Fall 1983, Vol. 35, No. 3, pp. 256-266.

Donald Goergen:
      Current Trends: The Call to the Laity

Father Goergen, O.P., is engaged in writing a book on Christology. He is living and working in Sinsinawa, Wisconsin

IN the spring 1983 issue of Spirituality Today, lay preaching was my concern, the right of all baptized Christians to proclaim the gospel. Then, in the summer 1983 issue, in an analysis of the church's social teaching since Leo XIII, I referred to M.-D. Chenu's reference to the Second Vatican Council as a Copernican revolution in ecclesiology. This revolution involved an understanding of the church as lay and no longer as a hierarchical monopoly. In each instance, whether in the consideration of lay preaching or in that of social praxis, the theology of the laity was rightly not based upon on anticlericalism but upon a proper understanding of church and ministry (as articulated by Schillebeeckx in the case of lay preaching and by Chenu in the case of social praxis). Thus I am led to carry further this awareness of the laity and the church.

We unfortunately still think of vocation as related only to priesthood or religious life. Or we still associate vocation with the situation of Christians as married, single, or celibate. This clouds the reality for each of us that our vocation is to be a Christian, to follow Jesus, and to acknowledge him as Lord in our lives. There is but one Christian vocation and that is discipleship.(1)

This does not mean that God's call to each of us is not particularized. It commonly is. This particularization is not to a lay state in general; it is to be someone or do something in particular. I am not called simply to be a lay man or a lay woman. Rather, I am called, as a lay person, to a specific function in the life of the church. In addition to the call to discipleship, a person may experience a more specific call, or rather a person experiences his or her call to discipleship as a call to something specific in the church or world. It is a fact that more and more lay people are experiencing this sense of vocation, of being called. One's vocation, whether as a lay or as an ordained Christian, often clarifies itself only gradually. A vocation is articulated slowly.

Every adult Christian ought to be able to speak with some clarity about his or her vocation. It is a normal part of one's own experience of God within the Judeo-Christian tradition. Not everyone believes in God, and many of those who do believe do not necessarily believe in the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca, of Jacob and Rachel, of Jesus of Nazareth. If one believes in this God, however, then one believes in a God who calls people forth.(2) That God calls each of us. Central to my vocation is the call to follow Jesus, but the call comes to me. It is mine. Vocation is individualized. Jeremiah's vocation was not to be another Isaiah; it was to be Jeremiah. Nor was Jesus' vocation to be another John the Baptizer. If Dominic had wanted to do as Benedict had done, there would have been no Dominic. Each Christian's call is not only to follow Christ but also to a specific task in life. Each Christian, whether married or single, whether lay or ordained, is called with some specificity. The call is free; it is an invitation; it is not always determined with respect to details; it is to be given form, rather than something to which one conforms. It is God speaking to me.

This sense of call is manifest in biblical literature, so much so that the call narrative has become a specific genre within form criticism. The vivid awareness of a call may be within the context of a religious experience, as for Isaiah (Isa. 6:1-8); or the call may be something difficult at first to decipher or discern, as for Samuel (1 Sam. 3); or the call may be resisted, as by Jeremiah (Jer. 1). One who is to be a servant of the Lord is explicitly called or chosen by the Lord. This is manifest in the first three of the deutero-Isaian servant songs (Isa. 42:1; 49:1; 50:4-5). The sense of call is central to a religious vocation (and I do not mean here the vocation to what we customarily call "religious life" but rather the religious living to which every lay person is called).

The sense of vocation and the response to a call involves faith, not only faith in God, nor in God as the One Who Calls, but a sense of trust, of providence, and also of self-trust as well. The call may be clarified only gradually as one responds to God who then sets forth a further initiative to which we respond. The call is not all at once, and may sometimes be perceived only in retrospect. Consider God's initiative with Abraham (Gen. 11:31-13:12).(3) When Abraham responded in faith to the Lord, he did not know he was responding to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There were no Isaac and Jacob yet, and little did Abraham know that his Lord would be called the God of Abraham. He became the God of Abraham because of Abraham's great faith in the Lord, but also in himself. He trusted himself. He trusted his intuition within. He trusted in providence. Later his response was vindicated as a step in the right direction. But it was not all clear from the beginning that God was leading him to Canaan; it was a quite circuitous route to get there, with continuing discernment along the way.

The Christian vocation is an explicit call to follow Christ (Matt 28:18-20) which contains implicitly within it the particularization, or specification, of that call as one responds to God's presence and action in one's own individual life. The sense of call or vocation includes within it the sense of response to something, to Someone. It is an awareness, perhaps gradual, perhaps dramatic, of God in relationship to me. A consciously owned discipleship begins here -- with the sense of the divine presence, of divine action, of God reaching out to me and calling or leading or inviting me to step forth in faith as I allow my life to unfold in response to the persuasive lure of divine initiative.


Intrinsic to the sense of vocation is the sense of mission. Central to being called is being sent. Mission comes from the Latin mittere, "to send." This aspect of God's presence and action in our lives is also amply manifest in the Scriptures. We can return to the deutero-Isaian servant songs. The servant is called, chosen, and given the gift of the spirit. In the first song, the mission is to bring justice to the nations (42:1-4); in the second song, a mission to Israel is not sufficient and there is the mission to the gentiles as well (49:1-6); in the third song, the mission is prophetic, a ministry of the word, and it meets resistance and rejection (50:4-11); and in the fourth song, sufferings are a part of the mission itself (52:13-53:12).

This sense of mission is present in New Testament texts also. Luke 10:1-12 is a text basic to the apostolic life; it inspired both Francis and Dominic. It is the story of Jesus sending forth the seventy, two by two. It is not only the Twelve who are sent. Being sent is a part of discipleship. One is called in order to be sent. In the Gospel of John, shortly after Jesus calls his disciples friends, he sends them forth to bear fruit. They are not called to be his intimate companions, or his support structure, or even friends of one another. He called them and on this occasion commissioned them to go forth: "You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you" (John 15:14-16).

One's mission is as individualized as one's vocation; one person's mission is not the same as another's. Being on mission need not necessarily imply leaving home -- it may or it may not. Some of the followers of John the Baptist stayed with him and followed him; others returned to their homes and families. So for Jesus' disciples. We ordinarily picture his disciples as following him about, but not all did. Some stayed with him; others like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus remained in Bethany.

To discern a call is to discern the mission; they unfold together. The sense of vocation implies an awareness of the divine presence, of the real presence of God in the decisions, direction, and events of my life, of being in relationship to God, connected to the Lord and providence; and the sense of mission implies a complementary connectedness to others, of being in the world and in relationship to the world, of not being who I am called to be by myself alone, of being for others. A religious (and I mean here lay) vocation defines who I am in the sense that I am not who I am, or will not become who I will become, apart from God; and this being born of God, called, chosen, sends me forth so that I also will not be who I will be apart from others -- those to whom I am sent. Mission consciousness means the gradual diminishment of self-consciousness in the direction of a consciousness-toward-others, an awareness that my true self grows in inverse proportion to egoism, an awareness of God's people being as much me as I myself am. (4)

Vocation entails a gradual or dramatic transformation of consciousness. There grows from within a God-consciousness, and also a global consciousness of the world into which we are sent. Each of us expresses mission and vocation in his or her own way. There are degrees of awareness. We need not fit our experience into a description by someone else. We are individual persons, each pursuing his or her own path up the mountain or through the desert or in the midst of urban life. But what is clear is that each Christian, every disciple of Christ, every lay person has a religious vocation; and that religious vocation implies mission. These are two sides of a coin: vocation and mission, God-consciousness and world-consciousness, a man or woman of God and a man or woman for others, like inhaling and exhaling, being called and being sent. The deeper the sense of call or of God's presence in one's life, the deeper the sense of mission or purpose.

Viktor Frankl in a strikingly contemporary psychological reflection spoke about the human person's search for meaning.(5) The study is contemporary because the crisis of meaninglessness and purposelessness has been a twentieth-century affliction manifested in art, literature, philosophy, and the youth culture. Frankl alerts us to the reality that meaning is not something which comes ready made. It is not given us on a platter. Rather, it is something we give to life; it is what we do with life. This sense of meaning, or purpose, for the Christian follows upon his or her vocation: it is a mission. Mission consciousness is not a messianic consciousness in the pejorative sense; it is not egoism. It is the awareness that God is asking something of me. It follows from the awareness that God loves me, is present to me, active within me, is calling me, in order to send me forth to whatever it may be. In this the "I" does not get in the way.


Discipleship means both being called and also being sent; it also involves being sent for the sake of ministry. Vocation-mission-ministry. Ministry is what one is called and sent for; it is this being-for-others that being-for-God transforms us into. We are called to minister -- whatever the ministry may be. The vocation of the lay person is to be a minister.(6) The Christian's sense of vocation is a call to ministry. This is not to be qualified as lay ministry in contrast to ordained ministry. Christians were being called to discipleship and ministry before the church was divided into clergy and laity, and before ministry was reserved to the clergy. The Christian can and ought to think of himself or herself as a minister. This sense of a call to ministry precedes the awareness of the specific call for some to ordained ministry. Nor ought we think of the ordained minister as the minister in the church, or as the chief exemplification of ministry, and the ministry of other baptized Christians as in some way inauthentic, a mere appearance of ministry. The Christian's vocation is to be a minister. Ministry becomes as particularized as is vocation, and this particularization for some will involve ordination; for all, however, baptism is the sacrament which ordains one to minister.

On a previous occasion I spoke about what I call "the five loves."(7) Each Christian is called to love in all five ways. These are self-love or self-esteem; love of friendship (philia); community, fellowship, or brotherly and sisterly love (koinonia); ministry, or love of neighbor (diakonia); and prayer, religion, or love of God. All of us are called to all of these. The lay person is called to community, ministry, and prayer: these are central to his or her Christian vocation. They are signs of life in Christ. The lay Christian ought to think consciously of himself or herself as having a ministry, of being called to ministry, of being a ministering person. Lay Christians have much to teach the church about ministry. That to which we are called, to whom we are sent, what service we are to perform: we all need to discern these for our individual selves. Sometimes there will be greater clarity than at other times. Each of us talks about ministry in his or her own way, and there is room for many theologies of ministry in the church. There are three elements of ministry to which I wish to point, however: (1) ministry is a response to need, (2) it is a reverence for others, and (3) it implies presence, or presentness, to people.

Ministry is response to need. One of the fundamental truths to which both Judaism and Christianity call the human person is love of neighbor (Lev. 19:18; Mark 12:29-31). In fact, Paul, in his Letter to the Galatians, in which his emphasis is on freedom from the Law and an exhortation to live by faith, summarizes the whole of the moral life with just this one command: love your neighbor (Gal. 5:14). But who is my neighbor? My neighbor is not just anyone, nor is it the person who lives next door. My neighbor is anyone who is in need. This is exemplified in the parable of the good Samaritan. My neighbor is someone who needs me. I distinguish my neighbor from my brother or sister or friend.(8) Someone is a neighbor precisely on the basis of being needy. My brother or sister or friend can become my neighbor. Love of neighbor refers, however, to the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the outcast, the refugee, the victim of prejudice, the sick, the lonely, the elderly, whoever are in need, these are my neighbors. Not all love is ministry. Ministry is reaching out and embracing those who are in need. Mission implies being sent to where there is need, where ministry can take place. Ministry is compassionate and generous.

Ministry is also a reverence for those who are in need. One sees dignity in the other as a human being -- the presence of Christ. This is simply a way of saying positively that ministry is never condescension. Ministry is not only what I do, but how I do it. It is action; it is also attitude. I never think of the poor as "those poor." Ministry is not pity. Rather it flows from a sense of humility and gratitude. There is an important lesson in the New Testament for the Christian committed to ministry. In the Gospel of Matthew, 25:34-46, Jesus does not identify himself with the one who ministers but with the one ministered unto. Jesus did not say, "Someone was hungry, and I through you gave them to eat." His identity was with the poor, the alienated, the ones in need. This real presence of Christ in the needy is the basis for the respect and reverence of the minister. In every genuine experience of ministry, the minister receives as much or more than he or she gives. Ministry is not reciprocity in the way friendship is, but neither is it a one-way street. The minister is reaching out to one of God's children and in turn discovers God.

Ministry is being present to those in need. Sometimes ministry is only presence. Presence is sometimes the most difficult thing to give. Whether there is presence or more than presence involved, however, ministry implies being there, fully there, not somewhere else. A ministering person lives in the present, is attentive, not living in or for the future, nor in the past, but is here and now for those who need one. Just as ministry can be described as compassionate, generous, humble, and grateful, so it is faithful and persevering.

Ministry, then, is love overflowing into praxis. It is what Christian life is about. As God's people, we are all called by God (vocation) and sent (mission) for the sake of others (ministry). This call to ministry is sacramentalized in baptism -- the sacrament of vocation, of call, of conversion by which we are all called and grafted into the community of God's servants.


Of all the liturgical changes and revisions of rites which have taken place since Vatican II, none is more significant than those in the area of Christian initiation, baptism in particular.(9) The council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church spoke about the responsibility that the laity ought to exercise in virtue of baptism (nos. 30-38). The new rites of Christian initiation see the process of evangelization, catechesis, the sacramental event of baptism-confirmation-first Eucharist, and postbaptismal catechesis as a whole by which conversion takes hold, a person is grafted into the life of a Christian community and formed, and the whole community is renewed. Christian initiation is indeed the process by which someone comes to share in the life, ministry, and mission that the church is; it is the celebration of Christian vocation. This can be seen in the revisions which were made.

First, the initiation of adults is considered normative. The revision does not set aside infant baptism, but neither does it see infant baptism as the norm in terms of which Christian initiation is to be understood.

Second, the revision includes a restoration of a serious catechumenate. This emphasis upon catechesis as well as on the close relationship between baptism and confirmation shows a sensitivity to the adult conversion process in which one discerns a call and prepares to respond. Initiation involves the commitment of an adult who has perceived God's presence and action in his or her life. During the time of catechesis the sense of vocation and mission deepen and clarify themselves. As the instruction accompanying the rite states: "Since the Church's life is apostolic, catechumens should also learn how to work actively with others to spread the Gospel and build up the church by the testimony of their lives and profession of their faith" (no. 19, 4).(10)

Third, confirmation ought to follow upon baptism within the same liturgical event. The role of the Holy Spirit and the gift of the Spirit are seen in an understanding of Christian life as pneumatic from its beginning. The Holy Spirit in Christian life calls us and helps us discern not only our vocation to follow Christ but also the way in which the particularization of that vocation will take shape (which may be a lifelong process, as is conversion itself).

Fourth, baptism in its fullness includes postbaptismal catechesis. Initiation is not finished after the celebration of baptism-confirmation-first Eucharist. The Christian continues to deepen his or her understanding of the Christian vocation. Underlying the revised rite is a restored appreciation of the priestly character of all Christians, the priesthood of the laity. Baptism-confirmation-first Eucharist are the sacraments of the laity, and we all begin our lives of Christian ministry as laity. Initiation envisions mature adults taking their place in the life of the church. The revised rites of Christian initiation inevitably affect understanding of ordained ministry as well. "For baptism is the fundamental act of sacerdotal incorporation in the church, an act upon which all ordinations depend both for their meaning and validity."(11) The present rites of Christian initiation are preparing us for a church of the laity. Lay ministry is the norm in terms of which ordained ministry is to be understood, and not the other way round.

Fifth, the new rites recognize the diversification of ministry in the church. All are called, but all serve in varied ways. Nor is the model of ministry to be derived from liturgical settings alone. The church's ministry is to the world.

More could be said of the directions that the renewed but traditional understanding of baptism sets for us. We have spoken here of the need for every lay person to see himself or herself as having a vocation to a discipleship which becomes particularized, and the need for each person to discern that call more clearly as a part of one's ongoing Christian conversion. The elements of Christian vocation include call, mission, ministry. Ministry in the church is fundamentally lay. This consciousness of call-mission-ministry is what is discerned, deepened, and celebrated in the rites of Christian initiation and the sacraments of baptism-confirmation-first Eucharist.


The most important quality in our lives which we all have in common -- whether lay or ordained ministers, whether married or single, is that we are all in Christ, baptised into his death and resurrection through the power of the Spirit.(12) The rites of Christian initiation by which we are all grafted into the body of Christ will become increasingly significant as we recognize in them the source of our vocations, our sense of mission, our varied ministries. We are all God's servants. And our God is a God who acts, and acts in our lives, and from within calls out to us. We are free to respond. The call may be invitatory or only suggestive, or very persuasive; it may be specific or only gradually particularized. It may not come all at once. Sometimes we discern its movement or direction only later when we see where we have been led. Our response is to be faithful to that call -- faithful to ourselves and to the God who calls. The more we hear God's voice, the more the sense of vocation is also a sense of mission. The voice of the laity today is saying: "Here we are Lord, take us." And the Lord is calling and sending us on a mission. This is what it means to be his disciples: to have recognized him, to have responded to his call, and to be commissioned to go forth and bear fruit, fruit that will last. Mission means ministry, whether it be the ministry of the hermit, the ministry of the monk or nun, ministry in the midst of the city, the factory, the laboratory, or the ministry of the teacher, the nurse, or the peacemaker. Discipleship means being called by God for the sake of others.

Lay persons today need to know that God speaks to them as persons called to share in God's mission to the world. They, just as truly as clerics or religious, share in the fellowship of the Spirit and recognize in themselves God's particularized call to minister and Jesus' invitation: "Come, follow me."


  1. I have written about vocation previously in The Sexual Celibate (New York: Seabury, 1974), pp. 104-108 and in The Power of Love (Chicago: Thomas More Press, 1979), pp. 214-33.
  2. For an exposition on God as the One Who Calls, see especially John Cobb, God and the World (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969).
  3. A particularly good treatment of this perspective on Abraham can be found in Peter Van Breeman, Called by Name (Denville, N.J.: Dimension Books, 1976).
  4. Concerning ones true self, see my article "Self-Love, Self-Knowledge, and True Humility," Spirituality Today 34 (1982): 155-65. Also see Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), pp. 73-76; also John Higgins, Merton's Theology of Prayer (Spencer: Cistercian Publications, 1971).
  5. Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning (New York: Washington Square Press, 1965).
  6. There are several recent excellent studies of ministry. Bernard Cooke, Ministry to Word and Sacraments (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976); Nathan Mitchell, Mission and Ministry (Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1982), especially pp. 124-26, 299-306; David Power, Gifts That Differ: Lay Ministries Established and Unestablished (New York: Pueblo Publishing Co., 1980).
  7. The Power of Love, esp. pp. 19-40.
  8. Ibid., on ministry, pp. 125-57.
  9. One of the best presentations here is Aidan Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation (New York: Pueblo Publishing Co., 1978).
  10. The Rites of the Catholic Church as Revised by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (New York: Pueblo Publishing Co., 1976), p. 26.
  11. Aidan Kavanagh, Shape of Baptism, p. 188.
  12. Two valuable works on Christian life and discipleship are Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1972) and Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, Becoming Human Together (Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1982).