A friend asked me an important question yesterday. How does one form men in a monastery into a common cause, if a vocation is addressed uniquely to an individual? We might be tempted to a short cut in answering such a question. Obviously, one might say, God calls the individual to a community, and it is the individual’s responsibility to make the goals of the community his or her own. This is true, but such a simple and direct answer papers over a number of challenges.
For example, both St. Therese of Lisieux and Pope Saint John Paul II experienced vocations within their “vocations.” Therese had been in the Carmel for many years already before she experienced her unique vocation. Her personal longing for martyrdom (the subjective experience that was properly her own) met Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (from her perspective, the “objective,” or, at the very least, the encounter with another subjective point of view). From this, she discerned her personal way of living out the Discalced Carmelite vocation, her Little Way of love at the heart of the Church.
From this we see that the common good of community and of the larger Church requires individuals to continue seeking their unique position within, and that this unique position is not necessarily in conflict with the common good. What guarantees the harmony of this position will reveal itself in a moment.
Pope Saint John Paul II made a pastoral visit to Mexico early in his pontificate. While in prayer at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, he came to the conviction that his mission was to “strengthen his brothers [cf. Luke 22: 32],” and that this would consist in him traveling to the local churches throughout the world. There are many facets to the task of being pope, and each individual pope will, according to his own skills and insights, manifest different facets in service to the universal Church.
So it is clear that once one receives a clear vocation: to married life and parenthood, to religious life, or to the priesthood, this vocation does not at all entail complete conformity to an external model or exemplar. Rather, it is still open to the individual (imperative, in fact) to discern within that vocation a unique, personal expression of holiness that accords with the duties of the general vocation. And in the tension between the exemplar and the unrepeatable uniqueness of the individual, the Church is strengthened and grows. What remains is to show how the Church can be certain that individual expressions of a general vocation can be in accord with the model and with the overall common good of the community and Church.
Each of the Apostles and of the various disciples of the Lord was called as a unique individual. While following Christ in the flesh, proximity to the Lord and a willingness to let Him settle any disputes was enough to maintain fellowship. But this, interestingly enough, was not enough to guarantee real unity. Christ Himself attested to this when He prophesied, quoting Zechariah, “It is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered [Matthew 26: 31; cf. Zechariah 13: 7].'” Take away proximity to Christ’s presence (before the resurrection), and the apparent unity dissolves in fear and mutual recrimination.
This state of affairs is addressed by the sending of the Holy Spirit. “Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul [Acts 4: 32].” It is of great importance that this text occurs only after Pentecost, before which time the disciples were still frightened and hiding away. The Holy Spirit is the Person Who guarantees the unity in diversity of the Church’s charisms. This might seem simply to forestall addressing the dilemma, since I’ve now begged the question of determining how one knows whether an individual charism is a true manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s presence or is, in fact, a manifestation of self-will. Here, however, we have plenty of guidance, in the form of the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit. Legitimate authority in the Church aids in determining whether these are present, but what will testify to authenticity is the presence of love, joy, peace, patience, wisdom, justice, and so on. And indeed, it is the desire to live this life of the Spirit that will give rise to a more certain grasp of one’s unique gifts and vocation.