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Chapter 23: God’s Redemptive Work in the Lives of Christians

Question E: Why does every Christian have a unique personal vocation?

1. Besides his basic commitment to do the Father’s will—to reveal the Father and to respond as a man should to God’s love—Jesus had a personal vocation (22‑C). In this unique role he became the new Man, the saving Christ of humankind, the sacrificial Lamb who in his blood reconciles all humankind to God and forms us into God’s own human family.

2. Plainly, his personal vocation is not ours. Rather, each of us, in light of his or her personal gifts and unique situation, must make personal vocational commitments—a specific set of commitments made in the context of the basic commitment of faith. In other words, one’s response to Jesus in faith must be a commitment to take up a personal cross, which takes a unique form. One’s personal vocation must be executed in particular acts very different from those which made up the life of Jesus yet very much influenced by him: We must try to do what he would if he were in our place.

3. “Vocation” has often been used to refer only to the special calling of some to the clerical or religious life. Vatican II sometimes speaks of “vocation” in this sense, but also takes note of marriage as a Christian vocation (see GS 52). Even so, the concept of vocation is still that of a state of life rather than precisely that of a unique personal vocation. In even more general terms, the Council uses “vocation” to refer to the whole destiny which God has in mind for human beings in Jesus (see, e.g., LG 39, GS 11).

4. However, the Council also uses “vocation” to refer to the specific commitments, including any undertaken within one’s state of life, which each and every Christian should make to shape his or her life into a responsible carrying-out of the basic commitment of faith (see LG 11, 46; PO 6; GS 31, 43, 75). So, for example, in a truly Christian home, “husband and wife find their proper vocation in being witnesses to one another and to their children of faith in Christ and love for him” (LG 35). Such specific witnessing within the context of one’s state of life is a true Christian vocation and apostolate.

The different Christian states of life are complementary. If clerics are ordained for sacred service, the laity are commissioned for the complementary role of commitment to human goods other than the good of religion itself (see AA 6–7). The Council clearly distinguishes the secular, clerical, and religious states of life:

  A secular quality is proper and special to laymen. It is true that those in holy orders can at times engage in secular activities, and even have a secular profession. But by reason of their particular vocation they are chiefly and professedly ordained to the sacred ministry. Similarly, by their state in life, religious give splendid and striking testimony that the world cannot be transfigured and offered to God without the spirit of the Beatitudes.
  But the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven.
  They are called there by God so that by exercising their proper function and being led by the spirit of the gospel they can work for the sanctification of the world from within, in the manner of leaven. In this way they can make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope, and charity. (LG 31)

Thus personal vocation within each state of life is one’s calling to a particular share in the single, all-embracing apostolate of the Church.

5. In his encyclical, Redemptor hominis, John Paul II refers to the teaching of St. Paul in emphasizing the principle of personal vocation:

For the whole of the community of the People of God and for each member of it what is in question is not just a specific “social membership”; rather, for each and every one what is essential is a particular “vocation.” Indeed, the Church as the People of God is also—according to the teaching of St. Paul mentioned above, of which Pius XII reminded us in wonderful terms—“Christ’s Mystical Body.” Membership in that body has for its source a particular call united with the saving action of grace. Therefore, if we wish to keep in mind this community of the People of God, which is so vast and so extremely differentiated, we must see first and foremost Christ saying in a way to each member of the community: “Follow Me.”7

Not only do all Christians share the common vocation to follow Jesus and not only do particular Christians share the vocation to particular states of life, but each Christian also has a personal vocation: his or her unique way of following Jesus.

6. One should not think of personal vocation solely in terms of large-scale commitments. The child who undertakes to become more like Jesus each day is making a commitment to implement faith; such a simple commitment is a basic one for personal vocation. It is later defined and articulated in a more sophisticated way, but it need never be replaced.

7. Similarly, a person who enters religion or marriage as a major vocational commitment must make various other commitments—for example, to justice in civil society, to groups of friends, and so on. And after taking one’s religious or marital vows, one still has occasion to make additional commitments compatible with them. These need to be united to form a single, integrated identity. If they are, then the whole, complex self formed by commitments is determined by faith and is one’s personal response to God’s unique vocation.

8. God creates to manifest his infinite goodness. The multiplicity and diversity of created entities is important, for each embodies a facet of perfection absent in all the rest: God creates no mere duplicates (see S.t., 1, q. 47, aa. 1–2; S.c.g., 2, 39–45). Jesus’ humanity is the most excellent of creatures, but it is very limited. As Jesus needs the Father and the Spirit to complete the uncreated part of the total fulfillment which centers in him, so he needs each of us, in all his or her uniqueness, to complete the created part of this total fulfillment.

As man, Jesus accepted all the conditions of human existence except sin. It is one of the conditions of human existence that in making choices one limits one’s life to a very narrow and partial fulfillment of human possibilities. Under the condition of sin, this aspect of self-limitation, inevitable in choice, makes moral goodness very unappealing (14‑G). Jesus accepted an impoverished human life for himself (22‑G). And though he perfectly fulfilled his personal vocation, his earthly life did not immediately touch the human lives of all men and women in all times and places, which are to be redeemed and brought to fulfillment in heaven.8

For his own human completion, Jesus depends upon his Church. As the members of the Church receive human completion by sharing in Jesus’ human life, so he receives his human completion by sharing in the human life of each one of us (see Eph 1.22–23).9 Together we build up his body and “we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph 4.13). In doing this, members of the Church also complete one another.

No Christian by himself or herself should seek to be a complete person, any more than Jesus did. Only all together, united with one another in him, do we form the one complete human Son of God. “Nor is there any ground,” Leo XIII teaches, “for alleging that Jesus Christ, the Guardian and Champion of the Church, needs not in any manner the help of men. Power certainly is not wanting to Him, but in His loving kindness He would assign to us a share in obtaining and applying the fruits of salvation procured through His grace.”10

9. Jesus needs each of us and our unique gifts and opportunities to complete the universal work of redemption. It is through us that Jesus comes to the people of our time. It is in our lives that the human goods in our culture are to be gathered up and redeemed. Jesus’ sacrifice, offered to the Father, is an unsurpassable gift, but without our self-gift, united with his, both the homage of creation to God and the gratitude of redeemed humankind to the Father are incomplete. Through Jesus we share divine life by his gift to us of his own Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s work is to sanctify the whole of creation—utterly to renew the face of the earth. This work can only be completed by our acceptance and use of the Spirit’s power to attain sanctity within our unique vocations (see LG 41).

St. Paul’s chapter on love (see 1 Cor 13) often is read as if it stood by itself. It does not. It is the centerpiece and principle for the solution of a serious problem Paul treats with great care (see 1 Cor 12–14). He does not state the problem explicitly. But from the argument he gives toward its solution, the difficulty apparently was that many of the Christians at Corinth thought that their particular contributions to Christian life were the most important. Like children putting on a show, each of these people wished to dominate the assembly (the church gathered for liturgy or prayer) with his or her own favorite type of active participation.

Paul explains (1 Cor 12) that the Spirit gives Christians diverse gifts. These gifts are all one in coming from the Spirit, but all different in the personal capacities and roles to which they lead. The situation is like that of an organic body. The parts of a body do not all have the same function, but each is vital for the good of the whole. None of the parts of the body can get along without the rest. Consequently, the welfare and fulfillment of every part of the body is bound up with the welfare and fulfillment of the whole. So it is with Jesus. The Church is his single whole body; we are its many diverse members.

The hymn to love (1 Cor 13) carries the argument to its completion. Love solves the problem of unity and multiplicity. Paul states some of the implications of love: It generates all the virtues and heals all the vices which affect interpersonal relationships; moreover, love is always in season and will never become unnecessary. Paul follows his chapter on love with a practical discussion of the various gifts; he provides directions for rightly ordering the Church of Corinth. Near the end of this chapter of directives he states its binding force: “If any one thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord” (1 Cor 14.37).

7. John Paul II, Redemptor hominis, 71 AAS (1979) 317; The Papal Encyclicals, 278.86.

8. See Paolo Molinari, S.J., “Our Incorporation in Christ and Our Participation in His Work of Redemption,” Christ to the World (1970), 388–93.

9. Marcus Barth, Ephesians, Anchor Bible, 34 and 34a (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974), comments at length (153–59, 192–210, 440–41, 484–96) on problems related to Eph 1.21–23. He admits very substantial support for the interpretation I follow (see 206, n. 324), but rejects it. Max Zerwick, The Epistle to the Ephesians (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 43–45, briefly and authoritatively summarizes the various views, admits the possibility of the interpretation I follow, but prefers one which considers the relevant fullness to be that which Christ communicates to the Church. Both seem to pay little attention to Jesus’ humanity and to focus almost entirely upon his divinity. Barth, for instance, says: “In sum, it is most unlikely, and certainly not proven by Eph 1.23, that Paul believed in an implementation of God or the Messiah by the church. He who does the filling is God or Christ. That which is filled by God is Christ, the church, or all things—never God. And that which is filled by Christ is the church and the world.” Similarly, in arguing against the view that Eph 4.13 means that Christ is not full until all the saints have been incorporated into him, Barth relies (491) on an argument based on the unacceptability of the late Gnostic notion “that the deity is filled up, completed, restored, or perfected when the spirits of men enter or return into unity with the formerly split and deprived All-Father, the One-and-All.” The unsatisfactoriness of such lines of argument is that while the sacred writer admittedly cannot be understood to mean that God is completed by anything or anyone, the Word Incarnate as man must be as open to completion as any other human individual, for otherwise he would not be like us in everything except sin. Moreover, this interpretation is in line with the obvious fact that like any other head incomplete without its body, any other leader incomplete without his army, Jesus as man would be incomplete if no one took up his or her cross and followed him.

10. Leo XIII, Sapientiae christianae, 22 ASS (1889–90) 391; The Papal Encyclicals, 111.14. The context of the quoted passage is an explanation of the Christian’s responsibility to live a prophetic life in cooperation with the redemptive work of Jesus.