Responsive image
Nederlands/Vlaams Deutsch Francais English language Spanish language Portuguese language Catalan Chinese Czech Malayalam Finnish Igbo
Japanese Korean Romanian Malay language Norwegian Swedish Polish Swahili Chichewa Tagalog Urdu
On Vocation by B. Green from 'To be a priest'

On Vocation

by B. Green

from To be a priest, pp. 133-140,
edited by Robert E. Terwilliger and Urban T. Holmes, Seabury Press, New York, 1975.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions.

William B. Green is professor of theology at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, Texas, and a former chaplain at Vassar College.

A wise pastor and teacher has written regarding the call to Christian ministry: “There is such a call.... I believe with all my heart that a man must hear it and feel its imperious constraint before he can ever give himself with any whole-hearted devotion and abiding wonder to this stewardship of the Gospel. But I believe, too, that more than one minister has been confused by many of the things he has been taught about it and by a great deal that he has read.”(1) Recognizing both the necessity of a call and the confusion which it may entail, this essay aims to clarify the idea of vocation as set forth in Scripture, in the Fathers of the Church, the reformers, and subsequent theologians—first as it relates to all believers, then in the narrower sense as it signifies a call to special offices within the Church.

The concept of vocation grew out of Israel’s experience of Yahweh as the God who calls. Abraham was called out of his own country, away from kindred and house, and was promised that his descendents were to become the instruments of God’s universal, redemptive purpose. Moses received an equally difficult call: to inform Israel in Egypt of Yahweh’s intentions, and to be his instrument in bringing Israel out of Egypt.

Without exception, the prophets believed themselves to be called to very specific tasks, in the execution of which they were often isolated from the established religious order. Amos was taken from following the flock and was created and validated a prophet by the word. The call of Yahweh came to Isaiah in the Temple, commissioning him to make hisnation stubborn and harden their hearts by the very message he was to proclaim. Jeremiah heard the word empowering him to declare both God’s judgment upon his faithless people and his intention to establish a new covenant transformed by mercy. The events leading to the prophets’ call were quite diverse, as was also the manner in which the call was received. There were many shades of difference in the prophets’ conception of their office. The one constant and indispensable element was the word of Yahweh by which each was claimed for special duties.

But the prophets were not alone in this experience. Israel herself had a divine commission: “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, . . ”(2)

The notion of call as both an individual and corporate affair is continued in the New Testament. Individuals are summoned to varieties of service in keeping with the diverse gifts of one and the same Spirit. All such gifts are to be used within and for the upbuilding of the body of Christ. In addition, some have been called to specific offices within the Church: “God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers,.. .”(3) St. Paul claims that the Jewish people still have a special function,(4) while the new Israel, the true sons of Abraham, is thought to be called in the sense of being both summoned and chosen. Especially in Pauline thought, calling and election are substantially the same.(5) Thus there comes to expression with new force the ancient Hebrew conviction that life gains meaning in and through a “calling and direction” by the sovereign word of God. For Christian faith, that word is disclosed with new power and wisdom in Jesus Christ—"at once a promise and an imperative demand for devotion to God and love to fellow men."(6)

As far as the Church Fathers are concerned, the doctrine of vocation is a correlate of the doctrine of creation. Man occupies a special position in the created order as the meeting place of the different spheres of the universe. By virtue of this position, he is to function as cosmic mediator. It is his vocation and task to draw together in himself the material and immaterial, the sensible and intelligible, that through him cosmic harmony may be achieved and deification bestowed upon the whole creation. By nature and calling, man is both priest and king. As priest, he is to sanctify life, bringing it into communion with God, in whom it finds fulfillment. As king, man is given the power to make creation into what God intended it to become. Thus both functions are aspects of a single vocation. The fall of man constituted the rejection of this divine calling.

In Christ, the second Adam, man’s original vocation is fulfilled and restored. The one by whom and in whom all things were made in the beginning has renewed and integrated the entire creation by assuming it himself. Christ is, therefore, the one true priest in whose priesthood all who through baptism have been made new are called to participate. He is also the only king through whom man’s kingship is re-established. The vocation which man lost as a consequence of the fall is thus restored Christ who “. . . has made us kings and priests unto God and his Father.’(7) As a consequence, man’s daily work in all the occupations whereby the fabric of the world is maintained should be verified as having an epiphanic and restorative quality.

A similar understanding of vocation was proclaimed by Martin Luther. Monastic vows rest, according to Luther, on the false assumption that there is a special vocation to which superior Christians are called. But there is no such thing, since the call of God comes to each at his common tasks. In protest against the restriction of vocation to specifically religious jobs, Luther applied the concept to the careers of all Christians. Each person has his own task or station, none of which is to be despised or demeaned. The magistrate has his duty, the minister his, the soldier his, the school teacher his, the physician his, the artist his. One is not better than the other. Each is called to serve God through his daily work. And all Christians are called to be priests one toward another, to act as mediators and intercessors. Everyone must express his faith in loving action designed to bring about a new kind of society, a new quality of life. Thus Luther abolished the distinction between clergy and laity.(8) The doctrine of the universal priesthood of all believers is a consequence of Luther’s understanding of baptism. If baptism signifies the return of man to his original role, then it must follow that through baptism his basic vocation with its dual aspects of priesthood and kingship is restored.

While all are priests by virtue of their faith in the word of God, not everyone can or should assume the task of preaching and teaching. Luther argued that for the sake of order, certain persons must be selected to the work and office of the administration of the word of God and the sacraments. “For we must have bishops, pastors or preachers, to give, administer and use, publicly and privately, the four things, or precious possessions, that have been mentioned, for the sake of and in the name of the Church. . . . The whole group cannot do these things, but must commit them, or allow them to be committed, to someone. . . . This duty must be committed to one person, and he alone must be allowed to preach, baptize, absolve, and administer the sacraments. . . .”(9) But, warned Luther, “. . . no one may make use of this power except by the consent of the community or by the call of a superior. For what is the common property of all, no individual may arrogate to himself, unless he be called.”(10)

While affirming a universal vocation of priesthood shared by all believers, the Churches of the Anglican tradition recognize that some are called to a specific ministry which is not merely an extension of the common Christian priesthood. The nature of that call originates in and is determined by the special function of the Church itself in relation to God’s reconciling purpose. If the Church is the sacrament of the kingdom of God, then such offices as may exist within the Church must assist in the realization of that sacramental mission. This means that the threefold ministry is itself sacramental. It is a gift of the Spirit, a form of the divine presence. Therefore, no one can take it upon himself to become a deacon, priest, or bishop. Such vocation can be undertaken only as a response to the divine initiative and only with the sanction of duly established authority. One cannot decide on the basis of his own desires or aptitudes to assume a ministerial office. It is not enough that one should feel called to such office. The discernment of vocation is by persistent tradition, a corporate as well as a personal matter. It is the right and duty of bishops, representing the Church, to select and admit candidates for holy orders. In the exercise of this responsibility, the bishop may consult a variety of specialists—physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, lay counselors, teachers, priests—as to the state and potential of the applicant. But the decision regarding the ratification of a vocation is reserved to the bishop.

In his classical statement “On the Unity of the Church,” the third-century bishop, Cyprian, warns against those who attempt to exercise ecclesiastical office without call and episcopal appointment. “These are they who, with no appointment from God, take upon them of their own will to preside over their venturesome companions, establish themselves as rulers without any lawful rite of ordination. These the Holy Spirit in the Psalms describes as “ ‘sitting in the seat of pestilence,’ a plague and infection of the faith, deceiving with the mouth of a serpent, cunning to corrupt truth, vomiting out deadly poisons from pestilential tongues."(11) Cyprian further argues that the sacraments administered by these unauthorized persons are ineffective. “While there can be no Baptism save one only, they think that they can baptize. They forsake the fountain of life, yet promise the gift of a vital and saving water. Men are not cleansed by them, but rather made foul; nor their sins purged away, but even heaped up: it is a birth that gives children not to God, but to the Devil.”(12) As far as Cyprian is concerned, the call to Holy Orders and the exercise of the same are gifts of grace, not natural rights. And he foresees only the direst consequences for the Church and its unity when this is not recognized.

Even Calvin, who did not provide for the office of bishop in the ecclesiastical structure instituted at Geneva, recognized the need for corporate confirmation of the individual’s call. In the Draft Ecclesiastical Ordinances (1541), he stipulates that “. . . ministers first elect such as ought to hold offices; afterwards that he be presented to the City Council; and if he is found worthy the Council receive and accept him, giving him certification to produce finally to the people when he preaches, in order that he be received by the common consent of the company of the faithful."(13) Only after this procedure has been observed, is it appropriate “to use the imposition of hands, which ceremony was observed by the apostles and them in the ancient church.” There have been rare instances in which the will of the Church itself constituted the call. One thinks, for example, of Ambrose, who at the time of his election was a Roman magistrate. By his ability to restore order, he so impressed the unruly group assembled to fill the vacant see of Milan that he was unanimously elected bishop. Once the emperor authorized his appointment, Ambrose was baptized, and eight days later consecrated. To Ambrose the election by the assembly was the call of God.

The call to priesthood has as its creative center the proclamation of the word and the administration of the sacraments. Through the communication of the word, apostolic doctrine is preserved and instruction given to the faithful. Through the administration of the sacraments, the most basic of which is the Eucharist, the Church is continually being reconstituted and fulfilled. For the discharge of these functions the priestly office was established and it is to the performance of these tasks that, through the centuries, persons have been called. Together with all members of Christ’s Church, the priest is to be a witness to God’s concern for the whole creation and for justice and mercy in the affairs of men. In addition, the priest shares with the bishop responsibility for oversight and unity in the Church.

The source and model of this ministry is, of course, Christ himself. He is also the one whose Spirit provides the qualification for such ministry. As St. Paul said: “Before God, we are confident of this through Christ: not that we are qualified in ourselves to claim anything as our own work: all our qualifications come from God. He is the one who has given us the qualifications to be the administrators of this new covenant, which is not a covenant of written letters but of the Spirit: the written letters bring death, but the Spirit gives life.”(14)

To declare that the call to and the qualification for priesthood are works of the Spirit is not to remove or deny the personal elements of struggle and growth. Who does not, at some point, doubt whether he has received the call to holy orders? Who is not, from time to time, estranged from the institutional Church and its structures? Who does not wonder whether they can fulfill the demands of priesthood? Who does not know some measure of uncertainty regarding the activity of the Spirit in and through him?

All of these concerns suggest the possibilities for painful struggle, self-doubt, and vocational confusion as well as for development, self-assurance, and spiritual formation, which may be associated with a call to the priesthood. At an even more basic level is the reality of ministry as gift and the experience of that gift.

It is important to note that the gift of ministry, the call to holy orders does not obliterate human freedom, or deny personal motives, or disregard natural abilities. Grace does not destroy individuality and personhood, but liberates and refines it. Thus, in advising one considering the ministry, account must be taken of the native abilities as well as the skills which a person may have acquired. Is it possible to imagine all of these finding suitable expression in the exercise of the ministry? This is one of the considerations involved in the discernment of vocations,

Concerning those who may require prolonged deliberation before they offer themselves for the priesthood, the former Bishop of Southwell asks: “What valid test or criterion is applicable?” And concludes: “Perhaps the best rough-and-ready answer that can be given, in terms of human judgment, is to say that in all probability a man’s vocation is what he can do best, having regard to all relevant circumstances, including his own constitutional make-up, his abilities and disabilities. That may sound mundane and prosaic, pitched in a key too low for so high a theme. But the guidance of God does come through ‘circumstances’—the way things are and the way we ourselves are. It is in itself the impact of the Spirit of the living God on the human soul. But we make a mistake if we look for it only in what may seem the more ‘spiritual’ evidence of exalted emotional experience. . . . And if the decision a man makes is right, if it is in accordance with God’s will for him, he ought to be able to justify and defend it by rational and moral arguments without recourse to the language of piety.”(15)

This is not to deny the decisive, utterly self-authenticating experience that constitutes for some the call to Christian ministry. But it is to say that such happenings are relatively infrequent. Certainly one should not hold back from offering himself for holy orders just because he lacks that kind of experience.

Statements made earlier regarding one’s natural aptitudes for ministry need clarification. That is to say, priesthood is not to be sought either as a resolution of a personal or professional identity problem, or as a means of self-fulfillment or of actualizing one’s potential. This is to raise the issue of motives or intentions in offering oneself for holy orders. One may, in fact, discover in the surrender to God’s service an identity, a fulfillment as a person which far surpasses one’s natural potentialities. As von Balthazar alleges, “The man obedient to his mission fulfills his own being, although he could never find this archetype and ideal of himself by penetrating to the deepest centre of his nature, his super-ego or his subconscious, or by scrutinising his own dispositions, aspirations, talents and potentialities. Simon, the fisherman, before his meeting with Christ, however thoroughly he might have searched within himself, could not possibly have found a trace of Peter. Yet the form ‘Peter’, the particular mission reserved for him alone, which till then lay hid in the secret of Christ’s soul, and at the moment of this encounter, was delivered over to him sternly and imperatively — was to be the fulfillment of all that, in Simon, would have sought vainly for a form ultimately valid in the eyes of God and for eternity. In the form ‘Peter’ Simon was made capable of understanding the word of Christ, because the form itself issued from the word and was conjoined with it."(16) So the “form” of one’s vocation is at one and the same time an act of pure grace, and of one’s membership in the Mystical Body of Christ, of having participated wholly in the context of redemption.

Vocation has been spoken of as it applies to all, owing to the restoration of man’s nature and place in the universe through Christ’s redemptive activity. It is the duty of every man to serve God in whatever work or office he may undertake. Beyond this general vocation shared by all, there are specific offices within the Church to which some are called. This vocation presupposes both a commission to the individual and ratification by the appropriate ecclesiastical authority. There are a number of factors which must be taken into account when deciding whether to pursue holy orders: the individual’s aptitudes, motives, and circumstances as well as the Church’s evaluation and position. Whatever the outcome, one may be assured that all Christians have a vocation to serve God and to participate in his creative activity.


1. Paul Scherer, For We Have This Treasure (New York: Harper & Row, 1944), pp. 4-5.

2. Is 42:6; cf. 48:12.

3. 1 Cor 12:27-28.

4. Rom 11:29.

5. Rom 8:28-30; 11:28-29.

6. R. L. Calhoun, in Nelson, J. O., ed. Work and Vocation in Christian History (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), pp. 88-89.

7. Rev 1:6.

8. Martin Luther, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” Three Treatises (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1943), p. 234.

9. Quoted in H. T. Kerr, A Compend of Luther’s Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966), p. 139.

10. Ibid., pp. 137-38.

11- Cyprian, “On the Unity of the Church,” chap. X.

12. Cyprian, op. cit.

13. J. K. S. Reid, ed. and trans., Calvin: Theological Treatises, Library Christian Classics, vol. 22 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), p. 59.

14. 2 Cor 3:4-6.

15. F. R. Barry, Vocation and Ministry (London: J. Nisbet, 1958), p. 22.

16. H. U. von Balthazar, Prayer (New York: Sheed & Ward, Inc., 1967), p. 49.

Contents of “To be a Priest ” Support our campaign Sitemap Contemporary theologians Join Campaign activities Go back to home page

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.

Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.

The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.

Please, support our campaign
for women priests
Join our Women Priests' Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:
An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.