Who’s Afraid of Pseudo Dionysius? Rethinking Vocations

When one of Flannery O’Connor’s correspondents asked her why she, a Catholic novelist and story writer, wrote about Protestants instead of her fellow Catholics, she explained that Bible-believing Protestants like hers “express their belief in diverse kinds of dramatic action which is obvious enough for me to catch.” Then she added:

To a lot of Protestants I know, monks and nuns are fanatics, none greater. And to a lot of the monks and nuns I know, my Protestant prophets are fanatics. For my part, I think the only difference between them is that if you are a Catholic and have this intensity of belief, you join the convent and are heard from no more; whereas if you are a Protestant and have it, there is no convent for you to join and you go about in the world, getting into all sorts of trouble and drawing the wrath of people who don’t believe anything much at all down on your head.

This comment was remarkably perceptive. It took Flannery O’Connor just three sentences to pinpoint the distorted thinking about vocation found among most Catholics: “If you are a Catholic and have…intensity of belief, you join the convent.” Not much encouragement here for seriously committed lay Catholics like herself.

The attitude O’Connor described has deep roots. One set of roots is traceable to a writer known to history as Pseudo-Dionysius. He is thought to have been a Syrian monk and Christian Neoplatonist of the late fifth century. Whoever he was, he chose to attribute what he wrote to Dionysius the Areopagite, St. Paul’s Athenian convert mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (cf. Acts 17:34). This confusion about authorship persisted until the 18th century.

Pseudo-Dionysius was extremely interested in the idea of hierarchy and produced treatises on that theme. The Celestial Hierarchy and The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy helped shape the structure of both society and Church in the Middle Ages. In The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, the writer described hierarchy in the Church in idiosyncratic terms: “It includes first the most holy sacraments, then a body of priests charged with distributing the sacred mysteries in conformity with God’s will; and lastly the faithful who are led by the priesthood to the holy mysteries in accord with their capacities.”

Simply put: Priests are active, the leadership element in the Church; laity are the passive ones, those who get led.

Today, Pseudo-Dionysius’s Christianized Neoplatonism might be of interest only to specialists in the history of religious thought—except for one thing. For centuries, what he said carried tremendous weight because of his supposed link to the Apostle Paul. His writings, a commentator remarks, received “almost scriptural veneration” in the Middle Ages. St. Thomas Aquinas used him as a major source, by one count citing him in 143 places.

For present purposes, the importance of all this lies in the influence our author exerted on the Summa Theologiae’s account of the “sacramental character” or permanent spiritual mark conferred by certain of the sacraments.

St. Thomas understands sacramental character as a spiritual empowerment enabling the recipient to do something. The character imparted by holy orders makes priests “sacramental agents…to confer the sacraments on others,” while the character received in baptism “confers on man the power to receive the other   sacraments of the Church” (Summa Theologiae III, 63, 6). Active clergy, passive laity—it’s Pseudo-Dionysius all over again.

It goes without saying that the Catholic clericalism skewered by O’Connor has many religious and secular sources besides a Syrian monk writing 16 centuries ago under an assumed name. Still, the odd case of Pseudo-Dionysius does illustrate, and also partly explains, the tortuous route by which this way of thinking about laity and priests became so deeply embedded in the thinking of Catholics, to everybody’s loss.

St. Paul had given a very different account of the Church in his doctrine of the mystical body of Christ. To be sure, he sees the community of the members of Christ as hierarchically ordered but also as a communio in which all members—including the laity—have roles to play. Similarly, the author of the epistle to Diognetus, a second-century Christian apologetical work, was persuaded of the importance of the laity. “What the soul is in the body, that the Christians are in the world,” he declared.

On the whole, nevertheless, it was the Pseudo-Dionysian view that prevailed. To a considerable extent, it still prevails today. And that, among other things, is a large part of the reason why the authentic program of Vatican II remains largely unrealized, its promise still unfulfilled

The Priesthood of the Faithful

Vatican II was about many things, but its special, distinctive insight was ecclesiological. Replacing the model of the Church as a pyramid, clergy on the top and laity on the bottom, with the model of communio, it sought to realign thinking about the Church by realigning thinking about the roles and relationships of its members.

Thus, it spoke of God’s universal call to holiness, directed as much to laypeople as to clerics and religious (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 39). It recognized the laity as the primary agents in carrying on the Church’s mission, the “apostolate,” in and to the secular world (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 33; Apostolicam Actuositatem, n. 7). And it corrected the view of laity and clergy in the sacramental economy as it had been laid out by Pseudo-Dionysius and mediated by thinkers like Aquinas.

The council did this in a number of places in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy—as, for example, when it declared “all the faithful” to be summoned to “that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy, and to which the Christian people, ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people’ (1 Peter 2:9), have a right and obligation by reason of their baptism” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 14). A far cry from Pseudo-Dionysius!

In speaking of “full, conscious, and active participation,” of course, the council didn’t mean the liturgical tomfoolery that now often does as much to impede full, conscious, and active participation as encourage it. It meant participation by the faithful in the communal act of worship at the deepest levels of their minds and hearts.

True, the priesthood of the faithful and the ordained priesthood differ essentially and not just in degree (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 10). True, also, an ordained priest is absolutely required for the celebration of the Eucharist while the presence of a congregation of laypeople isn’t. Still, the laity are part of a priestly people, and they do participate in the eucharistic celebration as not even the best-disposed non-Christian can do. This active participation in celebrating the Eucharist is, ideally, both paradigm and source of their active role in the Church as a whole. But the stubborn persistence of the Pseudo-Dionysian view of the laity as passive recipients rather than active participants—despite what Vatican II had said—made it virtually impossible to grasp what this meant.

The results of this failure have spread by a kind of ripple effect in Catholic life, thwarting the council’s intentions as they did. They include the reinforcement of the laity’s passivity in Church matters generally, the co-opting by clericalization of some, the anger and hyper-aggressiveness of others, and the tendency of yet another group to drop out of the Church entirely. Among clerics, reactions range from surrendering pastoral responsibility in the name of giving “the people” what they want (perhaps especially, lax moral counseling) to the unbending assertion of clerical authority by liberal pastors and liturgists determined to keep upstart conservatives in their place.

The current overemphasis on lay ministries also is part of this picture. Egged on by progressive theologians, well-meaning bishops and pastors and clericalized laypeople took “ministry” to be a way of upgrading the laity. But the growth of lay ministry went hand-in-hand with an all but total neglect of lay apostolate in and to the secular world, thus reversing the priorities for lay participation in the Church’s mission spelled out by Vatican II. Now, instead of being told to carry the Gospel into the secular culture around them, laypeople are encouraged to hunker down and “do ministry” in safe ecclesiastical settings. (The clericalist craze for ministry also helps explain why some women want to be ordained—because that’s how to get ahead in the Church.)

Personal Vocation

There is a solution to this mare’s nest of interlocking confusions—the idea of personal vocation. This is the revolutionary realization that, as Pope John Paul II once put it, for Christians “every life is a vocation.”

Just how revolutionary that really is becomes clearer from considering three different but related senses “vocation” has in religious discourse.

The first sense is the common Christian vocation. This is the calling, received in baptism and strengthened in confirmation, to live out faith—by loving and serving God above all else, loving and serving neighbor as oneself, and doing one’s part in the mission of the Church, which continues Christ’s redemptive work in history. Jesus’ parting words to his followers were addressed also to all Christians in all times and places, and speak of a central element—evangelization—of the Christian vocation all share: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19).

The second meaning of vocation is state in life—priesthood, the consecrated life, the married state, and the single life. In everyday parlance, a “vocation” is a long-term commitment, often a career, that is pursued for ordinary, human ends, though with more than ordinary zeal. The Christian idea of vocation has a similar meaning but goes deeper: It signifies a life-organizing commitment freely undertaken in response to what one considers to be God’s will for oneself.

When Catholics say “vocation,” they usually mean state in life—and, usually, a calling to the clerical or religious state. As sharp-eyed O’Connor pointed out, these are assumed to be the serious vocations, the vocations that matter in the eyes of God.

For a long time, this equating of a serious commitment in response to God’s call with the clerical or religious state was signaled by the fact that overwhelmingly, the people canonized as saints were priests and religious. The unintended message was that the sanctity of laypeople didn’t count. Only in recent years, under Pope John Paul II, has this started to change.

But the same attitude appears in the way Catholics continue to talk. The “vocations director” of a diocese or religious institute is someone who recruits and screens new candidates to be priests and religious. A “vocations program” is a program for that purpose. This puts everyone on notice that a vocation is a calling to be a priest or a nun.

It’s inhibiting, to say the least. Here’s how a friend expresses an insight that came to him on retreat as a seminarian in the 1980s: “I discovered that ‘vocation’ was much bigger and more fundamental than simply one’s state in life. I saw that I was trying to fit myself into a vocational box…rather than respond to the Lord’s personal love for me.” Today he’s a committed Catholic layman active in the orthodox renewal of the Church.

The third meaning of vocation is personal vocation— the unique, essentially unrepeatable role in His redemptive plan that God has in mind for each of us. It puts flesh on the bones of the common Christian vocation and a state in life by seeing all one’s circumstances—strengths and weaknesses, talents and deficiencies, opportunities and setbacks—as elements in God’s plan requiring an appropriate response. Once a personal vocation is discerned and accepted, all of one’s choices, large and small, should be made according to whether what is chosen helps or hinders its living out.

Although this is a novel way of thinking about vocation in modern times, the idea isn’t fundamentally new. As suggested earlier, it’s implied by St. Paul’s teaching about the Church as a body in which the members exercise a variety of complementary charisms and callings within a hierarchical structure.

For both theological and sociological reasons, the Middle Ages were a dry spell for personal vocation, but with changing circumstances in society, that also changed. Martin Luther was a great proponent of the idea, though his rejection of priesthood and of mediation in the spiritual life slowed its acceptance in Catholic circles. Yet even so, the theme of God’s special will for each individual can be found in the writings of spiritual masters like St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis de Sales, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, S.J., and John Henry Newman.

But it is John Paul II who has done more than anyone to promote the contemporary reemergence of personal vocation. Before Vatican II, he once wrote, vocation was understood almost exclusively as a call to the priesthood or religious life—”as if Christ had addressed to the young person his evangelical ‘Follow me’ only for these cases.” But, he added, the council’s emphasis on “the universal sharing of all the baptized” in Christ’s threefold mission as priest, teacher, and king and on the universal call to holiness made it clear that “Follow me” was a vocational invitation addressed to everyone (“To the Youth of the World,” 1985).

Although entrenched thinking carried over from an earlier era has closed some ears to this message, John Paul has emphasized it enthusiastically throughout his pontificate. Now, it seems, its time may finally have come.

Discerning Your Vocation

If Catholics began to take the idea of personal vocation seriously, Catholic life would be remarkably transformed in many ways.

For one thing, it would provide the basis for the long-sought and badly needed renewal of moral theology. In recent decades, many moralists have looked to virtue ethics to bring this about; but personal vocation is the more fundamental reality—the framework for cultivating virtue that supplies the coloration of particular virtues in particular lives. (Chastity, for instance, looks very different in St. Augustine and St. Maria Goretti, detachment in St. Francis of Assisi and St. Louis of France. In each case, personal vocation—the living out of God’s will in unique life circumstances—made the difference.)

Thinking about roles in the mission of the Church also would change for the better.

To be sure, the Church’s divinely given hierarchical structure determines certain basics, and its exigencies must be respected. But, Pseudo-Dionysius notwithstanding, the role of the laity is not summed up and exhausted in passively receiving the sacramental ministrations of the clergy. Taking a hand in the Church’s mission comes with the common Christian vocation. The relevant question for each person is: How?

As a group, laypeople primarily are called to apostolate in the world. Says Vatican II: “By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will” (Lumen Gentium, n. 31). Some also are called to service within Church structures and institutions—to “ministries,” that is. But it’s clericalism to suppose that ministry and not apostolate is the highest expression of the lay state.

What any particular layperson should do (ministry, apostolate, or some mix of both) is a question of personal vocation to be settled by discernment. The issue isn’t “What would I prefer?” but “What does God want?” The practice of discernment is not an esoteric exercise reserved for the small number mulling possible callings to the priesthood or religious life; discerning a personal vocation is a task for everyone. “The fundamental objective of the formation of the lay faithful is an ever-clearer discovery of one’s vocation and the ever-greater willingness to live it,” John Paul says (Christifideles Laici, n. 58).

Does too much talk about personal vocation risk distracting attention from the effort to attract new candidates to the priesthood and religious life? Not likely. “Either we grow together or no one grows,” the final document of a European vocations conference a few years back laconically concluded. Indeed, personal vocation may hold the key to solving the present vocations crisis. If more people spent more time trying to discern what God wants them to do with their lives, more would see that God’s plan for them includes a calling to be a priest or religious—while others would see that they are called to committed service as laity in the world.

Discerning a personal vocation usually takes a while. But not always. One day in 1932, at the depth of the Great Depression, Dorothy Day knelt in the crypt church of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Having covered a “hunger march” as a journalist, she later wrote, she was praying “that some way would be shown me, some way would be opened up for me to work for the poor and the oppressed.”

Finishing her prayer, Day caught the train to New York. “When I walked into my apartment,” she recalled, “I found waiting for me a short, stocky man in his mid-50s, as ragged and rugged as any of the marchers I had left.” He was a French peasant named Peter Maurin, and he spoke of a movement founded on justice and love and the model of Jesus. He wanted Day to join. Neither knew it, but the Catholic Worker had been born.

Most people don’t encounter their callings quite that dramatically, but all have personal vocations. Preach the idea, teach it, get it into the mainstream of Catholic life. And don’t let Pseudo-Dionysius get you down.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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