The prophets understood that the people of Israel had been called by God. In Isaiah we read, “I, the Lord, have called you for the victory of justice” (42:6), and “I have called you by name: you are mine” (43:1). Hosea contains a beautiful poem that begins: “When Israel was a child I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son” (11:1). So when Jesus called his Apostles, he was operating within the context of God’s established relationship with his people.
Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans says that we are “called to belong to Jesus Christ” (1:6). The Church has carried on this tradition of viewing ourselves as called by God. We are called in Baptism to be God’s people. This means that we are called to live holy lives, and we are called to spread the light of the Gospel over the whole world.
There are special vocations within the Church—to the priesthood, to the religious life, and so on—but we must never lose sight of the fact that all of us have a vocation as Christians, and that is the most important vocation of all.
In times past many Catholics associated holiness with living a consecrated religious life. Lay people were called to lead good lives; monks and nuns were called to be holy. The Second Vatican Council put that kind of thinking to rest. Chapter Five of the Constitution on the Church was entitled “The Call to Holiness,” and it is clear that the chapter is directed to all baptized Christians.
“All in the Church, whether they belong to the hierarchy or are cared for by it, are called to holiness.” There is no double standard when it comes to our essential vocation as Christians. We are a holy people, and we are all called to live out that holiness in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.
The vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience are considered ways of living the Christian life—giving witness to God’s kingdom that is to come. Those who choose to live these vows are deeply connected to the holiness and the mission of the Church. Following these vows is a profound expression of the Christian vocation: “It is the radical gift that individuals make out of love for Christ, Teacher and Spouse, and for the brothers and sisters redeemed on the Cross by the Blood of the Savior.” (Pope John Paul II)
Benedictine monks and nuns take root in a particular place, called monasteries, and they are related to the culture and needs of a specific location. Most of them live together in congregations following a common discipline and helping each other live lives of prayer, study, and work. They lead many different types of monastic life. Some live enclosed lives with little involvement in the local Church and society; others are involved in various activities, such as education, parish ministry, evangelization, publishing, and health care. Many Benedictine monasteries were closed during the Protestant Reformation, and most of the remaining ones were shut down during the Napoleonic era. The order experienced a revival in the 19th century, and today it is growing in areas such as East Africa and South Korea.
The Order of Preachers, which is what Saint Dominic called the religious order he founded, has a glorious history. It has given the Church some of its greatest saints and theologians, including Saint Albert the Great, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Saint Catherine of Siena. Four Dominicans have been popes, including Pope Saint Pius V. Included among the Dominicans who brought the Gospel to the New World was Bartolome de Las Casas, who spent a large portion of his life fighting for the rights of native peoples of the New World. The first canonized saint of the New World was a Dominican, Saint Rose of Lima. Today there are Dominicans in over 90 countries doing everything from conducting research in the great universities of Europe to running an ecological farm in Benin, Africa.
Franciscan spirituality is centered on Jesus. Just as Jesus enters into the poverty of the human condition and becomes “poor for us in this world,” the Franciscans offer themselves to a life of poverty and service. Franciscans try to show God’s goodness through peaceful and gentle love of all people, especially the poor and weak.
More than 4 1/2 centuries after its founding by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) is the largest religious order of the Catholic Church. Jesuit priests, brothers, and scholastics—men who are studying to become priests—work on six continents and in 112 countries throughout the world.
Missionary work is important in the history of the Jesuits. Ignatius and his followers intended to serve among the Muslims in the Holy Land, and Saint Francis Xavier went to the Far East to bring the people there the Good News about Jesus.
By the middle of the 18th century, more than one-fifth of all Jesuit priests worked in missions, including missions in the Americas. Some of the most famous missions were in Brazil and Paraguay, where the Jesuits established villages for Christian Native Americans. These villages were not subject to local government. This setup was to ensure that the Native Americans were not enslaved or exploited. The most famous mission in North America was the one established among the Hurons, with whom Saint Isaac Jogues worked.
Jesuits do all kinds of work: parish and retreat ministry, high school and college education, and individual ministries such as lawyers, doctors, psychologists, counselors, writers, journalists, theologians, philosophers, researchers, and scientists. In the United States the Jesuits operate such major universities as Georgetown, Fordham, and the various Loyola universities. They publish the award-winning Catholic magazine America. Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pope.
Saint Alphonsus Liguori founded the Redemptorists in 1732 as a religious congregation of men dedicated to the spread of the Gospel among the poor and most abandoned. Their work began in the hill country surrounding Naples, in southern Italy. The Congregation spread first to Austria and then to other countries, and then in 1832, when the Congregation was 100 years old, six Redemptorists (three priests and three brothers) journeyed to America. Today there are over 5,500 Redemptorists working for people in nearly every part of the world. More than 800 Redemptorists work in the United States and Canada. The official name of the order is “Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer,” but its members are more commonly called “Redemptorists.” Redemptorists serve either as priests or brothers, and there is a lay arm of the order. The Redemptorist Lay Partners are members who profess religious vows. The Lay Missionaries are members of Redemptorist parishes or teams. The Co-Redemptorists join in promoting vocations and supporting seminarians.
Pope John Paul II wrote about the universal call to holiness in his 1988 Apostolic Exhortation, On the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World: “Everyone in the Church, precisely because they are members, receive and thereby share in the common vocation to holiness. In the fullness of this title and on equal par with all other members of the Church, the lay faithful are called to holiness. The call to holiness is rooted in Baptism and proposed anew in the other Sacraments, principally in the Eucharist. Since Christians are re-clothed in Christ Jesus and refreshed by his Spirit, they are ‘holy.’ (16) They therefore have the ability to manifest this holiness and the responsibility to bear witness to it in all that they do.”
Excerpts from Vatican conciliar, postconciliar, and papal documents are from the official translations, Librería Editrice Vaticana, 00120 Citta del Vaticano.