I just got back from a parish vocations committee meeting. We are always trying to find ways to encourage priestly and religious vocations. Our pastor was talking in the meeting about how we can encourage vocations at ages younger than most of us think.
That reminded me of something that constantly surprises me. When the issue of vocations comes up around the parish, I often mention that the easiest way to get a child thinking about a vocation is to include it in the list of potential careers children might consider. Put it there right next to doctor, lawyer, engineer, mechanic, business manager, teacher and what have you. Priest or nun belong in that list.
What is very disappointing and very surprising to me is how much that suggestion is often considered very surprising. “I’ve never thought of doing that before!?!” That’s the most common response I hear. Seriously, 3 out of every 4 people respond that way. Like it’s some sort of massive revelation. It’s very disappointing, but it makes me want to shout it from the rooftops, because I think it really works.
I think there are three main reasons that parents and mentors don’t often talk about religious vocations with children:
- They actively think it’s a bad choice. There’s a number of different reasons for this. One is celibacy. They can’t imagine a life without sex being very enjoyable and so they assume the life of a priest or nun must be torture. This is getting worse the more sexually obsessed our culture becomes. Another is poverty. They are too attached to their materialistic lifestyle and they can’t imagine living a life of financial simplicity. A third is that they just don’t see holiness is all that appealing. They find their sins too enjoyable and couldn’t imagine a life without these indulgences.
- They don’t want to give the impression of “forcing” them into it. Just like there are people who become doctors or lawyers or engineers because their parents strongly encouraged them to do so, there are people who do the same thing with a religious career. There’s a tinge of #1 in this one as the same people who wouldn’t be so careful with over encouraging one towards being a doctor, would be very careful with the priesthood. Why? Because at a subtle level they imagine it’s not a very good life, particularly if one was forced down that path.
- They just in general don’t spend much time talking about religion, particularly with their kids. Our lives are very busy and unfortunately our faith too often ends up on the bottom of the list. I think this is particularly true for families. Children’s sports, extra-curricular activities and social groups will gladly take every waking moment of your life if you let them. All of them demand to be the top priority. Too often faith ends up at the bottom.
I don’t want to spend a lot of time on #1 right now (as this post would get ridiculously long). But I think numbers 2 and 3 can both be partially solved just by making religious vocation part of the career discussions that go on in families.
Because almost all families find at least a little time to talk about careers. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is such a common question, it’s a cliche. Then of course there’s the “what colleges are you thinking about?” question. Introducing the idea of a seminary as a possibility could be part of that.
I don’t think it takes that much. As long as it’s part of the career discussion and the family regularly receives the sacraments, plus a little bit of prayer time… that’s all God needs to start calling someone to a life of service as a priest or nun. It doesn’t have to be over bearing for fear of #2. It can just be part of that natural discussion. It won’t take setting aside time like some ‘birds and the bees’ discussion that every parent loathes to find time for.
No, it’s just part of the natural growing up process and considering one’s career. I ask everyone to make it a part of any discussion they have with a child about future careers.
Sadly, 50% of ordained priests report being discouraged from the ministry by their families. If that’s true, how many young men are discouraged and never pursue seminary?
When our son told us he was entering formation, my wife and I went to find resources to help us understand our role and what he was going to go through. There was very little, so we started our own blog to capture what we were learning. If the blog is of help to you in your work, please feel free to use any part of it. Similarly, if you want to chat further, please feel free to e-mail me.
Your servant in Christ,
Thanks Kevin. We do have one son who occasionally talks about becoming a priest. He’s just entering High School. We’re sending him to a discernment retreat for a few days this summer.