“Said a boy one day, ‘How in the world does a person ever know he is to be a priest?’ This little lad was a budding philosopher: he wanted to know the reason of things. But many an older person has been puzzled by the same question. Some boys and girls, having a distorted notion of the nature of vocation, imagine that Almighty God picks out certain persons, without consulting them, and destines them for the priesthood or religious life, whereas all other persons He excludes from this privilege. In other words, they think God does it all.
“Of course, we know there is an overruling Providence, Who watches over all His creatures, and particularly over His elect, distributing His graces and favors as He wills, and bringing al things to their appointed ends. If, for instance, a boy is blind, and for this reason no religious congregation will accept him, it is apparent that God does not design him for the religious life, though even for him the private practice of the counsels might still be open.
“But we must not imagine that God settles everything in this world independently of our free will. He wishes us not to steal, but we may, if we choose, become thieves. Two boys of the same qualifications, let us say, have the general invitation of the Scripture to a life of perfection; they both have the same grace, which one accepts and the other rejects. What makes the vocation in the one case? The action of the boy himself in choosing to follow the invitation. And why has not the other boy a vocation? Because he declines to correspond with the grace. God does His part; He issues the call to all who are free from impediment and hindrance. Anyone who wishes can accept the call and thus, in a sense, make his own vocation, for God’s necessary help is ever ready to hand for those who will use it.
“We may here remark that, while the practice of all virtue comes from man’s free will, it also springs in a higher and greater degree from God, the author of grace. Without Him we can do nothing. ‘Who distinguishes you? Or what do you have that you have not received?’ asks St. Paul (I Cor. 4:7). God’s grace must necessarily precede and accompany every supernatural action. In a very true sense, while a religious may say: ‘I am such voluntarily of my own free choice,’ he must also admit, ‘I am a religious by the grace of God, Who prepared me, aided me by external and internal helps, enlightened my mind and strengthened my will to embrace the life He designs for me.’
“In much the same way, a daily communicant may say: ‘It is of my own accord and wish that I receive daily, but it is God’s predilection that has prompted me to this design, given me the opportunity and strength of purpose to carry it out, and keeps me faithful to it, so that it is by His grace and Providence that I am a daily communicant.’ Countless others could adopt the same practice, were they not too sluggish or indifferent to ask for or correspond with the grace of doing so.
“Most ordinary vocations have several stages of development. Very many a person, with all the qualities required for the evangelical life, and unimpeded by any obstacle, begin to consider, under the influence of grace, the advisability of embracing that kind of life. This may be called the remote stage of a vocation. One who finds himself in this condition of mind, if he prays for light and guidance, is faithful to duty and generous in the service of God, may be enabled by a further enlightenment of grace to perceive that this life is best for him, and consequently that it will be more pleasing to God for him to adopt it, and finally he may decide to do so. Such a one has a proximate vocation, the only further step required being to carry out his purpose. This decision, be it observed, is the result of the action of his free will, aided by efficacious grace, which is a mark of God’s special love.
“A little illustration may assist us to get a clearer idea of the matter. Suppose Christ were to walk into your classroom, how would He act? Would He pick out four or five pupils and say, ‘I wish you to be religious, the others I do not want, and I forbid them such aspirations?’ Do you think our loving, gentle Redeemer would speak in this harsh way? And yet some good, but ill-informed Christians think this a faithful representation of God’s method of action in this important matter.
“How, then, would Christ really address the class? He would say, ‘My dear children, I want as many of you as possible to follow closely in My footsteps, to become perfect. I should be glad to have all of you, who are not prevented by some insuperable obstacle, such as ill-health, lack of talent, home difficulties, or extreme giddiness of character. I hope to have a large number of volunteers.’ How many children in that classroom, do you think, would joyfully hold up their hands, and beg Him to take them?
“Now, this is truly the way God acts with the individual soul. He come to it perhaps not once only but repeatedly, and makes the general offer, using for this purpose the living voice of His minister, or the written page, or a prompting impulse from within. And when God’s desire is so manifested, all that the soul needs is to cooperate with grace, if it will.
“That this interpretation of the general call of Scripture to a higher life is in accord with sound doctrine, we can perceive from St. Thomas, who says that the resolution of entering the religious state, whether it comes from the general invitation of Scripture or an internal impulse, is to be approved. And in his ‘Catena Aurea,’ commenting on St. Matthew chapter 19, he quotes St. Chrysostom, who holds that ‘the reason all do not take Christ’s advice is because they do not wish to do so.’ The words ‘to whom it is given,’ according to the Greek father, show that ‘unless we received the help of grace, the exhortation would profit us nothing. But this help of grace is not denied to those who wish it.’
“This is also the teaching of St. Ignatius in his ‘Spiritual Exercises,’ where he designates three occasions in which to elect a state of life: the first, when God appeals to the soul in some extraordinary way; the second, when grace moves the heart by consolation and desolation, and the third, when the soul without any special motion of grace, ‘that is, when not agitated by diverse spirits, makes use of its natural powers’ to elect the state of life which seems best suited to the praise of God and the salvation of one’s soul. Evidently a vocation decided in the last-mentioned time, implies no special call beyond the general scriptural invitation and the determination to accept it.
“Someone may ask how it is then that so many virtuous boys and girls, endowed with all needful qualifications, prompt and ready to respond to the suggestions of grace, yet have no efficacious desire of the higher life. It is not for us to search into the secrets of hearts, nor to penetrate into the mystery of grace and free will. The Spirit breathes where He wills, and God distributes to each man his own proper gift. But, at least, one thing seems certain, that many fail to recognize God’s will, because they expect it to be manifested in some extraordinary or palpable manner. Perhaps, too, they have prepossessions against it, they have already marked out their own career, they never think about the counsels, or pray for guidance. If all our young people only realized that Christ’s invitation is general and meant for them, provided no impediment exist, and they wish to embrace it; if at the same time they kept their hearts free from worldly amusements, and applied themselves to prayer and self-control, volunteers in greater number would rally to Christ’s standard.” (Rev. Francis Cassily, SJ, What Shall I Be?, ch. 5)