Vocation to the Single or Celibate Life in the World or Merely "Waiting for a Vocation"?

William E. May
and by Jennifer Kimball
(c) 2011 Culture of Life Foundation.
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation


Some people believe that only men called to the priesthood and men and women called to be consecrated virgins have a vocation to the single or celibate life and that neither a man nor a woman can have a vocation to the single or celibate life in the world. But this opinion is incorrect. In order to show why, it helps to reflect on the following: 1. The meaning of vocation and the universal call to sanctity or holiness and to love, even as God loves us, with a self-giving, redemptive kind of love; 2. Vocation and "states of life"; and 3. Personal vocation and the call to single life in the world.

The Meaning of Vocation and the Universal Call to Sanctity or Holiness

The term "vocation" comes from the Latin word "vocare," "to call." It is used in particular to God's call and to the vocation he gives to us. Many people think that the only persons who have the vocation to sanctity or holiness are priests and religious. But this idea, as Vatican Council II's made very clear, is mistaken. Thus in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) Vatican Council II declared:

The Lord Jesus, the divine Teacher and Model of all perfection, preached holiness of life to each and every one of his disciples of every condition. He himself stands as the author and consumator of this holiness of life: 'Be you therefore perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect' (Matt 5:48). Indeed he sent the Holy Spirit upon all men that he might move them inwardly to love God with their whole heart and their whole soul, with all their mind and all their strength (see Mk 12:30) and that they might love each other as Christ loves them (see Jn 13:34; 15:12). The followers of Christ are… justified in the Lord Jesus, because in the baptism of faith they truly become sons of God and sharers in the divine nature. In this way they are really made holy. Then too, by God's gift, they must hold on to and complete in their lives this holiness they have received. …Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society.

We can say that God wills us into being precisely so that he can offer us his very own divine life and make us, in and through his Only-begotten Son made man, his very own children, members of his divine family, and consequently saints. This is the mystery that St. Josémaría Escrivá called the mystery of "divine filiation." We are the ones of whom it is written: "You are my son; this day I have begotten you" (Ps 2.7). As Jesus, the Father's only-begotten Son made man, tells us: "Be perfect [that is, holy], as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt 5:48). In and through baptism we have become members of the divine family, truly children of God, adopted brothers and sisters of his Only-begotten Son Jesus Christ made man, i.e., one of us, sharing our humanity fully and completely. And we, by dying in baptism to the old Adamic man, share in his redemptive passion and death and rise to a new kind of life, a divine life in which we share his divinity just as he shares our humanity.

Sanctity or holiness, then, is not meant only for an elite few. It is rather the raison d'etre of all Christians, of everyone who has been "re-generated" by the waters of baptism. Our baptismal commitment meant our solemn promise to consecrate our lives, our whole being, to the pursuit of holiness in the choices and actions of our everyday lives, in everything that we do.

Vocation and States of Life

Although the Church clearly affirms that all the baptized are called to holiness, many believe there is a hierarchy of vocations, and that the vocation to the priesthood or religious life is superior to the vocation to marriage or to the single state in the world. But this is a serious misunderstanding. The highest vocation, common to all Christians and rooted in baptism, is the vocation to sanctity, to be faithful children of God, members of the divine family. In Christ there is neither male nor female, married nor unmarried, religious nor lay, but all are one as he and the heavenly Father are one.

Many Saints offer us examples of sanctity lived out in different states in life and vocations. Some of them fulfilled more than one vacation in life. Yet many of us ask, "Is the nature of a vocation a life-long engagement or can one have more than one vocation in life?" St. Rita, who was first a single woman fulfilling her mission to serve the poor and sick, was also wife and mother before she became religious, she certainly had a vocation to sanctity, and yet she lived it out in three different states in life according to God's design.

One can have more than one vocation in life. One may be called to marriage and after the death of a spouse or perhaps after being abandoned by a spouse who then "remarries," is called to be celibate. One may be called to be celibate in the world for a period of time in order to carry out serious responsibilities and, after having carried them out, have a vocation to marriage or perhaps to the priesthood or religious life.

Personal Vocation to the Single Life in the World

Each of us has a unique personal vocation, as Vatican II and Blessed John Paul II teach us. Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium es Spes) no. 43 speaks of the vocation "proper to" each and every lay person, i.e., to the personal vocation of each. Blessed John Paul II teaches us that "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 so as to fulfill one's mission" (Apostolic Exhortation on the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World, Christifideles laici, n. 58; see also his encyclical Redeemer of the World, Redemptor Hominis, no. 71).

As noted, one may have more than one unique personal vocation during one's life. This follows from the truth that each individual Christian, priest, religious, or lay, has a personal and unique vocation, a mission that God gives to each. Many men and women want to marry; but a person cannot marry himself or herself, and at times circumstances prevent some men and women from meeting a suitable person to marry; at other times grave obligations, such as care for an elderly parent, may make it impossible for them to marry someone who would be suitable. Such persons cannot be said to be "waiting for their vocation" as we may hear from many single women, they are living out their vocation and mission in life in "the sacrament of the (each and every) present moment" (De Caussaude).

These persons have a personal vocation to live as chaste single persons in the world and to give to the sex-crazed world of today living witness that a man and a woman can lead a happy, fulfilling life without having sex. Our call is to give ourselves away to others in love, as Jesus did, and in this way to be saints.

Moreover, some new movements within the Church, highly endorsed by the magisterium, have some members who lead chaste lives as single men and women in the world. Thus the Prelature of Opus Dei has "numerary" members,lay men and lay women who do not have the vocation to the religious life or, in the case of the men, to the priesthood, but they have an absolutely essential and indispensable role to play in the work of the Prelature. They are free, should they choose, to leave the prelature and to marry, and some of them do although the vast majority serve as single lay persons in the world for their entire adult lives.

It is thus wrong to deny that men and women can have a true personal vocation to the single life in the world. Some people choose celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of God. Others in carrying out their personal vocation to participate in their unique way to the Church's mission of preparing the kingdom of God must do so as celibates; we might say that celibacy chooses them or, better, that God chooses them to be celibate single persons in the world, often blindly, in complete and utter faith.