If you are looking for a simple definition of a vocation, the literal meaning of the word is a "call."
But a vocation is more than an ordinary call. A vocation is a call from God, and anyone who has felt God's call knows that the process is anything but simple. While most people think of a vocation as what they are called to do in life, it is important to understand that the first and most important call from God is a call to be - the universal call to holiness.
Your vocation is not the same as your career or profession. However, there is an overlap between a vocation and a profession.
A career or a profession is something that you have in order to support yourself and to contribute in some way to the good of the society. You don't need to believe in God to choose a career or a profession. A person can pick, choose and switch profession freely depending on his/her preferences, strengths or circumstances. A profession or a career always has a horizontal dimension.
When we talk about vocation, we introduce a vertical dimension in our life, which is God. It is no longer ‘what do I prefer?' but rather ‘What does God want me to be?" A vocation is not something that you can switch like a profession or a career.
For example, a person may work in retail sales because he/she has what it takes to sell a product, to establish customer relations, to follow directions and to work with a team to accomplish daily tasks. That same person's vocation may be to be a single person, a wife or a husband, to be a religious brother or sister, to be a deacon or priest.
This distinction between a call to holiness and a call to a specific vocation - single person, married life, consecrated life or ordained ministry - is important.
The universal call to holiness is rooted in our baptism. It is a call to know, love and serve the Lord. It is a movement that draws us toward a deeper union with God. We feel a growing desire to love God and to love our neighbour. We come to understand that there is a reason for our existence and there is meaning in our lives.
The universal call to holiness is an ongoing conversion experience. It keeps opening our eyes to new awareness of God's loving presence. It keeps inviting us to turn toward God by aligning our will with God's will.
A willingness to do God's will is built on two convictions. We have to believe that God loves us more than we love ourselves and that God wants our happiness more than we want it. In other words, we have to believe that God knows more than we do about what will make us truly happy. If God had given us everything we ever asked for we would be seriously unhappy. The basis of our desire to find and to do the will of God should be the belief that God's will for us is our only chance to be truly and lastingly happy.
A brief outline of the four specific vocations
We live out the invitation ‘to be holy' differently depending on which vocation we have chosen. The four specific vocations are: single life, married life, consecrated life or the ordained ministry. Each vocation is a call to follow Christ closely.
For someone who has chosen a single life, even though they have not formally taken the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, yet they make a personal commitment to put their freedom at the service of others in their work and prayer. And in doing so, they strive to follow Christ in their daily lives.
For a married Christian couple, they follow Christ by giving themselves to each other completely and without any reservation, promising to love each other faithfully for the rest of their lives, sharing their joys and sufferings in whatever circumstances life brings them. They express their love through their sexual union, which brings them together in the closest intimacy and opens them to the gift of new life.
For someone who has chosen the consecrated life, their path of following Christ is through their vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. They are called to live as Christ lived; to model their lives on the life of Jesus- chaste, poor and obedient - making their hearts more free for prayer and service.
For those who have chosen the ordained ministry, through sacramental ordination, they share in the priesthood of Christ in a special way. Their very beings are transfigured so that they can represent Christ the Good Shepherd for God's people and Christ as the Head of the Church. They not only offer their own lives to the Father, as all Christians do, but they also stand before the Church and minister to the faithful as Christ ‘in person.' Thus, when they teach with the authority of the Church then Christ teaches; when they absolve sins in the sacrament of Penance then Christ forgives; when they offer the Sacrifice of the Mass then Christ offers that Sacrifice; when they love, support and care for God's people then Christ is present with his people.
Different yet the same
The lifestyle and demands of each particular vocation is very different but there are some similarities between them. Each vocation is a commitment to love in a certain way. The object of every vocation is God. It is not building a better society, renewing the Church, having a family, fulfilling yourself, helping people or confronting new challenges. All these things may be involved in a vocation but the primary objective is to love God.
As Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote, "Love makes us seek what is good; love makes us better persons. It is love that prompts men and women to marry and form a family, to have children. It is love that prompts others to embrace the consecrated life or become priests." Each vocation challenges us to live our faith more deeply and to follow Christ more closely. Each vocation, if it is lived generously and faithfully, will then involve times of lasting happiness and reward but also suffering and sacrifice. Finally, it is important not to compare the value of different vocations but to appreciate the value of each one and to discover which one is right for you.