VOCATION AND FAITH JOURNEY: By Fr. George Kocholickal SDB
VOCATIONAL AND FAITH JOURNEY (Vocation as a sign of hope founded on faith) Fr. George Kocholickal SDB Thank you for this privilege to address you in this Forum of the Kenya Association of Vocation Animators. I am no stranger to this Forum since I served as the Vocation Promoter for the SDBs here in Kenya for quite many years – though it wasn’t a full-time job. Fr. Joseph Nyamunga suggested that I present my reflection connecting your specific roles as vocation animators and the Year of Faith that we are about to conclude. I would like to proceed in this way: First I wish to recall to our minds some of the very important insights on vocation, especially from the insights Blessed John Paul II, and then show a parallel between the vocational journey and the journey of faith. In the third part, I shall share with you some of the insights on vocation promotion before I conclude. I: VOCATION AND ITS DISCERNMENT 1. Vocation is a dialogue 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. God’s 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 Jeremiah’s calling to illustrate the way God calls each person. The Lord tells the Prophet Jeremiah that his vocation was part of God’s eternal plan even before he was born... These words remind us that each person has a place in God’s plan and that each of us should carefully listen to God’s voice in prayer in order to discover the special calling we have received in Christ (Pope John Paul II, Homily, September 2, 1990). Hence the grace of a vocation takes the form of a dialogue in the hidden recesses of the human heart. 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 (Pope John Paul II, Homily, February 10, 1986). 2. Discerning a vocation But is a vocation to be decided by prayer alone? Or does “listening to God’s voice in prayer” mean an introverted examination of our experiences of prayer? No, for “in many other ways too we learn to know God’s will: through important events in our lives, through the example and wisdom of others, and through the prayerful judgment of his Church” (Pope John Paul II, Homily, September 2, 1990). All that we learn of ourselves and of the world in which we live can inform this decision. 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 (Pope John Paul II, Letter to Youth, Dilecti Amici, n. 9). The pope thus describes vocation as depending on what we might call “objective” circumstances, both interior and exterior. 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 word - love. “Love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being,” (Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, n. 11), 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 Christ’s 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. II: VOCATIONAL JOURNEY AND THE FAITH JOURNEY What are the steps involved in the vocational journey? The candidates who have decided to respond generously to the gift of their vocation have to personalise it in the context of a particular charism, religious family and mission; then they are to witness to others the joy of having been called; celebrate the gift of their vocation in prayer and liturgy, and finally invite others to follow the path they chose. This dynamics closely resemble the five major stages in the cycle of Christian faith: First, Faith is received as a gift; then it is personalised; after that faith is witnessed through a life of service; it is celebrated in liturgy and prayer and finally it is proclaimed. Let me take you through these stages of our faith journey as well as the vocation journey for they walk together hand in hand. 1. Gift of God, received with gratitude and responsibility We are Christians because someone shared with us their faith. Perhaps, most of us were born in a Christian family and our parents shared their faith with us during our baptism; they brought us up as good Christians. We were assisted in this by our parish priests, religious sisters, catechists, and many others. Then we decided to pursue a religious vocation. For some, it also meant a priestly vocation. Here too there were messengers, people who assisted us including our vocation animators. However, that does not mean, that we understood then what Christian faith meant, or what being a religious/priest implied. In any case, that is how most of us begin our Christian life and vocational journey. Notice how important the messengers of the Church were in this. They were instruments of God to give us a “treasure” in “earthen vessels”, precious yet fragile (cf. 2 Cor. 4:7). Both our Christian faith and religious vocation are pure gifts, it is grace. St Paul writing to the Ephesians (2:8-9) says, “Because it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God; not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit.” In the universal call to holiness, of particular relevance is God’s initiative of choosing some to follow his Son Jesus Christ more closely, and to be his privileged ministers and witnesses. The divine Master personally called the Apostles “to be with him, and to be sent out to preach and have authority to cast out demons” (Mk 3:14-15); they, in turn, gathered other disciples around them as faithful collaborators in this mission. In this way, responding to the Lord’s call and docile to the movement of the Holy Spirit, over the centuries, countless ranks of priests and consecrated persons placed themselves totally at the service of the Gospel in the Church. The exhortation of Jesus to his disciples: “Pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest” (Mt 9:38), again points to the truth that vocation to priesthood and consecrated life too is a gift from God. He freely gives to those whom he chooses: “You did not choose me, no, I chose you; and I commissioned you to go out and to bear fruit…” (Jn 15:16). In fact, the vocation to the priesthood and to the consecrated life constitutes a special gift of God which becomes part of the great plan of love and salvation that God has for every man and woman and for the whole of humanity. How are we to receive this gift of vocation from the Lord? With gratitude and with a sense of responsibility. As the Common Preface IV says, “For, although you have no need of our praise, yet our thanksgiving is itself your gift, since our praises add nothing to your greatness, but profits us for salvation, through Christ our Lord.” So let us ask ourselves: Are we taking for granted the vocations that God is giving us? Are we grateful to God? Do we thank Him? Do we see the new arrivals as an act of love and trust in our community by none other than our heavenly Father Himself. Mother Teresa quoting the Indian Poet Rabindranath Tagore said, “Every child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged of man.” Similarly we may state as well: Every fresh vocation to our community is a statement on God’s part that he still loves our community. Secondly responsibility: Every gift brings along with it a responsibility. On the part of the vocation animators and the community, it means to provide a healthy environment and support needed for the person to experience this form of life, and through prayer and spiritual direction seek God’s will. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, God’s free initiative requires a free response on the part of men and women; a positive response which always presupposes acceptance of and identification with the plan that God has for everyone; a response which welcomes the Lord’s loving initiative and becomes, for the one who is called, a binding moral imperative, an offering of thanksgiving to God and a total cooperation with the plan which God carries out in history (cf. CCC 2062). How do we assist the person to make a free and generous response to God’s call? Through personal accompaniment. Recall how Jesus accompanied the Twelve in their total commitment. He taught them in private, he reprimanded them when they went wrong in their thinking, he encouraged and consoled them in the mission he gave to them, and most of important, he purified their motivations in following him. For us too, vocation accompaniment implies all that, and especially of assisting the candidates in a painful purification of some of the misplaced motivations for joining the religious communities. Was Jesus fully successful in this? I may say, No! Recall what Judas did at the end of all that. A legend recalls that Jesus had to assist Peter who was running away from Rome during the persecution under Nero to escape death, to return and to lay down his life for the Master. 2. Personal appropriation of the Gift Let us now move to the second stage of our faith journey, namely, of personally appropriating and cherishing the gift of faith. We remain Christians because that is what we received from our parents and family, and we see that Christianity has the ability to satisfy our need for God. But we really become Christians when we can personalise the faith that we have received from the Church. Our parents, our Sunday school teachers, the church, could only take us to the water of life. God can only invite us to his grace. It is up to us to make a personal choice to participate in his grace. It is up to us to make an act of free will like the Magi (Mt 2:1-11) who decided to follow the star; like Zacchaeus (Lk 19:1-11) who decided to climb the Sycamore tree; like the apostles and disciples who decided to follow Jesus. In Rev 3:20, the Spirit of God says, “Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share a meal at that person’s side.” Yes, once we have had a personal experience of Jesus in the context of the believing community, then we can say, like the Apostle Paul, “For me to live is Christ” (Phil 1:21). That is my life is centred around the person of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. A similar thing should also happen in the journey of our religious vocation. The candidate, through his active presence in the life of the community, is to slowly appropriate the life-style, charism and the traditions of the community, beginning to own it. In other words, he or she is to grow in a sense of belonging to the community. How does a person appropriate the God-given vocation in a particular religious community and make it personal? I don’t think the process is simple, in fact is complex. Study of the charism and the traditions of the community, experience of its apostolic life etc., can help. But I think the most important component in all these is the active “presence” of the candidate in the life and events of the community; that is, he is willing to share his own time become responsible for the affairs of the community. Recall what the Fox tells the Little Prince in Antoine Exupery’s little book: “It is the time that you spent for the rose that makes the rose important,” “what is most important is invisible to the eye.” I believe that one of the important signs of progress in ones vocation is the growth in the sense of belonging to the new community where God has placed the candidate. In this process of personally appropriating the gift of faith and gift of vocation one is to face many challenges. It is an arduous path as well. Every day the person has to grow in faith, hope and love. 3. Witness through Service Our Christian faith is given to us, we receive it. We personalise it through our ongoing experience of God in the person of Jesus, and we live that faith - we witness. The Greek word for ‘witness’ is ‘martyrion’. So, a martyr is not necessarily one who is ready to die for the Christian faith, but it is anyone who lives that faith, even if that implies some inconveniences, some challenges, and some suffering. Pope Paul VI was insistent when he wrote: “Above all the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness” (EN 21). Today we live in a very secular context, and sometimes the words of the Book of Wisdom is so relevant to us: “The godless say to themselves, ‘Let us lie in wait for the virtuous man, since he annoys us and opposes our way of life…” (Wis 2:12). This offers us a challenge and an opportunity to deepen our own faith. That is why Jesus warns us, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34-35). Service (‘diakonia’ in Greek) is a concrete way of witnessing to our Christian faith. Service is seen in Christian charity. Jesus said, “The Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28). And so he insisted: “You know that among the gentiles the rulers lord it over them, and great men make their authority felt. Among you this is not to happen. No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave” (Mt 20:25-27). Witnessing through genuine, wholehearted service to the other is in fact imitating our own Master and Lord: “If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you must wash each other’s feet” (Jn 13:14). The vocational journey therefore requires concrete ministry, of service especially to those to whom we are sent. Our Holy Father Francis has insisted on this dimension of priestly and consecrated life and is concerned about any attempt to withdraw into our comfort zones. He has told us to move to the periphery of the society, to meet people where they are, to be concerned about them. During the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday, the Pope urged the priests to be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep”! “Self-help courses can be useful in life, but to live our priestly life by going from one course to another, from one method to another, leads us to become pelagians and to minimize the power of grace, which comes alive and flourishes to the extent that we, in faith, go out and give ourselves and the Gospel to others,” the pope continued. I think the concern of the Pope is very relevant. Do we train our candidates to serve? How do they serve the community? Are they engaged in cleaning (including the toilet), washing, cooking, taking care of the garden? Or are we giving them “servants” to serve them? ... What about their ministry to those outside? Do they actively engage in some sort of apostolic ministry (e.g. teaching catechism, visiting the sick, animating the youth groups, guiding the choir, working with the vocational ministry team etc.) 4. Celebrated in Liturgy and Prayer Living out our faith is a joyful thing. It is a celebration. Joy is one of the first fruits of the Holy Spirit. The joy of a believing community is expressed most of all in the liturgical celebration, and particularly in the Eucharistic celebration. The early Christian communities gathered together to celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord by listening to the Word and breaking Bread together (Acts 2:42; Acts 20:7; 1Cor 10:16-17). And this was a joyful celebration (Act 2:46). That is why, the Second Vatican Council reminded us that “The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, 11). In Lumen Fidei Pope Francis speaks of the Eucharist as the “precious nourishment for faith”, an “act of remembrance, a making present of the mystery”, which “leads from the visible world to the invisible”, teaching us to experience the depth of reality (n. 44). What is true for the Christian life is all the more true for the vocational journey. Where do the members of the community gather together? Around the Eucharistic table celebrating their common calling and religious charism, around the Lord Jesus in common adoration, in praise and thanksgiving, in raising petitions and intercessions and in moments of silent personal prayer, the community celebrates. We are not ignoring the moments of being together in recreation, or our common meals, and similar activities, all of which have their importance. But none of those can substitute or take priority over the spiritual celebrations of the community. A well-prepared and celebrated liturgy where everyone participates actively is of greater significance over other forms of common celebrations. 5. Mission of Making Disciples The gospel stories tell us so consistently how those who had an encounter with Jesus immediately become messengers of the Good News. “The first thing Andrew did [after he stayed with Jesus] was to find his brother and say to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ and he took Simon to Jesus” (Jn 1:41-42a). The Samaritan woman “put down her water jar and hurried back to the town to tell the people, ‘Come and see a man who has told me everything I have done; could this be the Christ?’ (Jn 4:28-29). The two disciples on the road to Emmaus after they recognized the Lord at the breaking of the bread, “set out that instant and returned to Jerusalem. [There]… they told their story of what had happened on the road and how they had recognised him at the breaking of bread” (Lk 24:33-35). The invitation of Jesus, “Come and See” becomes positively contagious. In the Gospel of Matthew, the very last words of Jesus recorded is about a sending the Eleven to “make disciples”. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you” (Mt 28: 18-20). St Paul, though called later, discovered this aspect of his vocation. He says, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1Cor 9:16; see also Rom 10:14-15). He knew, to be true to his call, he had to proclaim the Gospel. Proclamation is simply being able to share with others how Christian faith has given me joy and hope, and inviting them too to find that same sense of hope. We proclaim our faith so that someone else can receive it, and the cycle of Christian faith can continue. God continues to offer the gift of faith to others through us. Fruitfulness in our mission is a very tangible sign that the Lord is working through us. In fact he is the one who sent us to go out and bear fruit: “You did not choose me, no, I chose you; and I commissioned you to go out and to bear fruit, fruit that will last” (Jn 15:16). One of the tasks that we have in our religious life is to seek followers or vocations to the life that we ourselves embraced. If we appreciate our vocation, if we really love it and are happy in this vocation, we will also gladly invite others to join us, to take our place once we are gone. Towards this, we shall speak about our community, charism, mission, indeed “make disciples”. That leads us to the next topic, that of vocation promotion. III: Vocation Promotion 1. Promoting a Vocational Culture One of our tasks as evangelizers and vocation promoters is to promote a “culture” of vocations. What do I mean by a “culture” of vocations? I mean create or facilitate an environment that promotes correct beliefs and attitudes regarding the purpose of human and Christian existence. It means to spread the word around that God has a personal plan for each of us, and we must listen to him to learn what it is. Both the young and their parents should know that the Lord has his plan for each of us, he calls each one of us by name. Our task is to be listeners, capable of perceiving his call, to be courageous and faithful, so that we may follow him, and in the end, be found as trustworthy servants who have used well the gifts entrusted to us (see, Pope Benedict XVI, Homily for the Marian Vespers with the Religious and Seminarians of Bavaria, September 11, 2006). The origin and goal of this plan is God’s love. God loves us, so that we can love him in return. “He loves us, he makes us see and experience his love, and from God’s loving us ‘first,’ love can also arise as a response within us” (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, n. 17). A vocation is always situated in the context of this love. “Before the creation of the world, before our coming into existence, the heavenly Father chose us personally, calling us to enter into a filial relationship with him, through Jesus, the Incarnate Word, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit” (Pope Benedict XVI, Message for 43rd World Day of Prayer for Vocations, May 7, 2006). We must resist a culture that attempts to limit human existence to a purely earthly reality, and to measure the success of one’s life in terms of career, wealth, status, power, and so on. What you can do as vocation promoters is to encourage a culture of vocations, or train young people to ask questions such as, “Master, what should I do to be saved?”; “Master, what is your will and plan for me, for my life?” Promoting a culture of vocations is also to train young people to listen interiorly in silence. Blessed John Paul II told the young people gathered in Los Angeles about how he discovered his vocation. “I am often asked, especially by young people, why I became a priest. Maybe some of you would like to ask the same question. Let me try briefly to reply. I must begin by saying that it is impossible to explain entirely. For it remains a mystery, even to myself. How does one explain the ways of God? Yet, I know that, at a certain point in my life, I became convinced that Christ was saying to me what he had said to thousands before me: 'Come, follow me!' There was a clear sense that what I heard in my heart was no human voice, nor was it just an idea of my own. Christ was calling me to serve him as a priest” (Los Angeles, USA, September 14, 1987). 2. Targeting the Youth In our vocational journey whom do we target, if not the youth. It is from the young people that we can expect generosity and love. It is they who will take the risk for the Lord. If so, all of us as vocation animators must be engaged in forms of youth ministry, even if you are not youth ministers. You must meet and engage the young people in the parishes, schools, assist them to grow in faith, give answers to their questions, be a friend to them. You must invite them to your communities, allow them to join your forms of ministry, in short, witness to them the joy of living your own vocation. So, dear vocation animators, be youth ministers too, even if that is not an essential part of the ministry of your community. Here you will look for new methods of getting the attention of the young people, and dialoguing with them answering their many questions and inviting them to listen carefully to what the Lord wants them to do with their life. 3. Dialoguing with the family In today’s environment it is important that the vocation animators are also in dialogue with the parents. Why so? Parents too need to recognise that vocation is not the same as the career that they might be wishing for their children and educating them for. Parents have to be encouraged to be generous with the Lord, especially if one of their sons or daughters wishes to give himself or herself to the Lord completely. Indeed it is going to be a source of blessing to that family in the long run, though some of the parents may not see it immediately. IV: CONCLUSION As part of our presentation today we shall be watching a short movie on Saint Hildegard of Bingen one of the most remarkable women of the Middle-Ages. Pope Benedict XVI on 7th October 2012 declared her – together with Saint John of Avila – Doctor of the Church, as the Year of Faith was beginning. In the Apostolic Letter proclaiming her Doctor of the Church, the Pope writes: “Hildegard asks herself and us the fundamental question, whether it is possible to know God.... Her answer is completely positive: [Yes] through faith, as through a door, the human person is able to approach this knowledge.” Her mystical visions, her compassionate heart and in a special way her indefatigable courage in the face of many challenges bears witness to the truth that faith in Christ and ones vocation can indeed overcome mountains of problems and difficulties. “In truth I tell you, if your faith is the size of a mustard seed you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; nothing will be impossible for you” (Mt 17:20). May the Lord through the intercession of our Blessed Mother help us to rediscover our faith and gift of vocation, to experience it, to live it, to celebrate it and to pass it on to others. Thank you! Acknowledgement of Sources used: Bolin, Joseph, Paths of Love: The Discernment of Vocation According to Aquinas, Ignatius, and John Paul II, Joseph Bolin 2008. Fernando, Alvin Peter, “A Reflection on the Year of Faith,” in Diocese of Kandy new Letter http://www.kandydiocese.net/newsletter/November2012.pdf (Accessed on 25th November 2012).