Most people haven’t realised that the way Catholics speak about married life has changed dramatically. But after this October’s family synod they certainly will


When I was a university student in the early 1970s I experienced a natural attraction to marriage, while at the same time sensing a call from the Lord to monastic life. But if I hadn’t become a monk, then in the language of the day, it would have meant I “didn’t have a vocation”, and would probably have got married.

So when I hear young Catholics talking about “discerning a vocation to marriage”, I realise that there’s been a quiet revolution in the way the Church speaks about marriage and that most Catholics haven’t noticed it happening.

The Church has always praised marriage and seen it as a great good. But speaking about marriage as a vocation is a recent development. In the total Christian culture of a previous era, marriage was what normal people did and in the sacrament of marriage grace built on nature. The notion that God calls people to marriage is present in this traditional view but only in so far as God calls everybody to this state of life.

Even those called to consecrated life still experience this natural call, but it is overtaken by the supernatural call to lifelong celibacy. Because everybody has the call to marriage, it was not seen as a “vocation” in the sense of a special calling.

Within the Catholic tradition, the term “vocation” was restricted to the priesthood and consecrated life. This tradition has undergone significant development in the last 35 years.

With the collapse of socialised Christianity in Europe during the course of the 20th century, Christian faith was no longer the norm by the 1980s. St John Paul II spelt out the implications of this for the Catholic understanding of marriage when in 1981 he wrote the apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio on the role of the Christian family in the modern world. He changed the way we speak about vocation when he wrote: “Love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.”

The vocation to love as the foundation of being human was the Polish pope’s greatest vocational insight, but it has not yet fired up the imagination of most Catholics. This insight should be the foundation of the new evangelisation in this country because most people now believe that the purpose of life is to do your own thing and to find romantic partners along the way. In general, love as a high calling has been replaced by love as a consumer need.

Within the context of the vocation to love, St John Paul II then puts marriage and celibacy on an equal footing: “Christian revelation recognises two specific ways of realising the vocation of the human person to love: marriage and virginity or celibacy.”

While the Second Vatican Council had referred to “the marriage vocation” and “the vocation of the spouses”, it was nowhere as explicit as John Paul about the equal value of the vocation to marriage. This important development is now being built on at the family synod.

The full title of this October’s synod is “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and Contemporary World”. While public attention has focused on same-sex relationships and the possibility of admitting to communion those in second marriages, one dimension of the synod that has gone unnoticed is the very first word of its official title: “vocation”.

The synod’s preparatory document describes how “Christian marriage is a vocation that is undertaken … with a proper discernment”. Here is one of the few Church statements that contains the phrase ‘‘marriage is a vocation’’. Importantly, it is Christian marriage that is the vocation. This explains that in the context of a no longer Christian culture, to enter a Christian marriage is to respond to a distinctive calling from the Lord.

Young people no longer have the simple choice of either marriage or consecrated life and priesthood; they face a multiplicity of choices: live together, civil marriage, Christian marriage, consecrated celibacy. In addition, the number of single people in our society is growing, and that is reflected in the Church.

The Christian single life that is permanent but without formal consecration is a growing reality. Many new ecclesial movements, such as the Focolare, actively support this vocation.

Facing so many possibilities, people today need help to discern how they can best respond to the universal call to love and to Christ’s invitation to follow Him. Vocations ministry no longer means recruitment, it is now all about discernment.

The wonderful news is that, when we help people discern their vocation, more people discover a calling to each vocation. A rising tide of discernment floats all vocational boats. If the synod helps us to promote marriage as a vocation, then it will have made a major contribution to developing the culture that we need for all vocations to flourish.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (31/7/15).

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