremiah and announces to him: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations" (Jer 1:5). Thus begins a dialogue between God and Jeremiah. The Pope uses this description of Jeremiahís calling to illustrate the way God calls each person.
The Lord tells the Prophet Jeremiah that his vocation was part of Godís eternal plan even before he was born... These words remind us that each person has a place in Godís plan and that each of us should carefully listen to Godís voice in prayer in order to discover the special calling we have received in Christ.6
But is a vocation to be decided by prayer alone? Or does "listening to Godís voice in prayer" mean an introverted examination of our experiences of prayer? No, for "in many other ways too we learn to know Godís will: through important events in our lives, through the example and wisdom of others, and through the prayerful judgment of his Church."7 All that we learn of ourselves and of the world in which we live can inform this decision. In his letter to youth for the "International Year of Youth," the pope describes the process by which Godís call becomes the plan or path for a personís life:
We could speak here of the "life" vocation, which in a way is identical with that plan of life which each of you draws up in the period of your youth... This "plan" is a "vocation" inasmuch as in it there make themselves felt the various factors which call. These factors usually make up a particular order of values (also called a "hierarchy of values"), from which emerges an ideal to be realized, an ideal which is attractive to a young heart. In this process the "vocation" becomes a "plan," and the plan begins to be also a vocation.
...During youth a person puts the question, "What must I do?" not only to himself and to other people from whom he can expect an answer, especially his parents and teachers, but he puts it also to God, as his Creator and Father. He puts it in the context of this particular interior sphere in which he has learned to be in a close relationship with God, above all in prayer. He therefore asks God: "What must I do?", what is your plan for my life? Your creative, fatherly plan? What is your will? I wish to do it.
In this context the "plan" takes on the meaning of a "life vocation," as something which is entrusted by God to an individual as a task. Young people, entering into themselves and at the same time entering into conversation with Christ in prayer, desire as it were to read the eternal thought which God the Creator and Father has in their regard. They then become convinced that the task assigned to them by God is left completely to their own freedom, and at the same time is determined by various circumstances of an interior and exterior nature. Examining these circumstances, the young person, boy or girl, constructs his or her plan of life and at the same time recognizes this plan as the vocation to which God is calling him or her.8
The pope thus describes vocation as depending on what we might call "objective" circumstances, both interior and exterior. "[Their task] is determined by various circumstances of an interior and exterior nature." These circumstances vary from individual to individual, and a complete description cannot be given. Yet the primary factor can be summed up with a single wordólove. "Love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being,"9 and thus having a vocation means being drawn by love and in love to commit oneself to a way of life.
A vocation therefore begins with Christ, who makes an approach in love to an individual person, leading him to search for a path in life by which to respond to Christís love. In prayerful dialogue with Christ, this person then examines his personal circumstances, in order to find the path of life in which he can make the best gift of himself in love.
1 Homily, June 1, 1982
2 Angelus message, December 14, 1980
3 Homily, September 7, 1986
4 Homily, January 13, 1995
5 Homily, February 10, 1986
6 Homily, September 2, 1990
8 Letter to Youth, Dilecti Amici, n. 9
9 Familiaris Consortio, n. 11