In this season of new beginnings, the Church's liturgy today also recalls what might be called the organizational beginning of Jesus’ public mission. And (fittingly for the end of the annual observance of National Vocations Awareness Week in the U.S.) today’s Old Testament reading [1 Samuel 3:3b-10, 19] and today's Gospel [John 1:35-42] must surely be a Religious Vocation Director’s dream text!
In church language, we usually use the word “vocation” in 2 senses – first, for the general call to everyone to be converted and become a disciple of Jesus, and, secondly, for the particular call to some disciples to undertake lives of full-time ministry in the Church. In the Gospel, the 2 vocations came together for Andrew and his brother Simon Peter. In Peter’s case, one could say he went from fisherman to disciple, to apostle, to Pope – all in one encounter!
Samuel’s case in today's Old Testament reading may have been a bit more typical. He was just a boy, but he was already being brought up to be devoted to the Lord, which is surely how and when most religious vocations begin, are nurtured, and flourish. In that vocationally dispositive environment, Samuel gradually heard the Lord’s voice calling him to a special mission.
Listening to Samuel’s story, I am inevitably reminded of our Paulist Founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker (the long-term service of whose cause for sainthood is what brings me here and has me currently studying in Rome). I particularly recall Hecker’s account of his own boyhood, as he described it in statements made towards the end of his life:
Often in my boyhood, when lying at night on the shavings before the oven in the bake house, I would start up, roused in spite of myself, by some great thought … What does God desire from me? … What is it He has sent me into the world to do? These were the ceaseless questions of my heart, that rested, meanwhile, in an unshaken confidence that time would bring the answer.
For all the drama we may be inclined to associate with God’s call, Hecker’s account illustrates how God’s call comes typically in the midst of our ordinary, everyday activities. Two things clearly stand out in all such accounts. The first is that the target of God’s call needs to be receptive, needs to let the Lord take the initiative, in short, to LISTEN. That may be easier said than done! In this “information age,” we have all become accustomed to receiving all sorts information which we have no real need for. So it may be becoming increasingly hard for us even to imagine hearing something that really matters – and hence having a reason to listen. But God doesn’t impart information. He calls us personally into relationship with him, and we need to listen.
The second element is the important part played by the believing community as a whole. As with Jesus’ invitation to his 1st disciples in today's Gospel account, God’s call is first and foremost a challenge to Come, and see. And closely connected with the part played by the believing community as a whole is the guiding role played by particular people in that community – people like Eli in the case of Samuel, John the Baptist in the case of Andrew, and Andrew in the case of Simon Peter. (To which illustrious list, one could also add someone like that other great 19th-century American Catholic convert, Orestes Brownson, in the case of Isaac Hecker). All of them – Eli, John the Baptist, Andrew, and Orestes Brownson – all functioned as intermediaries facilitating the special vocations of others.
There have been occasions in history when the community assumed what, by today’s standards, might seem an excessively forceful role in fostering vocations in the Church. In spring of the year 391, St. Augustine, then 36 years old, but baptized only 4 years, visited the North African town of Hippo. The Bishop of Hippo, Valerius, knew of Augustine’s reputation as a talented orator and took advantage of Augustine’ presence at Sunday Mass to announce that, because of his age, he needed the assistance of a younger priest, who was a good speaker. The congregation took the hint; grabbed hold of Augustine; and refused to release him until, weeping, he agreed to be ordained!
That might be a bit over the top by today’s standards and our somewhat more bureaucratic approach to priestly formation. All these cases do remind us, however, that one’s sense of one’s vocation is hardly likely to arise in isolation and can even less likely be fostered and flourish in isolation. In our common life together as Christ’s Church – just as we do in our common civic life as citizens - we all need people like Eli, John the Baptist, Andrew, and Orestes Brownson to help us understand what we are being called upon to do. And we in turn need to be ready and willing to play that role for one another!