When I arrived at home two Fridays back, not surprisingly, there was a message on my telephone answering machine.
This particular message, however, was somewhat unusual in that it was left by a parishioner who is currently in her freshman year at Archbishop Carroll High School. From what I could make out of her message, she needed to interview someone about their vocation for a religion class project. Responding to her request did present a problem, however, not because I wasn’t willing to be interviewed but because this young woman spoke so fast I couldn’t decipher her name, her telephone number, or her email address, even using the answering machine’s “slow” feature!
I was able to decipher, however, that she used to serve mass, that she has two sisters, she went to the parish grammar school, and she now attends Archbishop Carroll High School. But, I finally gave up trying to contact the young student after all of the telephone numbers and email addresses I tried didn’t work. One email I sent was returned. The recipient expressed having no interest about interviewing me about anything and told me (quite impertinently, I might add) not to use that person’s email address again!
Over the years, when I’ve asked young people if they think they might have a vocation, most have become quite uncomfortable and some have even blushed; but, every one of them responded that they weren’t interested at all in becoming a religious sister or brother or priest. “Don’t take it personally, Father,” they’d say, “but that’s not for me.” So, I’d guess the choice most of the Archbishop Carroll High School freshmen made about who they would interview for their religion class project―like the young parishioner who wanted to interview me―selected a religious sister or brother or priest. After all, that’s what many Catholics first think about when they hear the word “vocation.”
When Jesus called Simon, Andrew, James, and John saying, “Come after me…,” each had an important―even heroic―decision to make. Each had to ask himself, “Is Jesus’ message of repentance―turning away from sin and embracing heroic virtue―of such vital importance that I must leave everything behind and so that I will come after Jesus?”
Looking at the diversity of people Jesus asked to “Come after me…,” today’s gospel reminds us that the term “vocation” is something much broader than making the decision to live as a religious sister or brother or priest.
A vocation begins when, like Simon, Andrew, James, and John, we hear the gospel message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and make the conscious choice to accept Jesus’ invitation to turn away from sin and embrace heroic virtue by following in his footsteps. That’s what is called our “common vocation,” the “vocation of the baptized.” It’s not the reserve of sisters and brothers and priests. No, the common vocation shared by all baptized Christians provides the spiritual, doctrinal, and values-specific foundation upon which each of us must decide each and every day―and sometimes we must make a heroic decision―about how we will construct and live our lives as disciples.
We live out our common vocation as we discern God calling us to a more particular lifestyle, that is, to be married, to be ordained, or to remain single, what most Catholics identify as a “vocation.” Each of those three lifestyles gives more complete expression to our common vocation as Jesus’ disciples. For example, God calls some to be a spouse, a permanent deacon, priest, or bishop, or a single person. (As an aside, the vocation to the single life is as valid a vocation as each of the other two. Our culture has a problem with this particular vocational lifestyle because we tend to view “being single” with suspicion, as if something is wrong with the person. In fact, an individual who dedicates herself or himself to a career and views one’s obligations as a spouse or parent as only secondary to one’s career aspirations, simply is not being honest about one’s vocation and is acting unjustly to one’s spouse and children!)
I said earlier, however, that the term “vocation” is much broader than those three lifestyles. The reason is because the fruition of our common vocation and the particular lifestyle is evidenced in a “personal vocation,” that is, how each of us gives concrete witness as a disciple by doing God’s will and recognizing God’s presence in all things, as the Second Vatican Council taught (Lumen Gentium, #40-41).
How each spouse, how each ordained deacon, priest, or bishop, and how each single person gives witness to genuine holiness of life through heroic virtue is something unique and unrepeatable, something God has called each of us by name to do in our own way. Think about it: no other person in all of human history has or will ever witness to my or anyone else’s personal vocation.
That’s why I said early the concept of “vocation” is so broad. It reflects the multiplicity of ways that God reveals His love and care in our world as each of us, in our own unique and unrepeatable way, “come after Jesus” by proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, curing the ravages of sin, and by preaching “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
A wonderful example of a woman who accepted and lived out her personal vocation is Gianna Beretta Molla.
Gianna Beretta grew up in northern Italy during the 1930s and 40s. She loved music, theater, skiing, hiking, and medicine. Gianna eventually became a pediatrician. Following medical school, she considered becoming a lay medical missionary in Brazil, where her brother was a doctor and medical missionary. But, as God would have it, Gianna Beretta fell in love with Pietro Molla. Married in 1955, the couple subsequently had three children. Family photos―especially the one where Gianna Molla is holding her daughter Mariolina―reveal a beautiful, dark haired, athletic, and Italian woman who truly was in love with life. Her wonderful smile is especially evident in those pictures where Gianna Molla is depicted with her husband and her children.
In September, 1961, toward the end of the second month of pregnancy with her fourth child, physicians diagnosed a fibroma in Gianna Molla’s uterus that required surgery. Her surgeon counseled Dr. Molla to have an abortion in order to save her life.
Seven months later and, a few days before the child was due to be born, Dr. Molla told her obstetrician: “If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: Choose the child; I insist on it. Save the baby.” Entrusting herself entirely to Divine Providence, Gianna Beretta Molla died after giving birth to her fourth child. But, in her heroic act of selfless love, Gianna Molla generated new life in her infant daughter, Gianna Emanuela, who today practices medicine just as her mother did, but specializing in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease not pediatrics.
Gianna Beretta Molla made a heroic choice, but it was something her family members and friends testified she prepared for every day of her life. Her heroic virtue, genuine holiness of life, selflessness, and quiet joy remind all of us that God entrusts us with a personal vocation. Each and every day presents us with choices that have the power to prepare us to take heroic action whenever it will be called for. We can do that, however, only if we surrender ourselves and what we desire to God and His will for us.
St. Gianna Beretta Molla’s husband, Pietro, and their four children were present when she was canonized last May 16th and Pope John Paul II proclaimed her “Beloved of God: Woman, Mother, and Lover of Life.” It was the first time in Roman Catholic history that a mother―not a sister, brother, or priest but a layperson God called to discipleship, to the vocation of marriage, and to the personal vocation of wife and mother―had been raised to the honors of the altar. In her unique and unrepeatable way, St. Gianna Beretta Molla revealed God’s love and care for His children by surrendering her life to Divine Providence.
Perhaps more importantly, St. Gianna Beretta Molla’s heroic witness extends beyond family and friends to the medical profession and to physicians, in particular. From last May 16th forward, St. Gianna Beretta Molla’s motto, “Love is a Choice,” challenges physicians to remember that human suffering is not a nuisance devoid of redemptive meaning. Instead, St. Gianna Beretta’s heroic choice teaches physicians never to forget that suffering is virtuous. Its redemptive meaning is discovered in the new life that suffering begets. Undoubtedly, no one wants to suffer; but, if one’s personal vocation requires it―as Jesus’ personal vocation certainly did and as Gianna Beretta Molla’s personal vocation also did―suffering is redemptive for the new life it begets.
“Come after me…” Jesus says not only to Simon, Andrew, James, and John but also to all of us. It requires making a heroic choice because discipleship entails renouncing everything that would keep us from giving witness to genuine holiness of life in our own unique and unrepeatable way. Undoubtedly, this understanding of vocation sets a very high standard. It requires nothing short of heroism because many in our world would rather that Jesus’ disciples take the easy way out today―as both Jesus and St. Gianna Beretta Molla could have―by not worrying about what consequences that might have upon tomorrow.
I think it a good idea for the students enrolled in the freshmen religion class at Archbishop Carroll High School to interview people about their vocations. But, instead of interviewing sisters and brothers and priests about their vocations―as good as that may be―think about the kind of homes we’d have in our parish if all of those young people immediately thought about interviewing their own moms and dads and asked them all sorts of questions about the heroic choices they’ve had to make over the years in order to respond wholeheartedly―like St. Gianna Beretta Molla―to Jesus’ challenge to “Come after me….”
Now, a very brief commercial announcement...
When I find a resource I believe might be useful for parishioners' spiritual lives, I like to let them know about it. Normally, I post them to my "Resources for Catholic Living" website (www.homepage.villanova.edu/richard.jacobs/homilies/). For those who are interested in learning about the life of St. Gianna Beretta Molla, the documentary film “Love is a Choice” is available from the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation (416-971-5353 or www.saltandlighttv.org) in Toronto. The 52 minute documentary was filmed on location in Mageneta, Italy, in January 2004. It features home videos and film footage of the Molla and Beretta families, including footage of Gianna and Pietro’s wedding in 1955, as well as many family scenes from family photos, albums, and letters Gianna wrote to Pietro. The documentary also contains interviews with Pietro, Gianna’s four children, as well as her best friends and scenes of the canonization ceremony in Rome in 2004.
Additional resources for Catholic living are available on my webpage. Check them out by clicking on the button:
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