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Over the past two decades, there has been a surprising resurgence of interest in, and appreciation for, the relevance of vocational exploration in higher education. Indeed, helping students see themselves as people who are called, and helping them discern how they might be called, seems increasingly timely, even urgent. This essay argues that vocational exploration is integral to undergraduate education and advances that claim in three ways: first, by considering how inviting students to “live vocationally” makes them better human beings with significantly more meaningful lives; second, by claiming that living vocationally makes one’s life a pilgrimage of hope; and third, by suggesting that in a world of abounding crises, education for vocation matters more than ever. All these outcomes are possible because living vocationally helps us understand that we are “on call” to others, and that we should seek to be in relation with others through the grammar of love.

Over the last twenty years, a remarkable renaissance has taken place in thinking and writing about vocation: its richness, promise, substance, undeniable relevance, and even its urgency. Clearly, something significant is happening—something exciting, energizing, hopeful, and undeniably timely. Vocation has “caught fire” across an ever-growing number of college and university campuses, as faculty, staff, and students find themselves increasingly engaged by a concept that many thought could be packed away in some metaphorical attic (where we store things that we are no longer sure are of any use).

This is a propitious moment for vocation. Perhaps this is because vocational exploration is tapping into something deeper—something that we cannot ignore without grievous cost to ourselves. Or maybe the timeliness of this renaissance is due to a realization that living vocationally rouses us to transcend ourselves in love and service to others—and that, in doing so, we can help to build a better world. Or perhaps, as the last few years have dramatically shown us, something needs to change—socially, economically, and politically—if we are to live into a future that is worth having for anyone. And, perhaps, more than anything, we have stumbled upon the idea that to have found a calling—to live vocation- ally—is to have found a good way to live.1

In this essay, I want to show why engaging students in vocational exploration is a particularly timely form of work—indeed, a calling—for faculty members and staff at institutions of higher education. I believe that, in taking on this work, educators are committing themselves to something inherently good and inescapably hopeful—not only for our students, but also for ourselves. More strongly, I want to suggest that for staff and faculty members to be engaged in the work of vocation is to understand more fully what undergraduate education should be, and to participate in some of the most rewarding dimensions of the calling to be an educator. By integrating vocational exploration into our teaching, advising, mentoring, coaching, and supervising of students, we become more focused on what should always be the fundamental goals of our profession: to seek the good of the young adults who are entrusted to us—and ultimately, to communicate with them through the grammar of love.

I hope to show why this is the case in three ways. First, the primary reason for inviting students to “live vocationally” is that it will make them better human beings who will enjoy more richly meaningful lives. Second, vocation provides students (and perhaps their teachers as well) with a way “out of the labyrinth”—away from the treadmill of meaningless “busyness”—and onto a lifegiving journey, a pilgrimage of hope. Third, educating for vocation is extraordinarily important in times of crisis, when little goes according to plan. This final point is particularly important in our present circumstances, when it can sometimes feel as though we are constantly moving from one crisis to the next, without even a chance to catch our breath. All three of these outcomes are the result of vocation’s capacity to change our attitudes toward our relationship with our work, with others, and with God: a relationship that is best characterized as being on call and learning to love.

Living More Meaningful Lives

At the end of his 2020 book Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, Pope Francis suggests that the only way to find a path to a better future is first to “decenter and transcend” so that all may have life.2 But Francis does not tell us how to go about fulfilling this somewhat mysterious injunction. He offers no elaboration, no analysis, no further comment—just the pithy summons to decenter and transcend. But despite (or perhaps even because of) this lack of explication, this remark captures why we should seek out ways of living vocationally, and why it matters that we undertake such an effort. Francis suggests that we know ourselves rightly, and come genuinely more fully to life, only when we move out of ourselves and beyond ourselves by continually expanding the boundaries of our world—and by entering more deeply into relationship with others.

Instead of seeing this as something that happens only occasionally, Francis hints that it ought to be the ongoing dynamic of our lives. To be human, he suggests, is characteristically to be engaged with, and responsive to, the world around us; it is to be continuously “on call.” To live wisely and well is not to stay put or to hold back, and especially not to turn in on ourselves in selfishness, complacency, or indifference. Rather, it is to be skillfully attuned, each day, to the myriad ways in which we are summoned out of ourselves in response to the beauty, loveliness, and goodness of the created order—as well as in response to its suffering and affliction, and especially the suffering of another human being. Every day, wherever we are and with whomever we find ourselves, we are called to transcend ourselves in love and compassion, generosity and goodness, justice and mercy, friendship and faithfulness for the sake of others. Every day—in our homes, in our workplaces and institutions, in our communities, and in our encounters with all the neighbors who cross our paths—we are summoned to “decenter and transcend.” When we do so, we discover that we come more fully to life when we live in a way that draws others more fully to life.

When we live from the truth that to be human is to be permanently “on call,” we not only see ourselves differently, but also inhabit the world differently. Our lives are more open, more receptive, and more hospitable to others; in fact, we live on the lookout for others, finding creative ways to welcome and include.3 When we live with the abiding awareness that to be human is to be “on call,” our sense of possibility and responsibility is expanded and enriched. In this state, our utmost concern is not about how we can promote and advance ourselves (which never brings much lasting satisfaction anyway), but how we can make life better for others.4 When we make it a habit to “de- center and transcend,” we think more about giving than taking, more about sharing than possessing, more about responding to people’s needs rather than strategically safeguarding our own. In other words, we become the kind of people the world desperately needs: benevolent human beings who act with reliable goodness.

Living vocationally protects us from a life of casual thoughtlessness and sustained inattentiveness—the very attitudes that, if they become ingrained, form us into people who will never decenter and transcend, never be inconvenienced by the needs of another. We remain isolated individuals; in such circumstances, we become people who are, as Pope Francis writes, “incapable of moving outside of their own little world of interests.”5

This is why educating for vocation is not only an absolutely hopeful enterprise, but also an absolutely urgent one; there is no time to lose. If it becomes acceptable, and perhaps even encouraged, never to move outside of our own little world of interests, then nothing will change. If we absorb cultural messages, or surround ourselves with people who assure us that the circle of love need never expand, or that it is acceptable to make our comforts and our needs the primary reason that everyone else exists, then we leave open no possibility for justice and no possibility for peace. This kind of life cannot create space for the magnanimous community that needs to come to life, in order for any of us to have life at all.

A primary goal for everyone in the world of higher education—administrators, faculty, staff, and students—should be to explore the myriad ways we can become precisely the kind of people who are capable of moving outside their own small world of self-interests. By doing so, we can make space for everyone to experience the life abundant that is the harvest of justice; and this, in turn, makes space for collective joy.6 By educating for vocation, and thereby making it possible for our students to live vocationally, we protect them (and ourselves) from what Pope Francis names the “virus of indifference.”7 “This attitude ends up armor-plating the soul; that is, indifference bulletproofs it, so that certain things just bounce off,” Francis writes. “One of the dangers of this indifference is that it can become normal, silently seeping into our lifestyles and value judgments. We cannot get used to indifference.”8

But perhaps this call sounds more intimidating than inviting, more exhausting than fulfilling. To speak of decentering and transcending, to accept the notion that we should always be “on call” to others, to be insightfully attuned to the world around us—this sounds like hard work. To become people of reliable goodness, and to move outside our own little world of self-interest, is a lofty goal; but aren’t there any days off? Any holidays from being on call? This worry is understandable; we are accustomed to thinking of “days off” as a much-needed break from work that feels burdensome. But perhaps we would not feel the need for a holiday from a life of “being on call” if it felt a bit more natural to us—less of a burden, and more of a privilege. It might simply be about getting in the habit of living vocationally—learning to enjoy it so much that we don’t need, or even want, to take a day off.

In fact, the reason living vocationally makes us better human beings with richly more meaningful lives is that the language that I am offering here—of decentering and transcending, and of being always on call—is just another way of talking about living by the grammar of love, which is the innate vocation of every human being. No matter what other calls may come to us, they should all help us grow more fully in our core vocation to learn to speak fluently, and even eloquently, the language of love.9 Love is something from which we never need a vacation.

Of course, this means we are also called to love and care for ourselves—to be mindful of our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. That, too, is part of learning the language of love, a language we can hardly speak eloquently and hopefully if in doing so we continually diminish ourselves. As Jesus made clear, we are called to a wholehearted love of God, but we are also called to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:37–39)—a commandment that expressly recognizes the importance of loving and caring for ourselves as an obligation. Appropriate self-love is an integral part of becoming fluent in the language of love. It may be especially important to remember this in the present world of higher education, when many students, faculty members, and staff feel overworked and depleted, exhausted and on the verge of burnout.

Love for God, self, and others, in all its varied expressions, is the language we were created to speak; it is what we have been brought into the world to do. Giving and receiving love—a love that strives for intimacy, communion, and joyous belonging for all persons—is the deepest need human beings have, because it is the only sure path to life. It is the only sure way to be rescued and resurrected from desolation and emptiness, from the malaise that makes each day hopelessly the same, or from the soul-crushing loneliness that convinces us that we will never receive the lifegiving recognition from another person who says, “It’s good that you exist; it’s good that you are in this world!”10

This is why guiding students in vocational exploration is always fundamentally focused on helping them discern callings by which they can grow and flourish in their foundational vocation: to excel at love. Loving well and being loved well is the heart of living vocationally, and best explains why such a way of living makes us better human beings with richly more meaningful lives. All callings—those that stretch across an entire lifetime, as well as those that summon us perhaps only momentarily—are opportunities to come to life through the giving and receiving of love. This is why vocational exploration should resonate deeply with students, and also why it is essential. As bell hooks observed, “Everybody wants to know more about love. We want to know what it means to love, what we can do in our everyday lives to love and be loved.”11 In This Is Happiness, a novel by the Irish writer Niall Williams, the narrator—now in his seventies—looks back on his late adolescence, and says, “I couldn’t escape the feeling that folded against my back were wings that had failed to open.”12 If we educate for vocation, we can reduce the likelihood that our students will feel that wings were folded against their backs and had failed to open. We can do this by helping students think more deeply about the issues that typically concern them about their future lives: their choice of a particular career or profession, their commitment to another person or to a community, the goals that they want to fulfill. We can encourage them to infuse these concerns with deeper meaning by recognizing that they can all be part of the call to love. We can ask them to probe how they find meaning and fulfillment in hearing and responding to the call to love—not only in matters of goals and commitments and careers, but in everything they do and in the way they live their lives. The vocation to love is a call that they can answer every day, wherever they may be.

In guiding students in vocational exploration, we help them cut through all the noise and all the clutter—all the superficial, inane messages about what leads to happiness and fulfillment—and instead encourage them to probe the depths of who they are, and to consider what will bring them life. We can help them see that joy and meaning and peace come to us, not when we craftily calculate how to make everything work to our own best advantage, but when we live by the rhythm of invitation and response. This means that, each day, human beings are called to do our best to answer the appeal that comes to us from the presence of another person, another creature, an unexpected opportunity or challenge, or whatever surprising way we may find ourselves being summoned to “decenter and transcend” through love. To educate for vocation is to get to the heart of the matter: namely, to help our students recognize that, if we orient our lives toward love and goodness, we will find happiness and fulfillment—and so will others, in part because of the role that we play in their lives.13

All of this comes with one substantial qualification. It makes sense to invite students to “decenter and transcend” if the conditions for their flourishing are regularly fulfilled. But there are many young adults for whom that might be terribly misguided advice. These students may already have wings “folded against their back,” wings that have “failed to open”—not because of poor choices or decisions, but because of persons, policies, structures, institutions, and practices that continually sabotage their liberation and flourishing. As Patrick Reyes asks, “How do you thrive when the world sees you as a problem? How can you find purpose when the world has written you off?”14 “For many of us,” he continues, “purpose is defined, stolen, or withheld before we even enter the world.”15 If living vocationally makes us better human beings who will enjoy richly more meaningful lives, then this blessed future cannot be limited to only a lucky few, but must be open to all. This is why our basic vocation to love can never be separated from justice; it can only be fulfilled when love is guided and informed by justice and when justice is inspired by love. If, as Reyes rightly claims, a vocation that all of us share is “to call others to life, to create the conditions for them to thrive,”16 then answering that calling will demand addressing, and working to overcome, the dehumanizing forces of systemic injustice that makes it impossible for millions to live at all.17

Finding Our Way Out of the Labyrinth

I now turn to a second reason educators should be drawn to engaging students in thinking and living vocationally. In the epilogue of Let Us Dream, Pope Francis says that too many people today are “like a tourist who goes to the sea or the mountains for a week of relaxation but then returns to her suffocating routine. She has moved, but sideways, only to come back to where she started.”18 He contrasts the tourist with the pilgrim “who is one who decenters and so can transcend.” The pilgrim, Francis says, “goes out from herself, opens herself to a new horizon, and when she comes home, she is no longer the same, and so her home won’t be the same.”19

What the world needs now, Francis emphasizes, are pilgrims rather than tourists. When we are tourists, he suggests, our life becomes a labyrinth in which we endlessly “go around and around,” back and forth over the same paths, continually retracing our steps, yet finding ourselves at one dead end after another.20 We are trapped in a maze, a labyrinth, where we can seem to be amazingly busy and in demand, expending lots of energy as we move from one thing to the next; but in reality, we are going nowhere. We can get so accustomed to living inside a labyrinth that we no longer realize that is where we are. And even if we are going nowhere, life inside a labyrinth can be quite cozy and comfortable—especially if we are privileged and fortunate, and surrounded by people, communities, leaders, and institutions that assure us that all is well. But Francis is right: life trapped inside a labyrinth is ultimately a nightmare. Hence, at the end of Let Us Dream, he asserts, “This is a time for pilgrimages.”21

Our call as educators, then, is to help our students find their way out of the labyrinth and onto a lifegiving pilgrimage. What does this mean, in practice? Supporting them through the work of vocational exploration and discernment can be the thread that guides them as they try to find their way out of the labyrinth and back to life. (And in doing so, we may even help ourselves to accomplish the same end.) Vocational exploration efforts might achieve this goal in many ways, but two seem especially important.

Making a Life: The Promise of Community Engagement

First, we can help students appreciate the difference between making a living and making a life. I first heard this useful distinction many years ago in an address offered by Bobby Fong, then president of Butler University.22 Vocational exploration often begins through conversations with students about career options—about what professions might best align with their talents, interests, and ambitions. These are important concerns, and they are certainly on the minds of our students (and their parents). But too often, vocational exploration goes no further; it begins and ends with career counseling. That’s certainly not a good place to end the conversation—and it may not even be the best place to begin.

Vocational exploration is more successful when, right from the start, it ad- dresses larger questions of meaning and purpose. Students need to understand that we can always be about the business of “making a life,” even if we are not ready to think about, or not sure how to think about, “making a living.” Moreover, even though we may become quite good at making a living, we can still remain trapped inside the labyrinth. (In fact, the better we are at our jobs, the more likely we are to become trapped in them.) If we hope to grasp what it might mean to make a life—that is, if we truly want to understand and to care about what it would mean to live in a truly good and magnanimous way—then whatever success we achieve in “making a living” may be in vain. We still need to learn how to “make a life.”

This helps us understand why vocational reflection can profitably be linked to the work of community engagement. This connection can provide students with a particularly vivid picture of the difference between making a living and making a life; it can help them understand why even a career that society might deem “successful” can fall short, if our goal is to live a truly good life.

Through community engagement, students meet people whose background, history, stories, and experiences might be jarringly different from their own. Such encounters can cultivate an appetite for exploration and an openness for transformation that is essential for moving out of the labyrinth.23 In being drawn into an unfamiliar world, students are given the time and space necessary to question the standard script about what their driving ambitions should be, about their ultimate goals, and about whom they should emulate. They may also learn that culturally approved desires for wealth, power, and prestige may really have very little to offer them. In these blessed encounters that our students have with others who are very different from themselves, they can discover the unassailable wisdom in these words of Frederick Buechner: “To journey for the sake of saving our own lives is little by little to cease to live in any sense that really matters, even to ourselves, because it is only by journeying for the world’s sake—even when the world bores and sickens and scares you half to death—that little by little we start to come alive.”24 If our students take those words to heart, they’ll be ready to step out of the labyrinth and onto a path that leads to a truly good life.

Community engagement work can be challenging for our students. And yet, they often desperately need to be drawn into a larger world, where their ideas, attitudes, viewpoints, ambitions, and assumptions are stretched, challenged, shaken, and sometimes subverted and converted. When this occurs, they often come to a better sense of the goals to which they should aspire, and the ways in which they might allow their lives to be shaped. This may be why Francis exhorts us, “Let yourself be pulled along, shaken up, challenged.”25 Perhaps he recognizes that these unexpected (and often disruptive) moments can foster the disenchantment that is necessary, if students are ever to break free of counter- feit accounts of a good and “successful” life in order to contemplate something better. As challenging as these kinds of encounters may be, we need to guide students toward them while they are still in the (relatively) “safe space” of college life, where they can reflect on their experiences and process the “shaking up” that they may experience.26

Perhaps most important, the kinds of encounters that occur through community engagement work can reawaken an indispensable element of moral awareness: not only do we “need each other,” but we also belong to one an- other—indeed, we “have a responsibility for one another.”27 That shift in consciousness changes how we see, assess, and relate to others; it leads us to live by the logic of gratitude and generosity, rather than the logic of entitlement and possessiveness. Instead of seeing our gifts and opportunities wholly in terms of how we can bolster ourselves, we can come to realize that so much of who we are—so much of the life that we enjoy—rests on the gifts, generosity, and sacrifices of others. In Neighbor Love Through Fearful Days, Jason Mahn, recollecting his own life, captures this shift in consciousness when he writes: “I have been gifted. I have been given certain gifts and talents (and limits), and with them come the freedom and responsibility to serve the common good. I have been gifted. My life as a whole is something I receive rather than own. Or rather, I take full ownership only insofar as I humbly receive it and gratefully give it away.”28 To discover that we possess our lives only as we give them away is what everyone who lives vocationally discovers. This is part of what it means to be “on call” for others, and to live by the grammar of love; to live life in this way is, almost by definition, to get out of the labyrinth and onto a journey of hope.

Not Just a Choice: The Summoned Life

Students who undertake the work of vocational exploration and discernment can come to realize that, most of the time, we do not actually have the power to choose a particular way of life. We might seek to do so because we think it will lead to happiness (however we might define that). But try as we might to make all the right plans and undertake the most strenuous efforts to bring all the planets into alignment, to make sure that our goals will be perfectly realized—we soon learn that we have less control over these matters than we might imagine. Rather than foregrounding our own choices, the work of vocational discernment asks that we consider the kind of life to which we are summoned.29

While I definitely want to commend summons over choice, I want to make clear at the outset that these two notions should not be contrasted too sharply. Living vocationally does require that we be moral agents who are actively and thoughtfully engaged with our callings. We are not merely passive observers who take no action, who simply let things happen to us. Still, I do want to suggest that we need to avoid overemphasizing our own internal choices to such an extent that we completely neglect or ignore the possibility that we might be being summoned. Our goal should not be to live the self-constructed life, but to live the called life. To be human is to be “on call”—to be ready to respond to the needs of others. It is all too easy to slip into the assumption that our future lives should be created and crafted by ourselves and for the sake of ourselves, which in turn can make it very hard to hear the appeals that come to us from God, from other persons, from our communities, or from the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

The language of choice sounds freeing, but in reality, it can be quite stressful and burdensome. Choice implies that we have a fairly clear sense of who we are and what we want, but many college students do not. They have not had enough experience of life to have wrestled with their own hopes and dreams; in fact, this is exactly what they are trying to figure out during late adolescence. They may well know what their parents, teachers, or other adult figures in their lives want for them; and yet, exactly that awareness makes it more difficult for them to know what they want for themselves.30 In this sense, choice is something of an illusion, even for those who believe they have a wide range of choices. (Others, of course, have very few choices; I will return to this point in a moment.)

If vocation is primarily parsed in the language of choice, students can become increasingly frustrated and discouraged. Given all the possible options that they (theoretically) might pursue, they are forced to wonder how they could possibly discern the one that is most fitting for them. They can invest so much time and energy in sorting through options that they feel, like the person in the labyrinth, that they really aren’t getting anywhere but only going in circles. They may also discover that certain choices are not actually open to them, for any of a number of reasons. And even if they believe that they have found the best possible choice at the moment, what if something better comes along later? Worst of all, what if they find themselves having chosen badly? When so much emphasis is placed on choice, and then life moves in an unexpected or unsavory direction, students can come to believe that they have only themselves to blame.31

Similarly, Jason Mahn has commented on how unhelpful it can be to bombard students with the language of choice. “Many students and educators,” he writes, “assume that to live a purposeful life is to go from being conflicted, torn, and indecisive to charting a clear and single path by way of decisive decision-making. Students are encouraged by a host of career services and parental voices (some rather insistent), to choose a major, embark on a career, decide who you’re going to be.”32 The danger of this approach, Mahn suggests, is that it tempts us to imagine that we know precisely what we are doing, and that we are in much greater control of our lives than we actually are. More seriously, by zeroing in on choosing and deciding, students risk “obscuring the receptive, responsive dimension of being called or finding meaning and purpose.”33 This is why, Mahn emphasizes, “Perhaps the most active—but also strangely passive—thing that we can do is to pay attention to that which we do not create but which may be calling us toward new ways of life.”34

Echoing David Brooks, Mahn underscores the notable difference between the “well-planned life” and the “summoned life.” The summoned life, Mahn writes,

exercises its agency by being attentive and responsive to others. The sum- moned life doesn’t, first of all, ask what the individual wants to do and then plan for how to accomplish it. Rather, it looks to the situation and web of relationships in which it finds itself, asking how to respond. . . . The summoned life is open to the pleas, gifts, needs, interruptions, and summons of others. . . . Indeed, one might argue……. that a life open to being summoned is more meaningful and responsible than the well-planned life.35

This emphasizes the resonances between “the summoned life” and what I have described as being “on call” to other people—to be invested in the grammar of love. If we are seeking a timely way to instill these ideas in our students, and to guide them out of the labyrinth and onto a pilgrimage of hope, we can begin by helping them rethink the idea of choice. We can encourage them to abandon the constrictions and inevitable disappointments of the overly planned life in order to risk the challenges, but also unexpected blessings, of the summoned life.

But here I need to return to a point made briefly above: while all this may be true for many of our students, it certainly would not apply to all of them. The dilemma for some young adults is not being overwhelmed by too many options and choices, but having far too few. Their challenge is not overly planning their lives, but having any possibility at all for a genuinely good life. They would love to get out of the labyrinth and onto a lifegiving journey, if only society would let them. As Patrick Reyes writes, “Prior to even beginning the journey, many people today have been left out. It is determined before their birth that they are not worthy of the journey at all.”36 If vocational exploration is not to be a luxury of the privileged, educators must be continually attuned and responsive to students who are credibly convinced that the doors that will open for others are not designed to open for them. Engaging such students in vocational reflection is irresponsible without reckoning with practices of discrimination and exclusion at our institutions. We also need to be willing to demand, and to work for, the thorough political, economic, and social transformations that must occur for all persons to be empowered to pursue life-giving callings.37

Vocation in Times of Crisis

I want to conclude with a brief reflection about why, in times of crisis, introducing students to vocational exploration matters more than ever. Consider what has transpired over the last few years. We’ve again seen the pernicious, crushing, and all too often deadly effects of systemic racism. The gap between the stupendously rich and everybody else, especially the poor, has only widened. Threats to democracy have not only increased but have become brazenly and gleefully embraced by those elected to protect it. Ludicrous conspiracy theories abound amid rising tides of nationalism, a facile and cynical disregard for the truth, and a politics locked in a permanent state of disagreement. It is easy to make the COVID-19 pandemic into the culprit, but this is not the full story; the seeds were sown long before the recent public health crisis. Add to this litany of distress and dissolution the endless chronicle of mass shootings, growing efforts to restrict the flourishing of the LGBTQ community, the plight of migrants and refugees, the irrefutable reality of climate change, and the seemingly unstoppable destructiveness of war: it is as if the world itself is stuck in a labyrinth—going in repetitively destructive circles, pursuing paths that are killing us.

No wonder Pope Francis begins Let Us Dream by saying, “I see this time as a reckoning.”38 He says the “basic rule of a crisis is that you don’t come out of it the same. If you get through it, you come out better or worse, but never the same,” adding that we will come out of it for the better if we can collectively see it as an opportunity to “create something new.”39 We will create something new, he suggests, when we are not afraid “to dream big, to rethink our priorities—what we value, what we want, what we seek,”40 and not afraid to “go to the edges of existence” in order “to see the world as it is.”41

In fact, there is a sense in which our present state of crisis may actually deepen our sense of calling. When the needs of the world are so pressing and so significant, it is as though the world itself is calling out to us—calling us— to attend to its condition, to heal its wounds.42 Some callings that previously seemed clear to us may be reconfiguring themselves in the light of our current situation; and in any case, our callings are dynamic realities. They are likely to be in a constant state of realignment, depending on the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Particularly in times of crisis, we can expect our callings to be accentuated and deepened; we simply need to be attentive to the world around us.

In this time of reckoning, attending to our vocations matters more than ever. In a world where very little can go on as before, perhaps our most urgent vocation as educators is to invite students to consider the kind of dreams that will enable them—and, indeed, enable all of us—to create something new. This “new thing” will be so infused with love and justice, mercy and compassion that there will finally be a world that reflects the truth of who we are: people who belong to one another, are indebted and responsible to one another, who poignantly depend on one another, and who make sure there is never anyone outside the circle of justice and love.43 This can only come about if we are willing to be “on call” to one another—at the disposal of those who need us. Vocational exploration and discernment, done rightly, can engender precisely this perspective. It can help us find ways to make sure that everyone’s wings never remain folded behind their backs.

Finally, we need to remember (and to teach our students) that, more often than not, worthy dreams come to life only when people realize that our callings are actually calls to action. As I have already suggested, to be “on call” is not a passive activity; it requires us to have a firm grasp on our own moral agency. Sometimes, this means that—rather than always being content to remain congenial and agreeable—we are called to speak out, to resist, to disrupt the familiar, and to be creatively pushy. That can happen in all kinds of ways; but it requires that we pay attention when we are being summoned, and that we recognize that there is work to be done. Sometimes the best way to speak out, resist, disrupt, and be creatively pushy is, as Pope Francis says, to offer our service to others. This means telling others that “you’d like to be part of a different world, and you thought this might be a good place to start.”44

Our Core Calling, Our Ultimate Vocation

The resurgence of attention, over the last two decades, to the concepts of vocation and calling may have been unforeseen and unexpected, but it is undeniably good news for anyone looking for reasons to be hopeful. Living vocationally means seeing ourselves as people who are called, who are “on call”—not just at moments of major transition in our lives, but every day. This kind of life helps us get to the heart of what it means to be human. It changes how we understand ourselves; it changes our values, reshapes our attitudes and perspectives, and radically transforms our fundamental stance toward life. In living vocationally, we discover that we are much more likely to experience joy and fulfillment, peace and satisfaction when we orient our lives to the well-being of others—when we learn to relate to them through the grammar of love. And particularly in the present moment, the more every person begins to “live vocationally,” the more confident we can be in moving beyond the multiple crises that continue to ensnare us— crises that can be overcome if we learn to live in radically different ways.

Hence, guiding students in vocational exploration is a core calling for those who work in higher education today. That exploration can take place throughout a campus in classrooms and laboratories, in rehearsals for artistic performance, when advising and mentoring, in athletic practices and games, in student organizations, in campus ministries, and in career centers. No matter where it occurs, helping students discern the many ways they are called—both in the present moment, and into the future—is inescapably hopeful and energizing. Why? Because the calling beneath every calling is to be on call for one another—to expand the circle of justice and love continually. This is our ultimate vocation: to carry out this work, in our families and communities, in our institutions, in the larger society, and throughout the world. And we are called to continue to do so until everyone is welcome, everyone belongs, everyone is embraced, and everyone knows that the feast cannot begin until every last one of us is seated. That is a scene of abundant, overflowing, collective joy. Living vocationally will take us there.

Cite this article
Paul Wadell, “Being on Call, Learning to Love: Why Vocation is Good News for Us All”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 52:4 , 103-117


  1. Paul J. Wadell and Charles R. Pinches, Living Vocationally: The Journey of the Called Life (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2021), 1.
  2. Pope Francis, Let Us Dream: The Path to A Better Future (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2020), 138.
  3. Enda McDonagh, Gift and Call: Towards A Christian Theology of Morality (St. Meinrad, IN: Abbey Press, 1975), 17–66.
  4. Margaret E. Mohrmann, “‘Vocation Is Responsibility’: Broader Scope, Deeper Discernment,” in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 21–43.
  5. Francis, Let Us Dream, 27.
  6. Darby Kathleen Ray, “Self, World, and the Space Between: Community Engagement as Vocational Discernment,” in At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016), 301–20.
  7. Francis, Let Us Dream, 18.
  8. Francis, Let Us Dream, 19.
  9. Paul J. Wadell, Happiness and the Christian Moral Life: An Introduction to Christian Ethics, 3rd ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 211–13.
  10. Josef Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, trans. Richard Winston, Clara Winston, and Sister Mary Frances McCarthy (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1997), 164.
  11. Bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions (New York, NY: Harper, 2000), xxvii.
  12. Niall Williams, This Is Happiness (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019), 13.
  13. Paul Wadell, “An Itinerary of Hope: Called to A Magnanimous Way of Life,” in Cunningham, ed., Vocation Across the Academy, 193–215.
  14. Patrick B. Reyes, The Purpose Gap: Empowering Communities of Color to Find Meaning and Thrive (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2021), 2.
  15. Reyes, The Purpose Gap, 3.
  16. Reyes, The Purpose Gap, 14.
  17. Caryn D. Riswold, “Vocational Discernment: A Pedagogy of Humanization,” in Cunningham, ed., At This Time and In This Place, 72–95.
  18. Francis, Let Us Dream, 135.
  19. Francis, Let Us Dream, 135.
  20. Francis, Let Us Dream, 136.
  21. Francis, Let Us Dream, 135.
  22. Bobby Fong, “Theological Exploration of Vocation at Butler University: A Meditation on Calling” (address, Butler University Center for Faith and Vocation, Indianapolis, IN, April 7, 2011), 6.
  23. Ray, “Self, World, and the Space Between,” 315–20.
  24. Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1982), 107.
  25. Francis, Let Us Dream, 137.
  26. For more on this point, see David S. Cunningham, “Time and Place: Why Vocation is Crucial to Undergraduate Education Today,” introduction to Cunningham, ed., At This Time and In This Place, 1–19.
  27. Francis, Let Us Dream, 47. A classic locus for the importance of taking responsibility for one another—indeed, for all people—is in the section titled “Talks and Homilies of the Elder Zosima,” in Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002).
  28. Jason A. Mahn, Neighbor Love Through Fearful Days: Finding Purpose and Meaning in a Time of Crisis (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2021), 65.
  29. A. J. Conyers, The Listening Heart: Vocation and the Crisis of Modern Culture (Dallas, TX: Spence Publishing, 2006), 10–25.
  30. William T. Cavanaugh, “Actually, You Can’t Be Anything You Want (And It’s a Good Thing, Too),” in Cunningham, , At This Time and In This Place, 25–46; here, 26.
  31. Cavanaugh, “Actually, You Can’t Be Anything You Want,” 34–39.
  32. Mahn, Neighbor Love Through Fearful Days, 83.
  33. Mahn, Neighbor Love Through Fearful Days, 85.
  34. Mahn, Neighbor Love Through Fearful Days, 85.
  35. Mahn, Neighbor Love Through Fearful Days, xxiii.
  36. Reyes, The Purpose Gap, 34.
  37. Wadell and Pinches, Living Vocationally, 192–94.
  38. Francis, Let Us Dream, 1.
  39. Francis, Let Us Dream, 4.
  40. Francis, Let Us Dream, 6.
  41. Francis, Let Us Dream, 11.
  42. In this sense, our vocations are—at least in part—related to the need to address the common good. On this point, see the forthcoming book Called Beyond Our Selves: Vocation and the Common Good, ed. Erin VanLaningham (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2024).
  43. John Neafsey, A Sacred Voice Is Calling: Personal Vocation and Social Conscience (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006), 100–108.
  44. Francis, Let Us Dream, 137.

Paul Wadell

Paul Wadell is professor emeritus of theology and religious studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.