Dear Mary Beth,
I’m reading a book that says the Catholic Church only recognizes three vocations: marriage, priesthood and the consecrated life. So where do we as singles fit in? I think a lot of people would be interested in knowing this and knowing why!
Vocation-less in Vallejo
It’s true. The unconsecrated single life is not a vocation, as the Catholic Church formally defines it. But that’s not to say we’re “vocation-less,” or that we’re any less important in the life of the Church, or any less worthwhile in the eyes of God, or any other conclusions you may draw.
To me, it all comes down to the making the distinction between two different but related definitions of the word “vocation.” I call them “Capital V” and “Small V” vocations, although that’s my own terminology and not the Church’s. (Nor is it relevant to the actual spelling of the word.)
By “Capital V” vocation, I am referring to the Church’s formal definition. It is best understood in light of the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes, paragraph 24, which says that “Man, being the only creature created for his own sake, finds himself only in a sincere gift of himself.” In other words, we were created to find fulfillment through giving ourselves to another. Giving, not loaning. Permanent self-donation. And that is done, permanently, in two primary ways. The first and most basic way is in giving ourselves to another person in marriage. Blessed John Paul II, in his Theology of the Body, discusses how the very complementarity of the male and female body shows that men and women were created to give themselves to each other. So that makes marriage the “fundamental” way that men and women give themselves to each other.
The second (and more recent) way is through some sort of consecration to God. Priests, religious brothers and sisters, and lay consecrated persons all take a vow to give their lives exclusively to God. They specifically renounce marriage, not because it is bad, but because they have “married” God, consecrated their lives to Him in such a complete way that they are no longer free to give themselves to another human person.
What both have in common is that they are permanent, irrevocable gifts of self to the other (spouse or God). It’s difficult in this day and age—when marriages end in divorce and even priests abandon their vows—to comprehend of such a complete gift of ourselves. But the Church still teaches that a validly contracted marriage is permanent, and that a priest is a priest forever, regardless of whether he is laicized or even abandons his vows.
In that context, what is single-ness? It is the state of not having given ourselves. Or not having given ourselves yet. We aren’t referring here to those singles who are consecrated. They, in a sense, aren’t single anymore. They are “married” to God. But, for the rest of us, our singleness lies precisely in that absence of consecration. I could give myself to God tomorrow. I could get married tomorrow. But, as of today, I have done neither.
The theory is that, in a perfect world, we are all called to give ourselves either in marriage or in a religious vocation. But, as we have found, in an imperfect world, things get in the way. We don’t find the right person, we don’t become the right person, we find the one we thought was the right person and it all goes horribly wrong, etc.
God knows that. And He loves us through it.
Hence, the importance of “Small V” vocation. This quite simply refers to what God is calling us to, right now, in the concrete circumstances of our lives as they are. The Church frequently speaks of the “universal vocation to holiness.” In other words, we are all called to become holy, to grow closer to God and to allow Him to transform us into what He’s calling us to be.
God may call us to many other things. He has called me to speak and write. He has called others to teach, to take care of loved ones, to work in a certain profession or ministry. These aren’t “Capital V” vocations—they aren’t irrevocable gifts of ourselves to another person. They generally aren’t irrevocable at all. I could quit speaking and writing. He could call me to something different later. A teacher can quit teaching.
“Capital V” vocations are important, of course. If we believe we are called to marriage and we are free to marry, we should remain open to that possibility. If we feel a call to religious life, we should pursue it.
But in our day-to-day lives, it’s the “Small V” that matters most. What is God calling me to do today? Where does He want me to serve Him? Where, in his Big Picture, does He want to place me? What is my role? How can I grow closer to Him, and hence more in tune with His plan?
In all of those ways, we “give” ourselves—to God and to others. And if we are faithful in those daily discernments, then we are living lives that are pleasing to Him.
And that, my friend, is a vocation.
Do you have a question for Mary Beth Bonacci? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.