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Mentors on the Road Toward Vocation

August 8, 2023


You cannot excel in sports without good coaches, and you cannot have an intellectual life without good mentors. I’ve been fortunate to have found many great mentors. As a sophomore at Boston College, I found a living role model of the intellectual life, Professor Peter Kreeft. He began teaching at Boston College in 1965 and is still teaching there fifty-seven years later in 2023. He is the author of more than 100 books

I first met Kreeft in a course entitled “Thinking about Religion.” Another professor had warned me not to take his class—so of course I took his class. Kreeft began the semester in a way that still sticks in my memory: “Either God exists, or God doesn’t exist.” Kreeft paused and looked around the room inviting questions, of which there were none. “If God exists, either there is only one God or there is more than one God.” Again, he waited. But the logic was unassailable. “If there is only one God, is Jesus truly God as Christians say, or is Jesus not God as Jews and Muslims say? If Jesus really is God, did Jesus found and does Jesus guide the Catholic Church or not?” These questions were the beginning of a course that helped evaporate the religious fog I had been wandering in for the first 20 years of my life. Yes, either there really is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving Creator of the universe or there is no such thing in reality. Now, whether or not we can know how to answer this question is another matter, but it was important for me to have that clarity about the metaphysical possibilities. It remains so. In living, we must choose among alternatives. We can choose to live as if Jesus is God incarnate or choose to live as if he is not. What is it to choose to live as if Jesus is God incarnate? 

As if in answer to this question, a law professor friend and mentor Dwight Duncan shared with me a booklet entitled “The Ventures of Faith” by St. John Henry Cardinal Newman

Let every one who hears me ask himself the question, what stake has he in the truth of Christ’s promise? How would he be a whit the worse off, supposing (which is impossible), but, supposing it to fail? We know what it is to have a stake in any venture of this world. We venture our property in plans which promise a return; in plans which we trust, which we have faith in. What have we ventured for Christ? What have we given to Him on a belief of His promise? The Apostle said, that he and his brethren would be of all men most miserable, if the dead were not raised. Can we in any degree apply this to ourselves? . . . What have we ventured? I really fear, when we come to examine, it will be found that there is nothing we resolve, nothing we do, nothing we do not do, nothing we avoid, nothing we choose, nothing we give up, nothing we pursue, which we should not resolve, and do, and not do, and avoid, and choose, and give up, and pursue, if Christ had not died, and heaven were not promised us. 

Newman’s words still challenge me. Dwight encouraged me to attend Mass each day, to go to Confession each week, to pray the Rosary. He led a small group of us students in weekly meetings that addressed the importance of being an adopted child of God and of giving one’s best work to God. Dwight gave me a little book called The Way, which taught that “an hour of study is an hour of prayer for the modern apostle.” For the Catholic intellectual, I might add, it is also true that an hour of prayer is an hour of study. Without prayer, a vibrant relationship with God is impossible. Without a vibrant relationship with God, a Catholic intellectual cannot be salt and light to the world.

Dwight taught me that my academic work could be done as a service to God. God deserves the best and the most beautiful, so my work should be as good as I can make it. He echoed the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’” A Catholic intellectual needs mentors, and I was happy to find one in Dwight who remains a friend more than thirty years later.

Although I had many intellectual questions, my biggest questions were existential and personal. In particular, I wondered, what is my vocation? Dwight had introduced me to another mentor, a spiritual director, Fr. George Crafts, who gave me sound advice: “Don’t worry so much about whether God is calling you to be single, married, or a priest. Focus on loving and serving God and neighbor more and more in your everyday life.” But my actions and my age embodied the words of the poet A.E. Houseman, “I was one-and-twenty, No use to talk to me.” 

What then is a vocation? Germain Grisez distinguished three kinds of vocations or calls from God. First, there is the universal vocation of all people to love God and neighbor; secondly, the state in life vocation of priesthood, religious life, marriage, or the single life; and thirdly, personal vocation, the unique and ongoing call of God directed uniquely to one single individual. Everyone is called to love God in their universal vocation. Many are called to be priests or to be married in their state-in-life vocation. Mary had the personal vocation to be the mother of Jesus. Joseph had the personal vocation to be the husband of Mary. Moses received his personal vocation at the burning bush. 

But rather than focus on the universal vocation of all people to love God and neighbor (the first sense of vocation) and rather than focusing on how to do this here and now in the concrete circumstances of my current life (the third sense of vocation), during much of college, I focused an inordinate amount of my attention on the second sense of vocation. What was going to be my state in life? I frequently made St. John Henry Newman’s words my own: 

Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

Before my graduation from college, God answered my prayer. God led me—through his divine providence via events in my life—to the conviction that a vocation to the priesthood was not for me but rather that my call was to marriage, marriage to Jennifer Turner. I also became more and more convinced that I wanted to be a professor. To realize that dream, I headed off to the promised land of Catholic higher education, the University of Notre Dame. But that is a story for another occasion.