“Who do you want to be when you grow up?”
I am sure we were all asked this question at some point during our childhood and/or young adulthood. As college students, we now face this topic more pressingly as we are at the beginning of our adult lives. But questions such as “What is your major?”, “What career do you aspire for?”, or “What do you want to do with your life?” still absorb us. At times we may be sure of our direction, yet other times we may doubt it.
This past January, I had the opportunity to attend a day retreat on the theme of vocations at my parish. This helped me reflect more deeply on this topic and its connection to my personal life as well. At the retreat, I learned that the word vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, which means to call, summon, and name. God calls us, He summons us, and He names us as His own. He has placed His mark on each of us by creating us in His image and likeness; therefore, each person is a child of God simply because they are a human being. Ultimately, it is in God that our identity is found.
Another major highlight of this retreat was when people were invited to share their vocation stories. These accounts mostly revolved around marriage and religious life, which are typically referred to as the main vocation paths. As I listened to the stories, I could not help but ask myself again the question, “What is my vocation?”
Growing up in a very devout Catholic family, I learned about the beauty and richness of my faith from a very young age. The earliest memory I recall is when my grandmother gathered my two older siblings and me to teach us the catechism. The passion and love that radiated from her during these moments were surely a testament of God working through her to bring His little ones closer to Him!
As the years passed by, I slowly began discovering the love for children that God put into my heart, which is ultimately what drove me to major in elementary and special education. For the past five years I have been teaching religious education at my parish, and I can testify it is a very meaningful and special part of my week. Not only am I able to teach children, which is something I sincerely enjoy, but I teach them about Jesus, and the wonderful truth of the Catholic Faith. Each time my eyes meet the young faces, I recapture the image of my grandmother teaching me catechism, and I strive to bring the same passion, joy, and love I saw in her. Though I do not yet know what my specific calling is, I often find it helpful to reflect on the main vocations: the consecrated life and marriage. But why are these considered vocations?
We can first begin by analyzing what it means to live the consecrated life. The priesthood has its roots directly in Jesus Christ, Who prior to His Ascension into Heaven said to His Apostles, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28: 18-20).
Here, Jesus made it clear that His mission is to continue till the end of time, and it continues today with the presence of the priests in our Church. Through them, Jesus’ sacrificial love for us continues to be commemorated each time at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass right here in the Seton Hall campus chapel and churches worldwide. With the gift of the Eucharist we are invited to receive Jesus Christ fully into our lives and be the light and presence for others around us; without the priest, the grace from all the sacraments would not be possible. As St. Jean Vianney stated in his Catechism on the Priesthood, “The Priest is not a priest for himself…After God the priest is everything.” The Catholic Church has a true gift in the priest, a living reminder that Jesus Christ continues to be with us. We also have a gift in all the other consecrated people, sisters and brothers, who, likewise, by taking the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience choose a life completely devoted to God and leading the flock of humanity to know, love, and serve the Lord.
The second main vocation worthy of reflection is marriage. Its origins in Christian tradition are rooted in the first book of Holy Scripture, Genesis, when “God created man in his own image… male and female he created them. And God blessed them, saying: “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.” (Genesis 1:27 & 28). Jesus Christ referred to this very passage when He declared, “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Matthew 19:5-6).
Thus, the union of husband and wife is not only a human institution, but is divinely rooted in Christ, which is why it is referred to as Holy Matrimony. The sacrament binds together a man and a woman, who choose each other and unite themselves under a covenant of love, vowing life-long faithfulness and “procreation and education” of their children (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1601). Looking back at Genesis, it is clear that in the creation of families, marriage serves God’s purpose and plan for humanity. Similar to the religious life, this vocation is a great challenge and requires a radical trust in God for husband and wife to grow in knowing, loving, and serving God and guiding their children towards this ultimate goal. Along with this, both of these vocations seem to require an amount of self-sacrifice: the consecrated person renounces a worldly life, and instead chooses poverty, chastity, and obedience; and in marriage, both man and woman may renounce career goals, an independent life, luxury, etc. and instead devote themselves to God through each other and their children. But what about single life? Is it possible to have a vocation and be single? And do careers fit anywhere in this puzzle? Recently, I learned the very inspiring story of the Catholic Italian woman, Annalena Tonelli, which can help answer this question.
At 27 years of age, Annalena moved to Wajir, Kenya, originally as a teacher, but then began ministering to the sick people in the village. She worked largely among the very poor and destitute Muslim and Somalian communities, especially those people with tuberculosis, who were often ostracized and left to suffer and die alone, because of the stigma associated with this disease. Her humanitarian efforts included establishing the Farah Center (Center of Joy), where the sick could come to live while Annalena treated their illnesses. Furthermore, not only did she serve them medically as a nurse, she additionally treated each person with dignity and most of all with love: listening to them, walking through life with them, being the presence of love. Annalena would often spend hours into the night staying by her patients, whom she referred to as “God’s sparrows.” She cared for everyone, no matter how sick they were. This is a living proof of how the language of love can cross the divide of all human barriers, such as fear or difference of religion. Sadly, in 2003, Annalena was brutally shot as she served the sick in the village. However, her legacy lives on to this day in the center that still stands.
The essence of her life of service is summed up well in these words she spoke:
“The poor are waiting for us…The ways of service are infinite and left to the imagination. Let us not wait to be instructed in how to serve. We invent and we live the new heavens and the new earth each day of our lives. If we don’t love, God remains without an epiphany. We are the visible sign of his presence and we make him alive in this infernal world where it seems that he is not. We make him alive each time we stop next to a wounded person” (Rachel Jones, A Love Stronger Than Fear, para. 10).
Annalena could have chosen a life of comfort, free from exposure to the terrible diseases she faced daily in the villages of Africa. Instead she sacrificed this, and indeed her life, for a greater good, touching the lives of the neediest. She went where God was calling, and by serving the hundreds, she served God and fulfilled Jesus’ words “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25: 40).
Furthermore, Annalena’s work was more than a career; her concern was not earning an income, making a living, or personally advancing in the medical field. All her efforts were put into action for the good of others. No doubt, it was not an easy life for her, but as Pope Benedict XVI stated in his encyclical letter Spe Salvi, “Man was created for greatness—for God himself; he was created to be filled by God.”You were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness .” In this sense, Ggreatness does not consist of material wealth, fame, and fortune. Instead, it is in knowing, loving and serving God that each person can discover ourtheir greatness and theirour vocation, which extends beyond the superficial purposes of a career. As Seton Hall students preparing to be the future leaders of the world, this is truly worth pondering and striving for. Only in God’s transforming love will we find true happiness and fulfillment for our lives.
Perhaps then, vocation is as St. Teresa of Calcutta stated: “Do not worry about your career. Concern yourself with your vocation, and that is to be lovers of Jesus.”
So whatever anxieties or uncertainties we may be facing about school, work, or anything regarding our future, let us place all our hopes, fears, and dreams in God’s hands. “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11). With hope and joy we can continue to know, love, and serve God and trust in His beautiful design for our lives.