Busting the myths of vocations

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Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, hosts of Mythbusters, which aired its final episode in March.
Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, hosts of Mythbusters, which aired its final episode in March.

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral. It is a great joy for me to be here with you to celebrate Mass more regularly in this wonderful Church.

My continuing gradual recovery is no doubt in large part due to your prayers which are a great gift to me.

Some of you may have heard that on Friday night our time the church of Sydney was given another great gift by Pope Francis: two new auxiliary bishops, Mons Tony Randazzo and Fr Richard Umbers.

I ask you to pray for our two new bishops who I’m confident will make enormous contributions to the leadership of the Church and the pastoral care of the people of Sydney and beyond in the years ahead.

In this time of change and uncertainty in international politics and as we prepare to elect a new parliament in our own country [we] pray for wisdom and courage for electors and those elected in the days and years ahead. To everyone present, including visitors and more regulars, a very warm welcome!

The 18th-century founder of the Redemptorists and Doctor of the Church, St Alphonsus, is a patron saint of vocations, confessors, moral theologians and the lay apostolate.

Born to a noble Italian family and therefore given a ridiculously long name – Alphonsus Maria Antonio Giovanni Cosimo Damiano Michele Gaspard de Liguori – ‘the Fonz’, as we might call him for short these days, undertook doctorates in both civil and canon law and became a highly successful barrister.

But he wrote to a friend that the legal profession “is too full of difficulties and dangers; we lead an unhappy life and run risk of dying an unhappy death”.

A repentant lawyer myself, I can sympathise with Alfie’s feelings. And so it was that in his late 20s he forswore the law and discerned that God was calling him to “Leave the world and give yourself to Me”. He studied for the priesthood and the rest is history …

In today’s Gospel (Lk 9:51-62) Jesus teaches us about responding to His call and not looking back.

He is clearly talking about something more than pursuing our hobbies or picking jobs.

He’s talking about vocation and the very mention of this word can be as concealing as it is revealing.

For one thing, when Catholics hear the word ‘vocation’ they tend to think of priests and nuns – two vocations we rightly prize and certainly need more of, but hardly the only two vocations in the Church.

A second risk is that we so romanticise the idea that vocation becomes something that the lucky few learn from heavenly voices or prophetic words, like St Paul heard on the Road to Damascus or Elisha in our first reading (1Kgs 19:16-21).

Thirdly, people can think that the discernment of vocation is a convoluted, almost magical process, achieving high levels of holiness and certainty; this excuses procrastinating forever as members of the ‘Order of Perpetual Discerners’.

So deceiving can the word vocation be that I sometimes think it would be best to abandon it altogether. Instead, let me contribute a few thoughts on vocation to a Catholic MythBusters series …

First, our word vocation comes from the Latin for ‘calling.’ To say someone is called or has a calling is to say that they are selected from among ordinary people and graced for a particular life.

So it’s nonsense to say that “everyone has a vocation” – those who are called must be called from among others who are not, and they are given a particular inspiration, way of life, or work to do.

All of which is not to say that only a few people have a calling from God: St Paul described the Galatian Christians to whom he wrote in today’s epistle as ‘the called’ (Gal 5:1,13-18) and the Second Vatican Council said all the baptised are called to holiness.

So it’s nonsense to think only priests and nuns have vocations or that everyone has the same vocation: demonstrably we’ve had scholar-saints like Alphonsus that we call ‘Doctors of the Church’, prophet-saints like Elijah and Elisha in our first reading, apostle-, martyr-, pastor- and virgin-saints such as we name today in the Roman Canon, men and women saints recognised for their works of mercy such as Mother Teresa, married saints, single saints, an altogether diverse group who’ve responded well to God’s call.

So if all Christians are called out by God from among run-of-the-mill humanity to seek fulfilment in a holy life, but not all in the same way, how are we baptised to know what is to be our particular way?

If God has destined me for heaven and given me a custom-fit path to sainthood, why’s it so hard to know what He wants me to do with my life, the next year or even day?

Why are even simple choices, such as how to vote next weekend, so difficult?

Well, this much is clear: if God doesn’t send heavenly voices to clarify everything for us, He does not leave us in a mire of darkness and confusion either.

He gives us the great gifts of His Word and sacraments, and through them powerful inspiration and insight.

He invites us to speak to Him in prayer and speak also to His saints – and not just the dear departed ones, like Alphonsus and Mother Teresa, but the wise and holy who are living among us today.

He gives us minds to think with and so come to know our own gifts and the world’s needs, minds to reflect upon how these match up, how each of us might best avail ourselves of the opportunities, best flourish and be happy. In our Gospel today Jesus embraces His own vocation, resolutely taking “the road to Jerusalem” that is to His passion and our salvation.

Along the way some respond well to Him and become His ‘messengers’, His ‘apostles’, His “called-and-sent” ones; others “would not receive Him because He was making for Jerusalem”, St Luke tells us, that is He was taking the hard road to glory.

Some consider becoming his followers until they realise it will cost in terms of insecurity, discomfort, letting go of some emotional ties …
So it’s clear that vocation is more than career. Careers we choose for ourselves; vocations – in a sense – choose us.

In a career-oriented society the focus is on saleable skills, things that will get us good jobs, on maximising our wealth and consumption and passing pleasures; it’s not on getting to know ourselves and our high calling and being ready to pursue that, whatever the sacrifice.

Ours is an alternative wisdom. And so our Catholic schools, universities and parishes must be ‘vocational training colleges’, not in the usual sense of that term but in the sense that they help us see that there is more to life than personal ambitions, work targets and company profits; that there are other measures of success, other ways to lead and serve and so be happy.

Alphonsus gave up a highly profitable career in order to embrace one that would bring him ultimate happiness – though it also involved a great many struggles in the meantime. There would be Jerusalem before Galilee for him, Calvary before the Ascension, just as there was for his Lord; there would be tares among the wheat of his life.

Like the guys in our Gospel we’ve all got our excuses to choose the easier course.

We betray our own imagination and intelligence in refusing even to consider the range of options, what we are best suited to, what it is to which Christ is calling us.

We postpone the decision like the guy who wants first to take leave of various people or the guy who wants first to bury his father.

St Luke doesn’t tell us whether the man’s father was even dead yet; perhaps there would be several years procrastinating until the death and burial and, of course, inheritance and he was postponing his decision till then.

“Let the dead bury the dead,” Jesus responds with His customary directness. ‘If you’re alive to me you’ll put God’s kingdom first, before all your own plans; you’ll make your life a pilgrimage to heaven, not a joy ride to the land of the dead. Stop making plans to become holy in the ever-elusive future: commit now; surrender to the Father’s will. You have all it needs to know that will: you have the intelligence and divine grace to make good decisions whether that’s about who to vote for or what to do with your life. There’ll be plenty of time for goodbyes: now is the time for hello, for saying yes to God.’

This is the edited text of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at St Mary’s Cathedral on 26 June.