Hans Urs von Balthasar
Editorial:Saint John Publications
Certain fundamental Christian concepts, while always present in the mind of the Church, snap into focus at a particular epoch of her history as if they were being discovered for the first time. In the post-Medieval Church, the meaning of Christian vocation became the object of such a retrieval thanks to three successive events:
1. In the centuries after Thomas Aquinas, the Church develops an elementary instinct for the freedom of the God on whose good-pleasure all worldly being depends. By a sort of retroactive illumination, the Old Testament image of the Lord who elects and rejects comes to define even the Creator’s relation to the world. In its historical context, however, this image of God is still too tightly enmeshed with the Augustinian doctrine of predestination (which is particularly influential in the Reformation) to be capable of generating a satisfactory account of vocation on its own. It remains a background assumption for the next development.
2. Whereas the Reformation insists on the “Word” as the true locus of divine Revelation, Ignatius of Loyola focuses on God’s saving advent in the flesh. This he considers entirely under the rubric of the “call.” In order to convey the quintessence of the Gospel, he prefaces his entire series of meditations on the life of Jesus with the parable of a call (issued by a king summoning his subjects to march at his side in a campaign to conquer an unbelieving world). Ignatius then uses this parable to illustrate the mission of Christ. Note the a fortiori argument he deploys drawing on certain central concepts of the New Testament:
If we take seriously such a call, issued by an earthly king to his subjects, how much more worthy of consideration is it to see Christ our Lord, the Eternal King, and before him the entirety of the whole world. To it as a whole, and to each individual in particular, his summons goes forth, and he says: “It is my will to subjugate the whole world and all my enemies and thus to enter into the glory of my Father. Therefore, whoever wishes to come with me must labor with me, so that just as he followed me in trials, he may also follow me into glory” (Ex 95).
It is striking a) that Ignatius presents the Gospel here as the “proclamation” of a still future deed in which the world and man are invited to participate before its accomplishment; b) that he does not mention the Church in this context, but speaks instead of the “entirety of the whole world,” on the one hand, and of “each individual,” on the other; the realities of “call” and “vocation” are thus in a sense located before the Church appears in its fully developed form; c) that the one hearing and responding to this call is therefore invited into the event of the Redemption itself (this in stark contrast to Luther, for whom hearing the Word is a matter of listening to, and believing in, justification as a fait accompli).
3. The third factor, though already present in Ignatius, is not yet thematically stressed by the Counter-Reformation. It first becomes explicit with a reflective awareness of the direct encounter between the “entirety of the whole world” and “each individual”: Only then is the fundamental meaning of biblical vocation retrieved. According to the proclamation of the Eternal King, the calling of “each individual” takes place with an eye to the entirety of the whole world, for it is the will of the King “to subjugate the whole world and all my enemies and thus”—through the Cross, the descent into hell, and the Resurrection—“to enter into the glory of my Father.” Emancipating this statement from the iron shackles of an Augustinian-Calvinistic-Jansenistic theology of predestination required the modern awareness of the universal dimensions of humanity and the world—an awareness that was itself merely a return to the culminating biblical understanding of salvation unfolded by Paul, by John, and, in their wake, by the Greek Fathers.
Once God’s universal plan for the world, which embraces both the creation and its redemption, is definitively seen as such, the doctrine of election in the Old and New Covenants, with its clear preference of some over others, must be understood as an internal aspect of that universal design. Paul himself sees things in this light. This is why he reads the doctrine of individual election (Rom 9) exclusively in typological terms, referring it to Israel’s election from among the nations, even as, in the dialectic of Romans 11, he assigns this election a functional role on behalf of all the nations. Israel is called for the sake of the Gentiles, and this call of Israel becomes a model of the call (“calling out,” ecclesia) of the Church, which takes place for the sake of the world. By the same token, Israel’s call becomes a model of every personal call within the Church, a call that in always has the same finality as the Church’s own vocation: that of being called for the sake of those who (for the time being) are not. This understanding—common to the Bible and the Fathers and rediscovered in modern times—marks the decisive step beyond every theology of individual predestination (most consistently expressed in the doctrine of double predestination). For, according to this theology, the elect person is chosen primarily for his own sake, so that the most he can do is stand back, perplexed and trembling, before the mysterious non-election (perhaps even rejection) of his fellows—however few or many these may be.
The point being made here can and must be stated very simply: Everyone who is called in a biblical sense is called for the sake of those who are not. Most centrally, this is true of Jesus Christ, who is predestined and thus called by God (Rom 1:4) to die and rise in substitution for all the rejected. At the same time, the example of Jesus Christ also clearly shows why the Father loves him with this preferential love: precisely because he, Jesus, has made himself a function of the Father’s universal salvific will. We didn’t have to wait for modern philosophy to learn that person and function aren’t necessarily opposed; Christian Revelation had already taught us that lesson in principle. Read in light of the model that is Christ, vocation in the biblical sense is the expropriation of a private existence and its transformation into a function of universal salvation: One makes one’s very self over to God, so that he, in turn, may hand it over for a world in need of redemption and use it (up) for the redemptive event.
But now we come to the decisive point: Just as Christ has to be a person if he is to become a function, all vocation in the biblical sense must first be personal—and this requires a personal assent to God—if it is to be capable of functional service. In the realm of Revelation, the “abstract” and “institutional” is always secondary. In fact, we must go so far as to say that the entire reality we call “institution” can unfold only in the space that first comes into existence through the functionalization of a called person. The Church is the eucharistically surrendered Christ in the process of forming his mystical body. Israel establishes itself in the space of Abraham’s faith. Ecclesial office is built upon the rock of Peter’s faith. Paul is mother and wet-nurse to his congregations. Mary’s boundless assent is the personal reality from which the social reality of the Church as the Lord’s Bride is built up. It is on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets that the edifice formed by believers rises up. Those called are “pillars of the Church,” “columns in the temple of my God” (Rev 3:12).
It is thus biblically incorrect to treat the call of these Church-sustaining individuals as a mere preliminary stage destined to be left behind once the form of the Church had been established. It is not the case that the primary call is now addressed to the Church, so that individual vocations are merely “particular applications” of this general vocation to certain ecclesiastical functions, offices, roles, or states. While it is true that the prophets are called for the sake of Israel, it remains equally true that Israel’s calling rests upon the call of Abraham, as well as on the call of the man who, precisely as the individual he was, was the first to bear the name “Israel.” Similarly, the use of the notion of “call” for the people of Israel is secondary and late in comparison with the mission of the prophets (it first appears in Deutero-Isaiah). This is no less true in the New Testament: The original event of the call—the encounter expressed in the Ignatian “proclamation” cited above—occurs where the Church is still coming into being from Christ, where she is forming, not as a closed institution, but as an open function of the Redemption of the “entirety of the whole world.”
The foregoing is true of every vocation, including specifically intra-ecclesial ones (such as the priestly vocation to pastoral care of the faithful). But before we discuss the analogies and differences related to the content, goal, and mode of vocations, we must clearly affirm the foundational structure common to them all. The first thing a vocation demands, in both the Old and New Testaments, is unconditional, unrestricted readiness for any use and mission God might will for the one called (Gn 12:1; 1 Sam 3:9; Is 6:8; Acts 9:6). If there is to be a real vocation, if the call is actually to occur, a readiness limited primarily from the human side—“I will follow God’s call and serve him, if I can do this or that, or be placed here or there”—is insufficient. Such restrictions are out of place, because assent to the God who calls so closely affects faith in the God who reveals. This is a faith, however, that obviously requires an equally boundless Yes to the whole of God’s truth, regardless of whether man understands or likes it. Indeed, God determines what a person is called to only within the space of an unconditionally ready assent. Mary seems to be the sole exception here, since in her dialogue with the angel she is shown her exact function in the plan of Redemption—note the apodictic use of the future tense (“You will bear a son,” etc.)—before she expresses her agreement; but this apparent exception only proves the rule. In contrast to all sinners, who always wish to set conditions (cf. Moses, Jonah), she is the one human person God can count on an a priori assent to everything imaginable (and otherwise).
If the Son is sent to redeem “the entirety of the whole world,” the correlative of this goal, in all its boundlessness, is no limited mode of yes-saying. It can only be readiness to let himself be sent and led by the Father far beyond his human will into the furthest darkness of sin, Godforsakeness, and hell. It was in the unlimited scope of his obedience that the whole fruitfulness of his activity and suffering lay. Likewise, no one called by Jesus has a chance of becoming fruitful in serving God’s Kingdom unless all his finite action and suffering flows from a boundless readiness for mission. This is as true of vocations to active or contemplative orders as it is of vocations to the priesthood or to secular institutes (instituta saecularia). For example, people who, either on beginning formation or at some later date, impose conditions on their bishop regarding how they are to be used (suggestions are a different matter), or who, upon joining a secular institute, demand as the conditio sine qua non of their membership that they be allowed to continue in this or that profession they perhaps already practice, have utterly failed to understand the elementary, indispensable, analogy-transcending theological foundation of vocation.
The only act by which a human being can respond adequately to the self-revealing God is that of unlimited readiness. This act is the unity of faith, hope, and love. It is also the Yes God demands when he would make use of a believer according to his divine plans. It’s only in this (feminine-Marian-ecclesial) womb of absolute readiness that God deposits the seed of his word and his missionary task (which in the end are the same seed). This assent of boundless readiness, and it alone, is the clay from which God can form what he wishes; it alone is redemptive; it alone possesses co-redeeming power by the grace of Christ. The test of total obedience, including obedience to the Church, was manifestly laid on all those (rare) extraordinary missions that, originating immediately in God and requiring the most absolute obedience to him, had to prove themselves—most often through suffering—within her. New understandings of the Church, her apostolate, etc. that emerge with the times can recommend themselves to her only thus: by an unfanatical, unheretical obedience (hairesis=the absolutizing of a finite, seemingly evident point of view) that is open to all the possibilities God has in store, possibilities that always transcend the individual.
The foregoing explains why Jesus makes such inexorable demands when calling men to join him as disciples: They have to leave everything; they must be fundamentally ready to sever even natural ties, including the bonds of family piety (“bury my father”); if necessary, to have nowhere to lay their heads; and to stake everything on one card, namely, the vocation and the Lord who calls. For Jesus himself is the Father’s synthesis of nature and supernature, world and Church. He is not merely one part of a synthesis to be completed by the Christian, as if it were the latter’s job to negotiate between, say, the demands of creation, on the one hand, and those of Redemption, on the other, or between his duties to the world, with its immanent laws and evolution, and his duties to the Church and her requirements. This approach begins so far downstream, and is thus so misleading, that it hinders any clear view of the original truth of the Gospel. If this approach were correct, man, rather than Christ and God, would be the final arbiter of creation’s integration into Christ. This points to the problem with the contemporary Church’s claim to achieve the synthesis on her own and to base the nature and scope of her vocation on it: Whenever she goes beyond her competence in this way, she completely misses the original meaning of vocation given in Revelation. We need to stress this point with special vigor today, because the tendency to limit the required “Yes,” to qualify it with codicils, is blighting vocations everywhere like mildew. People nowadays want to commit themselves only for a time (and so deprive God of any chance to engage the whole man), or else only for a certain work they find attractive or “relevant” (and so tie the hands of their ecclesiastical superiors, who can no longer fully engage them). Some groups (including some secular institutes) even build acceptance of such half- or quarter-readiness into their statutes. Phenomena like these reveal a superficial preoccupation with what “the Church” needs, or what “our time” needs, or even worse, what today’s priest or religious “needs” for his harmonious personal development, rather than with what God needs. The only thing God can use for his Kingdom is total, unconditional self-gift.
This total self-gift of the person for the sake of a function whose content is left up to God is the non-negotiable foundation common to all vocations. Consequently, all differences—even important ones—in vocational type or direction are secondary in comparison. Let us repeat the main point: The domain of original, foundational vocations is the root and source from which the Church, both as a community and as an institution, first comes into being (just as the people of Israel first comes into being from Abraham and Jacob, and the Church first come into being from Jesus, Mary, and the Apostles). Even when Paul starts off by reminding all the faithful of their calling (klêsis), he never forgets his own direct call to stand over against the community. Similarly, his account of the sacramental meaning of Baptism reflects the pattern of personal, total renunciation of the world together with Christ; it reflects, in other words, the typical character of those who are called (Rom 6:3-11).
The same situation is mirrored in the way in which the Synoptics expand the scope of the Lord’s demand for readiness: The fundamental attitude he requires of those first called becomes, by extension, an attitude of all believers as such. Whereas in Matthew, the Apostles are to “leave everything” (19:27), in Luke this original, literal renunciation is demanded of the “great multitude,” just as the Lukan Jesus requires that every disciple “hate father and mother and wife and child and brother and sister, even his very self”—in the sense that the love of the Lord is to become the decisive measure of all these natural loves and relationships (Lk 14:25 ff.). From this point of view, we must say that the so-called “evangelical counsels” are the concrete soteriological modes of readiness to follow Christ; that they first concern those originally called; and, finally, that the expansion of these modes into a general-ecclesial modality which Paul undertakes in 1 Corinthians 7 (paralleling Lk 14) clearly reflects the continuity between the original, fundamental sphere of vocation and the sphere of the Church that has come into being out of it. In this sense, the word “counsel” (1 Cor 7:25) is somewhat open to misunderstanding, since Paul, who addresses this term to the community, is himself one of those originally called.
Even so, Israel’s existence as God’s people is already built on its strict obedience in following the One who leads it in sovereign freedom. We see this obedience in Abraham, in the people’s desert wanderings, and in the prophets’ injunctions to actions that are at once historical and religious. Israel’s existence is equally built upon poverty, a poverty that comes ever more clearly to the fore as the distinguishing mark of true faith and true belonging to the living God. Poverty and obedience: These are the two demands Jesus himself retrieves as the basis for his Sermon on the Mount.
The fact that Israel is appointed to be a fleshly people, an inter-generational preparation for the Messiah, rules out virginity in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, the distinguishing mark of circumcision has an important theological meaning (whatever its ethnological origins): The God who claims the sexual sphere in view of a salvation yet to come has given circumcision as a sign, a sign that self-centered pleasure has been disarmed for the sake of service. By the same logic, the coming of the Messiah means that genital sexuality is no longer theologically primary: Earthly generation within the limits of family has now yielded to “the second Adam from heaven” and his eucharistic self-outpouring for all humanity. In the New Covenant, the maiden bride Zion-Jerusalem is transformed (through the mediation of the Virgin Mother, Mary) into the virginal-fruitful Ecclesia: She is now the Spouse (2 Cor 11:2), the eschatological Bride of the Lamb. Marriage, then, retains its theological meaning only insofar as it reflects this fleshly-yet-virginal mystery between Christ and the Church within the old relationship of the sexes (Eph 5:32). As all this clearly shows, the modes of Christian love (and renunciation) usually summed up by the term “evangelical counsels” are not exceptional rules for isolated higher souls who occasionally appear in the Church. Rather, they are the fundamental reality of Jesus Christ himself—prepared in the fundamental reality of Israel—as he communicates it to everyone who has been “called” and who, together with him, shares in his act of founding the Church.
We can take it for granted, then, that the three-fold “life of the counsels” is at bottom nothing but the pure expression of full availability for the call of God and Christ—and not, as Luther would have it, a religion of self-redemption through meritorious works. This availability for every use God wishes is itself nothing but the condition of a soteriologically fruitful existence on the part of those called, in whatever ecclesial “state” or concrete form they may (as a secondary matter) be given to live it out. In any case, it is clear that we are always dealing with a self-gift to God for the sake of one’s brethren and the world, with an event of being “poured out for you” (Phil 2:17)—wherever this event takes place: in the hidden contemplation of a Carmelite nun or a Charles de Foucauld, in the active life of a priest or religious, or in the quiet presence of a secular institute in the midst of the world.
It suffices for our purposes to have shown that full availability is the root of the life of the counsels. How this life is to be interpreted and expressed in detail (say in a “Rule”) is to a large extent a comparatively secondary question, one whose answer (also) depends on one’s particular tasks in the organism of the Church. A diocesan priest who has not made a vow of poverty but remains available for his parishioners with everything he has, who keeps his heart and his door wide open, is surely much closer to the availability at stake here than the religious who, while sticking within the bounds of his vow of poverty, has not renounced the spirit of bourgeois avidity.
We must therefore insist on a different point: A vocation demands both the entire life of a human being and a correspondingly total answer. Self-giving “once and for all” is therefore intrinsic to the fundamental form of every vocational existence. If Christian marriage is already supposed to be indissoluble, how much more so the form of the life of total self-gift! Novitiates, seminaries, and (in the case of secular institutes) longer probationary periods are all necessary, but they are always for the sake of a total self-gift to be made once and for all. A perpetuation of “temporary vows” is a theological impossibility, as well as a guarantee that the act of definitive self-gift will never actually occur. Absent this definitiveness, no form of life can express even the covenant fidelity demanded of Israel, let alone that of the Church.
If obedience is to be theologically meaningful, it must always be obedience to the “Wholly Other,” the God who disposes in total freedom, the God whom we can never have at our disposal (by means, say, of some law or rule). The Christian can find a model here in the human obedience the disciples offer Jesus even before coming to realize he is more than a human master (until his Resurrection, his divinity is a sort of limit concept for the Apostles). He is the Master they follow; he is their rule; he commands, disposes, and decrees; he sends them out with a program of his own design; he evaluates their reports when they return to him in the evening. As the living, free Other, he is their superior, and just so the incarnation of the God of Israel who freely speaks and chooses. This relation is not something that can ever be circumvented or left behind. It can only be made present (quasi-sacramentally) through the ecclesially sanctioned relationship of obedience binding one of the faithful to a superior who concretely represents Christ for him. Naturally, the average parishioner has something like this relation with the Pope and the bishop. Nevertheless, the Apostles’ total self-gift to the Lord—so that he might fashion their lives—becomes unavoidably concrete in the right of the bishop to command his priests or of the religious superior to command his subjects.
Virginity is indivisible in a spiritual as well as in a bodily sense. When it comes to the sexual sphere, in other words, the ethic of the one called is governed entirely by the virginal and physical relation between Christ and his Church. The exclusivity of this ethic has nothing to do with prudery or exaggerated asceticism. Rather, it is a two-fold exclusivity: the exclusivity of the Body of Christ that is eucharistically given over to the end and—on the part of the one called—the answering exclusivity of the body of the Christian that is handed over in response. It is from this body’s fruitfulness, itself a fruit of grace, that the Lord can draw what he wills for the redemption of the world. The content of such an ethic is implicit in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20.
The poverty of the one called must, above all, convincingly embody the poverty of the people of God in the world, which is its “desert” and its “foreign land.” It is a poverty that, in the Old Covenant, is one with faith (which has nothing but God), and, in the New Covenant, is one with love (which, in the Spirit of God, has given everything away). Canonical rules concerning poverty are relevant to the extent they help support this Spirit instead of darkening or diminishing its power as a witness to faith.
If we wish to affirm the existence of analogous forms of vocational life in the Church, we need to insist first on their shared rooting in a common soil; this is much more important than emphasizing the differences, which people easily exaggerate in their search for compelling reasons to distinguish all sorts of “spiritualities” for the various ecclesial states. In order to avoid obscuring and blunting the main point with these sorts of arbitrary constructions and additions, we need to keep our eyes fixed on the biblical picture and rigorously respect the contours it presents. Now, one of the striking features of this picture is the first analogy we’ve already discussed several times here: the analogy between (i) the individual as such, called for the sake of the Church and the world, from whom God demands total availability, and so the renunciation of every limiting bond—and (ii) the individual as a member of the Church, which, being the Body and Bride of Christ, lives (in a Marian way) from the same availability to Christ, communicating her spirit to all who live in her. This she does, of course, thanks to the grace conveyed by the sacraments (including marriage) and the Word of God in Scripture and the proclamation of living, ecclesial agape.
This communication of the Church’s animating spirit does not take place by means of “vocations” in the original sense, but rather by means of “charisms”: graces conferred on individuals that capture them for service of the common good and “measure out” (metron, analogia: Rom 12:3-6) to them a particular way of rendering this service. Such graces are given by the sovereign “decision” of the Head (emerisen: Rom 12:3; edoken: Eph 4:11; didotai: 1 Cor 12:7 f.; etheto: 1 Cor 12:28); although their parameters are mostly set (Rom 12:3-8), they leave plenty of freedom “to strive for the higher gifts.” In all the passages where Paul speaks of this distribution of charisms, its primary horizon is the entire living organism of the Church. These passages also reveal a kind of fluid transition between hierarchical and charismatic office. For our purposes, it suffices to note that hierarchical office does indeed have a charismatic aspect—this on account of its status as an intra-ecclesial function (though of course of a special kind) for which a special grace of office is also communicated (through the laying on of hands).
Accordingly, the priesthood can be seen in two distinct lights. On the one hand, insofar as it is a “personal calling,” it can reach into the domain of fundamental vocations that ground the Church. On the other hand, its center of gravity can lie within the Church itself; it can be an eminent office within the common realm of the charisms. Between these two possibilities we have a hard-to-pin-down line of demarcation; hence the difficulty of deciding to what extent the priestly office belongs with the original called life (a life that implies obedience, poverty, and virginity), and to what extent, as an intra-ecclesial charism, it can be compatible with marriage. The current practice of the Latin Church (strict obedience, undivided celibacy, underemphasized poverty), is not especially satisfying in this regard, and it would certainly be tenable, from a biblical point of view, to imagine, say, a future priesthood subdivided into two clearly distinguished forms of life: on the one hand, a life originating in the undivided gift of the counsels, in the original call of Christ; on the other hand, an intra-ecclesial life normally combined with marriage and ordered to a predominantly intra-ecclesial function—though this function, too, would have to be bestowed with due regard for charismatic suitability.1
From the subject’s point of view, the boundary between “vocation” and “charism” has a clear location, namely, the point where freedom from earthly (ecclesial or secular) goals diverges from attachment to earthly, measurable ones. Freedom from goals means: the giving over of one’s entire existence to God for his free disposal—without even wishing to know, in the moment of definitive self-gift, what this gift will be used for. Who in Church and world is converted by the contemplation and penance of a Carmelite nun? She does not know, nor does she demand a reckoning from God. Where will a Jesuit or Dominican be placed? He does not know, and in the end, it does not matter to him. He is available. Wherever this attitude is present, there is the possibility of a vocation. But wherever a Christian, basing himself on his own sense of what’s important, wishes to exercise a particular service and no other, there is the possibility of a charism.
Of course, in the realm of vocation there can also be charisms, but these do not have the same urgency as the vocation itself. The vocation is an act between God in Christ and the man who gives his entire existence in response. Whether this man becomes a Benedictine instead of a Carthusian or a diocesan priest is a much less important question. The great orders, rooted in the fundamental vocation of their founders, are available as charismatic spaces within the Church; perhaps the Lord, in issuing his call, indicates one such space particular; perhaps he mostly leaves the recipient of the call free to make the choice himself. In this case, a natural and supernatural attraction, one’s personal preference, and a sense of fit all have plenty of room to play their part. Above all the purely contemplative will require something like a specialized vocation, but even this is only relative.
The same holds true for vocations to the new institutes combining life in a secular profession with the life of perfect availability for God in the Lord’s “counsels.” In terms of their theological foundation, such vocations do not differ at all from any other genuine call. Members of secular institutes are as committed to “going the whole way” as, for example, monks. In addition, they give up many helps the monastery offers (a regulated community life, less danger to virginity, easier conditions for obedience than in a secular profession, etc.). True, the pursuit of a human goal does seem bound up with the foundation of many secular institutes (as it is in the case of many religious congregations, by the way), but this fact offers an occasion to recall a crucial point: Such communities will bear scant fruit unless their members practice an even deeper self-gift—a total and gratuitous one—to God. This is a truth bears emphasizing with rigorous clarity today; it is a necessary counterweight to the technological mindset of a younger generation that would measure the value of Christian realities by what men regard as efficient goal-seeking. What “goal” is served when Mary of Bethany (who has chosen the better part) spends the whole day at Jesus’ feet listening to his words? Secular institutes that see deeper into things will therefore refuse to calculate at all or to count on quantifiable success. They will place their members—men and women “consecrated to God” who remain at his disposal—in the midst of the unchristian world, without suggesting to them even so much as a particular, organized apostolate along the lines of Catholic Action: By their total self-gift, they are present as an invisible leaven—and here and there as a visible one—in a manner perhaps not at all far from that characterizing the “apostolate” of a contemplative monastery.
So long as it meets this requirement, the vocation to a secular institute is as close to the source of all genuine vocations as any call to a religious order. It, too, takes its place where Jesus’ summons goes forth to the “entirety of the whole world … and to every individual” in particular, where he proclaims his intention to bring “the entirety of the whole world” home to the Father. The Church is not mentioned in this context: The individual who decides to “offer … his entire person” for the “toil” of the Redemption (Ex 97, 95) stands beside the Lord representing the Church—the Church in the soteriologically pure sense, which is to say: the totality of those who offer their entire person to the Lord for the sake of the “entirety of the whole world.” Seen in these terms, the Church is less the static flock of safely penned-in sheep than the dynamic irradiation of the light of Christ into the darkness of the world; it is a transitional space between the God-man and “the entirety of the whole world.” The monastery is a “city set on a hill,” and in its outward form it models the static Church. The secular institute is a leaven that disappears into the mass, where it remains hardly observable or not at all; it is anything but safely penned-in vis-à-vis the world. We should beware of seeing the “evangelical counsels” as marking off a zone of safety apart from the “evil” or “ordinary” world: They are pure exposure, a way for Christians to be handed over, to be distributed eucharistically (this is also and especially true of virginity). If the counsels are not that, they are nothing at all. No one who gives due consideration to this point will claim that the path of the secular institutes is “easier” than life in religious communities or the priesthood, or that it is a compromise with the world.
Now, secular institutes do also accomplish all sorts of goals, and there are plenty of arguments for their timeliness even on this admittedly secondary level. Above all, there is the fact that they are present in contexts generally not accessible to priests and religious and, precisely for this reason, most in need of pastoral care; that their members can do a great deal for the ethos of the professions by reason of their professional competence; that, unlike fathers and mothers, they are not absorbed by familial duties and can afford to be less concerned about financial security (which also makes them more available for charitable activities); that in coming times of persecution they will possibly be the (only remaining) great help for the Church; that, as genuine laypeople who also live the counsels, they help effectively bridge the thousand-year old chasm between the ecclesial states. And so on.
Our examination of vocation has mainly focused so far on the attitude of the one called. Nevertheless, as we pointed out at the very beginning of the investigation, vocation depends essentially upon the freedom of the one who calls. This freedom, which comes to the fore in the late Middle Ages and entirely dominates Ignatius’ image of Christ, licenses us to think outside the framework of the Medieval doctrine of perfection, which reasons that, since the life of the counsels is more perfect than the life of the mere commandments, whoever wishes to be perfect would be bound in pure logic to choose the former. In reality, it is Christ who calls whom he wills, when and as he wills. We do not know whether the rich young man came to the Lord out of curiosity or on account of a call; the Lord gives him a chance to follow the way, no more can be said. Others, who ask Jesus to receive them into the circle of the disciples, he turns away, clearly placing them in the “state of the world” as their divinely allotted place (Lk 8:38-39). Perfection consists, for each, in doing the will of God for him. Even so, Matthew (20:16; 22:14) thinks that far more are called than actually take up their vocation.
Even when the believer successfully struggles for the purity of total availability for a possible vocation, he does not thereby force God to call him in the original sense of the word. This consideration is a bridge to a further insight: The measure of every form of Christian perfection is perfect Christian love. This bridge can be found only here, because, without the requisite disponibility, it’s almost (or entirely) impossible to avoid the illusion that man knows on his own what love is and how to practice it. The reality is that a sense for divine love doesn’t really dawn on man until he stands before God in full readiness to be led with Jesus Christ—in love—on the path of perfect renunciation, which is ultimately the path of the Cross. What is being renounced is not love (for example, in marriage), but all the egotism still hidden in eros and the whole familial community. That said, the truth that “love is the bond of perfection” doesn’t justify talk of “a Christian vocation to marriage.” In trying to introduce such terminology, we distance ourselves, not only from the language of Scripture, but also from its entire theological understanding of vocation. In Scripture, the theology of vocation has a precise, clearly delineated form, and such levelling efforts completely deprive it of its intrinsic power and its existential effect.
Striking the right balance here isn’t a matter of flattening out differences, but of realizing that vocation always means expropriation for the good of others. Expressed in New Testament terms, the “greatest among you,” being the servant of all, is therefore meant to be—and actually is—the least of all as well. Paul, too, speaks the same language as the Lord. He knows that, as an Apostle, he belongs in the lowest place, and it is from this vantage point that, in tones of biting irony, he confronts the Corinthians with the ecclesial dialectic: “We are weak, but you are strong; you are held in honor, we in disrepute” (1 Cor 4:10). This dialectic isn’t one we can resolve ourselves, because Christ is obedient and poor unto death in order to make us free and rich in God, and the one called to follow the way of the Cross sees worldly standing as a matter of indifference (1 Cor 4:3): He descends with Christ into poverty and contempt, and any apparent advantage in doing so he owes to the fact that Christ walked the path for him first. Another point we should never forget here concerns virginity. While it may look to us (because of Mary) like a crown of honor, it is actually a sign of weakness, futility, and shame, as the Old Testament makes perfectly clear: The fact that the barren (or abandoned) wife bears children is a sign of the power of God in human powerlessness. The virginal man especially, who often meets with contempt and suspicion outside the Church, has good reason not to overlook this point of view. The dialectic can’t be resolved on worldly terms, which is precisely a sign that it is based on Revelation.
There are questions that straddle the border between the theology and pastoral psychology of vocations (a treatment of which would exceed the limits of this essay). We will highlight three of these.
1. Only in exceptional cases are vocations not mediated by human beings; mediation is the norm. The calling of the Apostles in the Gospel of John (1:35-51) is doubly mediated: first by the Baptist, who has formed Jesus’ first two disciples so well that they immediately understand his reference to the Lamb of God, whereupon they leave him to follow Jesus; then by the disciples themselves, insofar as Andrew recruits Peter, and Philip, Nathanael. Vocation is ontologically fruitful of new vocations, but it also imposes a conscious duty to further the vocational apostolate. Hence the serious obligation incumbent on religious (say, in schools), but also on the whole clergy, to use preaching and catechesis to indicate the path of total self-gift as the archetypal Christian way on which the Church herself rests—both in her original founding (in the Apostles and Mary) and perennially down through the ages. They should refute the countervailing ideologies in the Church, which are making such a strong impression on today’s youth, by drawing on the depth and fullness of the Word of God and the clarity of the idea of radical discipleship. In their exhortations, they should present the vocational path in general; secular priests should not speak as if the diocesan clergy were the only way to happiness, and religious should refrain from presenting their order as the only possible option. Religious and secular clergy should not conspire against the new way of the secular institutes, which is so vigorously advocated by the Church, or try to discredit it as irrelevant, untested, dangerous, or as a half-hearted compromise. It is intellectually contradictory and morally base to ridicule the older women’s congregations that are devoted to specific charitable goals—running hospitals, schools, or orphanages, or providing private care for the sick—as “outmoded” while blithely taking their totally indispensable services for granted. Everyone should keep in mind the integral unity of the ecclesial forms of life, on the one hand, and the abundant variety of their expressions, on the other. Everywhere one looks, there is always something in need of reform, but meaningful reform isn’t the fruit of sarcasm or of outward “aggiornamento” (via the introduction of television and the elimination of the cloister). No, real reform requires a deeper awareness of the original intentions of the founders, more profoundly: of what the Lord of the Church needs for the redemption of the world.
2. “Every vocation that comes from God is always pure and transparent” (Ex 172). It is not doubtful, merely probable, and therefore anguishing. Rather, in the moment of man’s definitive assent, it is “one hundred percent,” and it therefore gives rest and joy. The transparency Ignatius refers to can be lacking for various reasons: ethical problems on part of the person called, e.g., he cannot bring himself to full availability, but clings to conditions and reservations vis-à-vis God (things that, as is well known, the main goal of the Ignatian Exercises is to dismantle). But a person who believes himself called may be held back by causes he can’t change, such as an incapacity to live virginity (1 Cor 7:9) or irremovable canonical impediments. God wants a joyful giver, even when the gift may become more and more of a cross. If the original joy in giving is absent from the start (as it is with people who choose the path of the counsels or the priesthood simply because it is more difficult—a sign of false ambition), then the vocation is not genuine.
3. Vocations can come in different gradations, both objectively and subjectively. On the objective side, the Lord’s call can indeed ring out with varying degrees of urgency. The urgency can be so great that God simply seizes the man he needs, almost without leaving him room to assent; he overpowers the man like Paul (cf. 1 Cor 9:17-18), dazzles him like Nathanael, or simply “takes him along” like Philip and Matthew. But the call can also be like an inviting request, a discreet offer on the part of the God-man who counts on our understanding and free decision. Finally, the call can be a sort of loving permission to take the vocational path if one should wish to choose it (Mt 19:16 f.). These objective gradations must, for their part, be distinguished from their subjective counterparts, which concern how a person perceives the call: suddenly and with the irrefutable knowledge that he has been addressed from above; gradually and as if persuaded from within; or on the basis of a rational consideration (in light of his wish to devote his whole life to his faith, he feels inclined to offer himself to God for his undivided service).
Young Christians grappling with the question of vocation urgently need guidance from experienced, prayerful, and spiritually reflective elders. This is truer now than ever before, since the whole atmosphere of the Church is contaminated by theologically half-baked, short-sighted catchwords and ideologies (which sometimes feel like the work of adolescent rowdies). It would be desirable if responsible people from all states of life—priests, religious, and lay—could gather to seek further theological clarification of, and workable solutions to, the problems affecting vocations today.
- Balthasar, who played an important role in defending priestly celibacy at the 1971 Synod of Bishops, speaks in other parts of his work about the objective and intrinsic fit between the priestly office and consecrated virginity, a fit rooted in the Gospel itself. See, for example, the chapter entitled “The Priestly State and the State of the Counsels” in his The Christian State of Life. Note that B’s intention in the present passage is to highlight that the call to radical availability logically precedes every particular call, including the call to the priesthood.↩
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