Theology of Vocation: Five Characteristics

Professor Kathleen Cahalan, Director of Collegeville Institute Seminars

by Kathleen A. Cahalan, Director, Collegeville Institute Seminars

“Vocation encompasses a multiplicity of callings:  who I am, what I do, and how I live. It is dynamic and changing, not static or linear, not fully determined or preset at the outset of life.”

Through our research and reflection on vocation, we have identified five common themes in popular and academic literature that serve as a foundation for the theology of vocation developing in the project.

First, vocation is a call from God that is relational and dialogical.  God is the source of vocation, but human persons must hear and respond to that call through dialogue with God. God’s call is experienced commonly in four ways through:

  • an inner voice, often defined as conscience;
  • the gifts of the Holy Spirit;
  • divine providence, the way God cares and guides creation and history;
  • other people such as family and friends as well as strangers, the poor and those in need—all who call us to service.

Second, vocation relates to a Christian’s whole life. It does not refer to a part of life (work) or one type of work (ministry) or one type of life (religious community and celibacy). Vocation encompasses a multiplicity of callings:  who I am, what I do, and how I live. It is dynamic and changing, not static or linear, not fully determined or preset at the outset of life.

Third, vocation is a call both general and specific.  The general call is shared by all Christians to follow in the way of Christ, described through categories of service, discipleship, love, the gospel, and the commandments.  But vocation also refers to the specific ways in which we live out God’s call in marriage or single life, service and work.  The particularity of our callings is also determined by contextual factors such as gender, class, history, opportunities, and social location.  These specific aspects of vocation are the least developed by authors today (e.g., marriage, grandparent, woodworker, economist, dean).

Fourth, vocation relates to my whole life, my whole life long.  It is not just an issue for young adults but for every age:  children, teens, young adults, adults, those facing retirement, and the elderly all face vocational questions particular to their life’s journey.  There needs to be further reflection on vocation across the life span, especially as it relates to human experiences of suffering, sin, and loss, as well as discovery, change, creativity, joy, and relationships.

Finally, vocation relates to service and self-giving in community.  It is social and communal, not an individual experience or issue. It is mediated and discerned within community, and it is given by God for the sake of community.  Vocation also requires sacrifice, obedience, and the demand to listen to the needs of others and the world.

In contemporary theologies of vocation we see a movement away from specific denominational definitions toward approaches that speak to the broader Christian community. We see a rejection of vocation understood as a MapQuest search, a divine microchip, a hidden secret, or a blueprint, though many people may still carry these notions of vocation. While theologies of vocation understand God’s call to be more nuanced, complex, and contextual, many people have not been given the opportunity to reflect on vocation through new theological lenses.

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Thank you to the Collegeville Institute Seminar’s “Called to Life” discernment series staff for permission to re-post this article — and for all the other online curricular support. For more info: http://collegevilleinstitute.org/calledtolife


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  1. I love this comment from a reader in response to this passage:

    “In contemporary theologies of vocation we see a movement away from specific denominational definitions toward approaches that speak to the broader Christian community.”

    The following words were sent to me directly, but shared with permission:

    “Oh, that’s very interesting! It does seem silly to imagine that the idea of vocation would belong to only one group. It’s a wonderful cross-cultural and I’d say cross-belief-system concept. The Dalai Lama would probably agree whole heartedly.”

    LOVE!

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