What does it mean to “pray for vocations”? Today is the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, and Pope Francis once again is reframing how the people of God should think about an issue. His message is quite relevant for LGBTQ people.
For too long, the focus of such vocation-oriented prayers has been hopes that more young Catholics would enter vowed ministry—and especially that young men become priests. This fixation on priests is problematic. In college, the men’s vocation group was invited to the university president’s residence for a steak dinner. Meanwhile, the women’s vocation group was given store-bought cupcakes in a dorm lounge. This anecdote is but one of many I could tell from my days being courted to be ordained. The current system of vocation recruitment is mired in sexism, homo/biphobia, and clericalism.
But I see something happening in the church when it comes to vocations. Our ecclesial imagination is being expanded at the urging, indeed insistence, of Pope Francis. His message for today’s day of prayer explicitly rejects an overly-narrow framing of what praying for vocations means: “The word ‘vocation’ should not be understood restrictively, as referring simply to those who follow the Lord through a life of special consecration.” Instead, he offers a message about the broader meaning of vocation in a synodal church:
“All of us are called to share in Christ’s mission to reunite a fragmented humanity and to reconcile it with God. Each man and woman, even before encountering Christ and embracing the Christian faith, receives with the gift of life a fundamental calling: each of us is a creature willed and loved by God; each of us has a unique and special place in the mind of God. At every moment of our lives, we are called to foster this divine spark, present in the heart of every man and woman, and thus contribute to the growth of a humanity inspired by love and mutual acceptance. We are called to be guardians of one another, to strengthen the bonds of harmony and sharing, and to heal the wounds of creation lest its beauty be destroyed.”
Sadly, the institutional church largely still rejects this core belief about which Francis so movingly writes.
The pope later also writes that each person has a “particular call” beyond our common one. But here, too, too many of our particular calls are rejected. Many church leaders expel LGBTQ people from ministry and other church employment, ban women and non-binary folk from ordination, condone anti-Blackness, and refuse to make churches accessible. The institutional church claims to welcome all and desire everyone’s gifts, but the truth is only some are deemed to have their vocation honored. And by some, I largely mean cisgender, ostensibly heterosexual male priests.
This reality raises questions for me. When will LGBTQ people and our allies have the dignity of our vocations, both the common and the particular, respected in the church after so much denigration? What will stop the dismissals from ministry and the firings from employment so connected to vocations? Why are we forced to separate our sexual or gender identity from our vocation when we know them to be so intimately linked? How can we change this dynamic?
Pope Francis’ message today is instructive on this last query, but only if we are willing to have the courage to look inward before proclaiming outward. He writes:
“According to a proverb from the Far East, ‘a wise person, looking at the egg can see an eagle; looking at the seed he glimpses a great tree; looking at the sinner he glimpses a saint’. That is how God looks at us: in each of us, [God] sees a certain potential, at times unbeknownst to ourselves, and throughout our lives [God] works tirelessly so that we can place this potential at the service of the common good.”
Coming to know one’s vocations is coming to see ourselves with the gaze of God and therefore to know our potential.
For better or worse, LGBTQ people, if we are to be healthy in the present society, are mandated by our identities to make this inner journey. And though it may be a deeply painful, all-too-long a process, coming out to oneself is in a real way coming to know oneself as God knows and gazes lovingly upon us. LGBTQ people offer the church a gift by teaching this way of discernment and discovery that could help every person find the vocations to which God calls them.
Vocations do not, however, stop with self-discovery. By finding our vocations, we bring about, in the pope’s words, “making God’s dream come true.” We must gaze not only on ourselves with God’s eyes, but on each other. Francis writes:
“Let us also learn to look at one another in such a way that all those with whom we live and encounter – whoever they may be – will feel welcomed and discover that there is Someone who looks at them with love and invites them to develop their full potential. . .
“As Christians, we do not only receive a vocation individually; we are also called together. We are like the tiles of a mosaic. Each is lovely in itself, but only when they are put together do they form a picture.”
Imagine a church which genuinely practiced the way Francis envisions: a church of true welcome because there is a diversified unity and every person is encouraged to flourish. I can imagine it because I have seen it. Pushed to the margins in the church, LGBTQ people and our allies have imperfectly, but intentionally, begun incarnating the church and world we seek through liminal spaces. And then, we advance God’s reign by forcing the institutional church to include our vocational tiles in the collective mosaic of the people of God.
So, what does it mean to “pray for vocations”? Today, I join Pope Francis in praying simply that all people come to see themselves with the gaze with which God sees them. And, by doing so, unleashes their potential for “making God’s dream come true.” If the church is wise, it will not only include LGBTQ people in this journey. It will let us help guide the way.
—Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, May 8, 2022