Universal Call to Holiness and Vocational Discernment
Updated: Feb 3
Looking through the lens of the “universal call to holiness” described in the Dogmatic Constitution of the Catholic Church, Lumen Gentium, the three levels of vocation are described from both a philosophical and theological standpoint. A comparison and analogization of holiness to flourishing establishes that this call to holiness is like the call to goodness that all human beings experience, though not everyone follows.
Chapter V of Lumen Gentium speaks specifically about the “universal call to holiness” and sheds much light on the fact that each Christian has a calling in life. This corroborates the Institute for Psychological Sciences [IPS] model of the human person. If everyone is called to holiness, everyone is called to goodness and flourishing. Understanding the three levels of vocation deepens the understanding of this call.
Young people are on a quest for a greater sense of purpose. This can be achieved through a deeper understanding of call and vocation. Recognizing the need to engage with the secular and seeing the complementary vocations of those called to the vowed and those called to the non-vowed life clarifies the purpose of each individual vocation. Reflecting on the following pages will direct formators to guide adolescents in discerning their personal vocation in life and see it as part of the “universal call to holiness” and the call to goodness and flourishing. “In the strict and basic sense, to have a ‘vocation’ is to respond to the call to flourishing and goodness” (Titus et al., 2019b, p. 2143).
“Christians are called to transform the world in and through God in a genuine and secular spirituality” (Phillips, 2014, p. 580). In his interpretation of the universal call to holiness, Phillips reflects on the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium, and how it underlines the call that all Christians have to be holy. As the Second Vatican Council was eminently pastoral in its intention, there has to be an engagement with the world. The Church is moved into a position of dialogue with the world, and the laypeople are the first point of contact. In contrast to a vision of the Church that places the protagonism almost solely on the shoulders of the clergy, it is presented as a unified body with the goal of evangelizing the world.
The Council needs to be re-read in the light of theological reflection on priests, laity and theology of vocation what has happened in the nearly fifty years since the publication of this Dogmatic Constitution. Much confusion has crept in, and “Pope Benedict reminds us of this…, citing Basil’s well-known depiction of the period between Nicaea and Constantinople as a ‘night battle’, the naval battle in the darkness of a storm tossed sea” (Phillips, 2014, p. 580). Increasing secularism in the world challenges the prospect of evangelization. This evangelization will take place only if more and more Christians discover and live out their callings from God.
Phillips quotes James Sweeney as saying that “evangelization is more than instilling beliefs; it is the opening of a Way and crafting practices of life to embody that Way. For better or worse, these evangelical practices must engage with the practices that structure life in the secular world” (Phillips, 2014, p. 583). This can be contrasted with a restorationist attempt to use unfamiliar and archaic words in liturgical translation. Where is the genuine call to holiness? Seeing the Church lose influence and power has led many to assume that a return to earlier practices would foster a resurgence of fervor and vocational enthusiasm.
All members of the Church play a role in conquering secularism. “The baptized share the threefold ministry of Christ as priest, prophet, and king in their call to proclaim the healing presence of Christ in the world” (Phillips, 2014, p. 584). Lumen Gentium sets the “teaching mission of the hierarchy within the body of the believing Church, not above and over against it” (Phillips, 2014, p. 564). There is a parallelism between the sections which speak of the bishops and the sections referring to the laity, showing a parallelism in the baptismal participation in Christ the head and the hierarchical participation enjoyed by the episcopate. Rather than considering a spiritual vocation merely the realm of vocations of clerical and religious life, we are shown that every Christian has a vocation.
A worldly vocation?
Is it possible to remain in the world and have a true spiritual vocation? “A profoundly worldly vocation makes a radical demand for holiness. One’s call to holiness is discovered not by turning away from the world but by plunging into the whirling eddies of secular experience” (Phillips, 2014, p. 586). God’s call is to holiness, and the way it is lived out depends on the state in life to which God is calling the person. “The task of bishops and presbyters is to support their brothers and sisters in this mission” (Phillips, 2014, p. 586). The Council and the interpretation of its texts “call for a radically new understanding of the role of pastors in the Church: pastors must in the first place be those who listen to the faithful and to the world around them” (Phillips, 2014, p. 589).
“We need to discern what actions constitute believing in Christ in this world of ours. What activities allow us to bring healing and consolation?” (Phillips, 2014, p. 591). Pastors, those called to a vocation of consecrated or priestly life, will be called upon to serve laypeople who are the first line to bring hope to a troubled, secular world. Laypeople are called upon to participate actively in the primordial mission of the Church, the evangelization of all people. Holiness is not optional.
Lumen Gentium and the understanding of Christian vocation
Lumen Gentium brings a beautiful understanding of Christian vocation, especially in the chapter on the universal call to holiness. Already in the chapter on the People of God, we read that “the baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated as a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, in order that through all those works which are those of the Christian man they may offer spiritual sacrifices” (Vatican Council II, 1964, §10).
In the chapter on the laity, we read that “by divine institution, Holy Church is ordered and governed with a wonderful diversity” (Vatican Council II, 1964, §32). There are a variety of vocations, and they all share in some way in the governance of the Church. Thus, the laity is also involved. “If therefore in the Church everyone does not proceed by the same path, nevertheless all are called to sanctity and have received an equal privilege of faith through the justice of God” (Vatican Council II, 1964, §32). Coming to understand the dignity that one has as a Christian believer can help to understand the call to holiness, as well as the joy that comes in following one’s Christian vocation.
Fulfillment of Christ’s prophetic office
Christ fulfills his prophetic office “not only through the hierarchy who teach in His name and with His authority, but also through the laity whom He made His witnesses and to whom He gave understanding of the faith (sensus fidei)” (Vatican Council II, 1964, §32). The document is intriguing in that it takes the roles of Christ as Priest, Prophet, and King and applies them to bishops, clergy, and laity. All are called to holiness, and all are called to participate in the imitation of Christ. The Church “is believed to be indefectibly holy” (Vatican Council II, 1964, §39). Practice of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience “either privately or in a Church-approved condition or state of life, gives and must give in the world an outstanding witness and example of this same holiness” (Vatican Council II, 1964, §39). Jesus “preached holiness of life to each and everyone of His disciples of every condition” (Vatican Council II, 1964, §39).
Three levels of vocation
Philosophical and theological perspectives
“In the strict and basic sense, to have a ‘vocation’ is to respond to the call to flourishing and goodness” (Titus et al., 2019b, p. 2143). This is something common to all human beings, and thus the call to flourishing and goodness can be seen as analogous to the universal call to holiness expressed in chapter five of Lumen Gentium. “From a philosophical perspective, there is each person’s basic call to flourishing or goodness as a human person. Such human flourishing springs from an ultimate origin and points toward an ultimate end” (Titus et al., 2019b, p. 2143).
From a theological perspective, “vocation” is perceived as a religious phenomenon. “The spiritual vocation elicits types of communion and self-giving that are transformed by grace, that is, by God’s presence, will, and word, which strengthens, frees, and sanctifies us in the image of his Son through the Holy Spirit” (Titus et al., 2019b, p. 2153). Holiness and flourishing can both be considered, as “although there is but one reality, the experience is shaped, first at the natural level, by one’s discernment of and response (or non-response) to vocational calls, and second, by whether such calls are responded to from a perspective of faith” (Titus et al., 2019b, p. 2153).
Call to goodness or holiness
The first level of vocation is a call to goodness from a philosophical perspective and a call to holiness from a theological perspective. This justifies the connection between the universal call to holiness promoted by Lumen Gentium and human flourishing. Recognizing the fact that one is called helps to recognize a call to flourishing as well. Once there is an awareness of being called, getting to know the specific vocation becomes much more important. “Every person must walk unhesitatingly according to his own personal gifts and duties in the path of living faith, which arouses hope and works through charity” (Vatican Council II, 1964, §41).
There is a specific vocation, which we want to get to know. “God is not indifferent about which morally good option we choose, as Scripture makes clear” (Ryan, 2007, p. 11). Thus, the call to holiness becomes the basis for all further vocational discernment, which might touch on the states in life.
Call to a specific state in life
The call is not something general and unspecific. It becomes very concrete and real. This speaks of the personal relationship that God is establishing with each individual. “The second level of vocation concerns the vocational states and their implications for flourishing, ethics, and mental health” (Titus et al., 2019b, p. 2223). We identify the four possible vocational states as “being single, married, ordained, and religiously consecrated to the service of God and others” (Titus et al., 2019b, p. 2223). Everyone is called to these vocations. All are called to single life for at least some period of life.
Discernment is necessary to determine the correct vocation. “Discernment is distinguishing true from false flourishing, goals or ends, and meaning or purpose. It involves the ways to find authentic goals and the good means to those goal as opposed to ends that are forgeries” (Titus, 2015b, p. 3). This is necessary to determine the correct state in life and later to determine the proper work and service. “Discernment is critical to the process of identifying one’s call to a vowed or non-vowed vocational state and engaging in it wholeheartedly” (Titus et al., 2019b, p. 2273). Since “the human vocation to goodness and flourishing is received through human experiences, relationships, and practices” (Titus et al, 2015a, p. 5), mulling over and reflecting on the ultimate meaning of these experiences, relationships, and practices are key for determining state in life.
Work, service, and meaningful leisure
The vocation is lived out in a personal life project. This can vary, even more than the specific states of life. “As a positive human effort, work is rooted in the intelligibility and meaning of life” (Titus et al., 2019b, p. 2353). While state in life is fundamental, work is where things happen. “Importantly, it is to some extent self-transcending (more than self-serving), teleological (aimed at a future goal) intentional (conscious of the good pursued), and free (willingly chosen in pursuit of a good)” (Titus et al., 2019b, p. 2353). Work has a key role in the individual’s flourishing or languishing.
Work and leisure “can be understood only in the larger context of human needs and flourishing” (Titus et al., 2019b, p. 2363). Work and leisure are the practical expression of the state in life of everyone. It is how he or she lives out the vocation that God has given him or her.
“A vocation is often understood as a religious phenomenon, in which people respond to a ‘calling’ from God to fulfill a spiritual function or life work” (Titus et al., 2019a, p. 241). In a world that seems invaded by darkness, it is encouraging to discover that “the truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light” (Vatican Council II, 1965, §22). The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, complements and completes some of the thought already exposed in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium.
Helping young people to discover themselves and develop a plan for their lives is key for helping them discover their call to goodness and the possibility of happiness. This is the Good News that is revealed in the Incarnate Word, as proclaimed by the joyous words in the famous number 22 of Gaudium et Spes, so beloved by Pope St. John Paul II. This will be especially helpful to young people, since “although major commitments do not settle everything else, they do make it easier to resolve many smaller matters” (Ryan, 2007, p. 15). Helping them to identify the major commitment of their vocation to a specific state in life will be an aid to finding the correct work and service, as well as appropriate leisure, thus facilitating proper human flourishing.
A reflection at the three levels of vocation will set up the theological and philosophical premises necessary to discern God's plan in an individual's search for happiness. “The person has an essential core of goodness, dignity, and value and seeks flourishing of self and others. This dignity and value is independent of age or any ability. Such a core of goodness is foundational for a person to value life, develop morally, and to flourish” (Titus et al., 2019a, p. 431).
Phillips, P. (2014). The universal call to holiness: engaging with the secular. New Blackfriars, 95(1059), 579–592.
Ryan, P. (2007). How to discern the elements of your personal vocation. Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, 30(2), 11–18.
Titus, C. S., Vitz, P. C., Nordling, W. J., & DMU Group. (2019a). Theological, philosophical, and psychological premises for a Catholic Christian meta-model of the person. In P. C. Vitz, W. J. Nordling, and C. S. Titus (Eds.) A Catholic Christian meta-model of the person: Integration with psychology & mental health practice (pp. 20–44). Sterling, VA: Divine Mercy University.
Titus, C. S., Nordling, W. J., & Vitz, P. C. (2019b). Fulfilled through vocations. In P. C. Vitz, W. J. Nordling, and C. S. Titus (Eds.) A Catholic Christian meta-model of the person: Integration with psychology & mental health practice (pp. 210–248). Sterling, VA: Divine Mercy University.
Titus, C. S. (2015a). Universal call to goodness and holiness[PDF]. Washington, DC: Institute for the Psychological Sciences.
Titus, C. S. (2015b). Vocations and discernment [PDF]. Washington, DC: Institute for the Psychological Sciences.
Vatican Council II. (1964). Lumen gentium [Dogmatic constitution on the Church, Light of the nations]. http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html
Vatican Council II. (1965). Gaudium et spes [Pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, Joys and hopes]. https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_cons_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html