By Luke Burgis
“Each person—unique and unrepeatable—is the fundamental and primary Way of the Church.” – Pope John Paul II
For Pope John Paul II, there was no five-step program to renew the Church. He believed that the “way” forward is not a method or program; it’s each human person—all seven and a half billion of them. As a Church, we have to travel every path.
This means that there is not a single human being, dead or alive, whose life is not a doorway into the mystery of God. Their professed faith or absence of it, their political party, or their lifestyle can never absolve us—none of these things diminish our responsibility to enter into their life in order to truly know them.
How well do we truly know one another—especially young people? This is the great challenge of our technological age. Our attentiveness to each person that we encounter can change the trajectory of a single life and, with it, the world.
Education specialist Sir Ken Robinson tells the story of a young girl named Gillian Lynne who couldn’t stop fidgeting at school no matter how hard she tried. The eight-year-old girl rocked vigorously in her chair and disrupted her classmates constantly. She turned in assignments late, wrote with bad penmanship, and wasn’t following the lessons. Finally, her school sent Gillian’s parents a letter recommending that she attend a special school for children with learning disorders.
Her parents took Gillian to a specialist first. As he was talking to Gillian’s mother, the doctor observed Gillian sitting on her hands, rocking back and forth. After about twenty minutes of careful listening and watching, he asked Gillian if she would excuse them while they talked outside in the hall. Before the doctor left the room, he turned on the radio.
From outside the room, they watched Gillian through a window. Within seconds after they walked out of the room, Gillian got up and started dancing to the music. She danced in a natural, joyful way. The doctor turned to Gillian’s mother and said: “Gillian isn’t sick. She’s a dancer.”
Gillian went on to become one of the most accomplished directors and choreographers of her generation, giving the world Cats and Phantom of the Opera.
Each person has a unique and unrepeatable vocation. If it is not discovered, embraced, and lived, it is lost to the world forever.
Thank God for that doctor.
How seriously are we taking our responsibility to cultivate the personal vocations of others?
Pope John Paul II wrote about the importance of this initiative very clearly in his first encyclical, On the Redeemer of Man:
Every initiative serves true renewal in the Church and helps to bring the authentic light that is Christ insofar as the initiative is based on adequate awareness of the individual Christian’s vocation and of responsibility for this singular, unique and unrepeatable grace.
A Catholic diocese typically has one “vocation director” whose primary responsibility—at least the public perception of it—is to cultivate the vocations of people who are discerning the priesthood or religious life.
I’ve had a very positive experience with vocation directors. Two generous priests in the Diocese of Las Vegas helped me enter seminary formation and ultimately to leave it. But had I not decided to enter seminary, I would’ve never met them.
Vocation directors have limited reach. In a thriving diocese, there might be one hundred seminarians and religious vocations. Where does that leave the dancers? The doctors? The young man who is petrified of proposing to the love of his life because he doesn’t know if her dad likes him?
This is where you and I come in.
I believe that the only way to create a culture of vocation—one in which everyone’s personal vocation is cultivated—is through a culture of mentorship. Vocation directors are critical, but they can’t do this work alone. They need co-workers.
You have unrepeatable experiences and a vocation that someone in the world desperately needs to see lived out with heroic fidelity. As we live out our own callings, each of us should pray for the grace to be a mentor to someone else.
I believe that we need to broaden our understanding of who has responsibility to be a “vocation director.” Should there not be “direction” for people who are called to every state of life, every profession, every unique pathway to holiness? If we are to fulfill the dream of John Paul II, then we must think big. We have to put “vocation directors” in every home, school, and parish. They will be well-trained mentors who take up John Paul II’s call to cultivate the personal vocations of others. We must teach young people basic skills of discernment that they can carry with them for the rest of their lives.
Nobody is alone in this important work. A network of vocation mentors is forming to provide support and training. We’re there to be “midwives” to every personal vocation, whether it leads to a seminary, a baseball field, a business, or a dance studio.
Because of the dearth of resources on mentorship in the Catholic world and my own long journey of vocation (eight years in Silicon Valley, five years in seminary formation), I co-authored the book Unrepeatable: Cultivating the Unique Calling of Every Person. It draws the inspiration for its title from Saint John Paul II, who used the word “unrepeatable,” repeatedly. Paying attention to the unrepeatable calling of every person is something that the great saint considered a key to creating a “culture of vocation.”
Thomas Merton once wrote:
The object of salvation is that which is unique, irreplaceable, incommunicable—that which is myself alone. The true inner self must be drawn up like a jewel from the bottom of the sea, rescued from confusion, from indistinction, from immersion in the common, the non-descript, the trivial, the sordid, the evanescent. (New Seeds of Contemplation)
Our mission is to draw up from the bottom of the sea these unique and unrepeatable jewels, each one charged with the mystery and grandeur of God. Is there any work more exciting work than that?