The thesis of this thoughtful, timely, and very practical book is that God invites every person to play a special and unrepeatable role in the drama of salvation. But many fail to realize this because for so long Catholics have been taught to equate vocation with a call to the priesthood or religious life. Without wanting to minimize the importance of these particular vocations, Grisez and Shaw argue that at baptism every Christian receives a personal vocation that signifies how he or she is to use the talents, opportunities, and graces of their lives to contribute to God's work in the world. The authors distinguish three meanings of vocation. First, there is "the vocation to be a Christian and to live the truth of one's faith." In this most general sense of vocation, every person is called to love God and neighbor and "to do one's part to bring about the kingdom of God." Second, vocation can refer to one's state of life such as marriage, priesthood or religious life, or the single life. Finally, there is one's personal vocation. The authors describe this third meaning of vocation variously as how God thinks of or envisions a person, the special way God honors someone, and how a woman or man is uniquely summoned to contribute to the mission of Jesus in their everyday lives. As Shaw and Grisez write, "There is no such thing as an unimportant vocation, for every personal vocation not only is a calling from God, but a unique, irreplaceable way of cooperating with Jesus Christ in his redemptive work."
A primary theme of the book is that although today there may be a vocation crisis in the Church, there is not and can never be a vocation shortage. The issue is not that some are called and others or not, but whether people will realize they have a distinctive vocation and devote their lives to discerning, accepting, and living it. Working with the idea that a vocation is the providential plan of God for each person, the authors suggest that vocations, although challenging and demanding, are ultimately not burdensome because they represent a person's proper path to authenticity and fulfillment. Several times in the book Grisez and Shaw note the difference between their theology of vocation and the philosophy espoused by Gail Sheedy in her popular book Passages. While Sheedy encouraged her readers to reach for "the full flowering of his or her own individuality," a vocation calls one to expend one's life for the sake of something greater than one's self. Doing so will result in genuine fulfillment and satisfaction, but its primary aim is not the fulfillment of the self but the commitment of the self to something truly heroic, namely participation in God's creative and redemptive activity in the world.
One of the strengths of Personal Vocation is its practicality. The book is laced with stories of how others have responded to God's call in their lives. Especially helpful is the authors' treatment of how a vocation reorganizes one's life, especially one's priorities, and directs his or her choices. Too, there is a healthy realism to the authors' approach. For example, they rightly note that every vocation is a call to become attached to certain goods and opportunities in life; however, it is also simultaneously a call to become detached from other goods and opportunities, and this is what makes fidelity to one's vocation difficult. Furthermore, they acknowledge that one of the biggest challenges of pursuing any vocation is learning how to balance the multiple commitments a vocation involves. Finally, one of the most helpful, if sobering, sections of the book deals with "missing one's vocation." What should a person do if he or she, after having already made a significant commitment, discovers their true vocation is somewhere else? Grisez and Shaw say they must stay in the commitments they have made because others depend on them being faithful to those commitments. Besides, they note, God can make good come from all aspects of our lives, even our mistakes.
Personal Vocation would be an excellent text for high school and college students. The book could be strengthened by giving more attention to the dialogical character of vocations so that they can be seen as evolving, living partnerships with God. Similarly, the authors' comment that we live in an "anti-vocational culture" is surely accurate, but needs elaboration. Nonetheless, Personal Vocation is an important contribution to an area of theology that needs further attention. Perhaps most of all, Grisez and Shaw convincingly demonstrate why catechesis about vocation must become an essential element of religious education.