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John Paul II & the Vocation Innovation

Friday, August 2, 2013
If there's one thing that drives a 20 year old devout Catholic crazy, it's the notion of vocation as state-in-life.

When I was just a little girl
I asked my pastor, what I would be.
Would I be single?
Would I be wed? 
Would I be Sister Aimée, O.P.?

When I was 19 and utterly immersed in the Canadian pro-life movement (at the time the spiritual equivalent of the Warsaw Uprising, and just as effective), I sweated a lot over "my vocation." I wasn't sure I could ever attract the right guy, and I was underwhelmed by what I had seen of religious orders, and yet being Single was the worst thing I could think of. What if God called me to be Single? Eeek! Eeek!

There was not a lot of trust involved in my worries about vocation. But at some point I bludgeoned my heart into acceptance and told my mother I thought I had a Single vocation. She burst into tears and told me not to let "that man" (whichever priest whose books I was reading) blight my life. Yeah, so much for acceptance.

Part of the reason we go so insane over Is-Single-Life-really-a-vocation, mes amis, is that the notion that anything except religious life and the priesthood are "vocation" is an innovation of the post-Vatican II era. The multiple-choice-tick-the-box Single/Married/Religious Life/Priesthood division does not date back before 1978.

John Paul II was a very creative man. He invented World Youth Day. He invented five more decades for the rosary. He internationalized a very local Polish devotion by inventing Divine Mercy Sunday. He cut a deal with conscience-stricken members of the SSPX by inventing the FSSP. There was a lot of innovation between 1978-2005, and our current attitude towards vocation is part of it.

The tick-the-box Single/Married/Religious Life/Priesthood notion of vocation is not doctrine. It is theology. Recent theology. And nobody has worked out a notion of Single Life as vocation yet, and as far as I know, the only person who bangs on about all priests being Single, Religious or Married men is me.

True, I wrote up a nice summary of Single Life for the Archdiocese of Montreal, and pointed out the different and innovative ways non-married unconsecrated people have served God, His Church and the poor. But I would have had a really hard time finding a pre-1978 source stating that unconsecrated Single Life was "just as good" as consecrated Single Life, i.e. religious life, or "a vocation."

I would also have had a hard time finding a pre-1963 source saying that married life was "just as good" as religious life. The highest form of Christian life has always been a life of permanent celibacy and chastity--bluntly called virginity--lived in the service of God. Religious life, even in its most embryonic first-century form, has always been number one. And since priests, despite penalties and punishments and what-all, kept on getting married until the First Lateran Council (1123), not even priesthood has had the caché of religious life. Before the Council of Trent, priests were on par with village blacksmiths. Only bishops, monks and nuns were all that and a bag of chips.

Every other way of life was second-best. I hope this doesn't depress you. Personally, I'd love to be as beautiful as Rosamund Pike, and as rich as J.K. Rowling, and as good as the holiest nun in St. Cecilia's Abbey, and as confident in my place in U.K. society as the daughter of a Scottish earl. However, the fact that I am none of these things doesn't depress me. I do okay. Occasionally I think about nun friends and smother a sigh, but I am awfully fond of B.A. And maybe God will grant me martyrdom. St. Augustine said that was even better than being a nun. Martyrs go straight to the top of the ontological tree.

The only thing that makes marriage ontologically "better" than unconsecrated Single life is that it involves permanent vows. According to Church tradition, vowed life is superior to unvowed life. But that is no reason for married people to look down on Single people or argue red-faced that married life is "just as good as" religious life. Yawn.
To return to John Paul II, I absolutely love his Mulieris Dignitatem and his use of the work of St. Edith Stein.  His thoughts on "motherhood" and "spiritual motherhood" are fantastic. But there's just one thing.

In Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul does not mention unconsecrated Single women. He mentions married ladies (the mothers) and nuns (the spiritual mothers). He seems to forget there are a whole bunch of unmarried, unconsecrated spiritual mothers out there. And no wonder. He lived most of his life in Poland. Have you seen the statistics for Poland? I have. And until recent decades, there were almost no Single Polish women. Polish women got married, or they became nuns. The only Single Polish women were the tiny fraction who got divorced before the year 2000 and widows.

Anielskie Single (2011) is apparently the first book in Polish about the unconsecrated Catholic Single Life.  And unconsecrated Singles are so looked down on, the Polish word "Single" (pronounced seen-gluh) is an insult, and kindly priests firmly call them "spouse-seekers" instead.

I hope all you people writing theses on Blessed John Paul II have realized that he was not just Polish and Catholic. He was a Polish Catholic. You cannot divorce the theology of Blessed John Paul II from his unique, concrete, historical Polishness, and it occurs to me that anyone who writes about Blessed John Paul II without learning Polish is cutting corners, George.

Dear me. This is not a very coherent post. What I'm trying to do is liberate you from the multiple-choice-tick-the-box sense of vocation because I do not think it is sufficiently well-rooted in the tradition of the Church. If it were, it would give you a great sense of freedom and enthusiasm, not existential angst, dread and confusion. Maybe the problem is not that unconsecrated Single life isn't really a "vocation" but that our whole contemporary notion of "vocation" is wrong.

Christian life is about service, and people find different ways of serving others. Most people find it through marriage, serving spouses and children. Some feel strongly drawn to the religious life and serve others through that. Some Single men find themselves strongly drawn towards the priesthood, and a fraction of them get ordained. Some Catholics get a strong sense that God is calling them to this or that, whereas other Catholics strain their ears in the dark to no avail. Some Catholics are just not sure what they are "called" to, but make a guess, take a plunge, and are delighted that they did so. As a dear Jesuit friend of mine says, "I guessed right."

Speaking personally, I strained my ears for years. And I worried that I had ruined my vocation to marriage, having been married-divorced-annulled.  I very much hoped my fears weren't true, and that I would get a second chance at something. Anything. Even if it was being happy about being Single. And one day, on the Feast of Saint Jude, Patron of Lost Causes, I realized I could be happy about being Single. And, having been looking in vain for some kind of service to do, I felt called to blog about it.

That moment changed the entire course of my life. And it changed the course of other people's lives, too, since my writing has helped some women be happier about being Single and smarter about dating, which helped some of you get married and even have babies. (I'm very happy about the babies.)

That moment of grace didn't tick any vocational boxes. It certainly did not set a seal on the concept of Unconsecrated Single Life as an Official Call. But it showed me one way in which Singles could serve others: through offering other Singles companionship and solidarity on the margins of vocationland.

The question should not be "What box do I tick?"  It should be, "How can I serve?"  So I suggest that, instead of asking God to show you your vocation, that you ask Him to show you where to serve. He'll take care of the rest.

Update: Here Mary Beth Bonnaci defines "vocation" as giving oneself totally to another. That is trés, trés John Paul II, and therefore a post-1978 understanding of vocation--at least outside of Poland.

My problem with that is the erotic implications of "totally," thanks to Theology of the Body, which, incidentally, is not called Doctrine of the Body. Sigh. I would say that Jean Vanier, a Single man, has committed himself to L'Arche, wouldn't you?  And that Dorothy Day, a divorced woman and Single mother, committed herself totally to the poor.

Update 2: B.A. adds that THE call is the call to holiness, no matter what your circumstances in life. We agree that we are a bit uncomfortable with the whole "giving oneself totally to another" definition of marriage, let alone vocation. It's that totally thing. And it sounds just too darned shiny and romantic and open to manipulation to abusive spouses: "You gave yourself totally to me, so do what I want!"

Marriage is basically what human beings do--or did, if they wanted to (or their parents made them), could afford it and historical circumstances (like war or today's unprecedented decadence) did not get in the way. Christian marriage is, of course, a call to holiness within marriage. What changes is the circumstances in which you strive to be holy. And I think Saint Thomas Aquinas would be on side with this. In his day, marriage was just business as usual, and only religious life (of whatever kind) was something you were called into, out of business as usual.

Update 3: A married man's email reminds me to emphasize that it is state-in-life I am talking about here. He points out that although the priesthood may be superior to married life, a holy married man is better than a wicked priest.

I agree that holy people, no matter what their state in life, are superior to wicked people, no matter what their state in life.  However, I think "priesthood" vs "married" is a false dichotomy. There are married men, Single men, and male religious, and some of each of those group are priests. Most priests are Single men. As Single men, they have a lot to teach about the Single life, and they should.

Catholics belong to the laity or priesthood. Nuns, most monks, brothers and consecrated virgins are laypeople. So are most married men and all married women. The states-in-life are Single, Married, Religious. Keep this in mind if you ever meet an ex-Anglican, now Catholic, married priest and feel embarrassed.