The Responsibility of Parents for Religious Vocations

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

There is an urgent need, especially nowadays, for a more widespread and deeply felt conviction that all the members of the Church, without exception, have the grace and responsibility to look after vocations. The duty of fostering vocations falls on the whole Christian community.

(St. John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis)

I recently came upon an article from America Magazine that reports on a study from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation entitled, “Sisters to All” that documents the positive perception of Americans about religious sisters and highlights the truly admirable work that Catholic sisters are doing in the Church and world today.

But the report also includes this observation: “Other interesting findings from the study include apprehension from parents about their daughters becoming a Catholic sister. About a third of the respondents said that they would encourage their daughter to rethink their decision.”

That’s pretty disappointing, isn’t it? For after all, those of us involved in the Church know that the consecrated life is a wonderful vocation; that young women who enter the convent have challenging and fulfilled lives, and in their prayer and service are making a positive difference in the Church and the world.

But the reluctance of parents to encourage religious vocations is a sad phenomenon we’re finding in recruiting vocations to the diocesan priesthood too. It’s not at all unusual for us to meet a young man who’s thinking about entering the seminary only to find that his parents are strongly discouraging him from doing so.

Look, there are many reasons why promoting priestly vocations is such a challenge for the Church today, especially in this part of the world.

First of all is the fact that there are just fewer children and young people around these days. Catholic families are smaller, schools are closing and merging, and the workforce is aging, at least in these parts. It seems that parents with fewer kids are more reluctant to ship one of them off to the convent or seminary.

We’re living in a radically secularized society where things of the spirit, religious things, are held in little esteem. In this culture hedonism, secularism and materialism thrive while religious faith is considered an oddity. There’s little public support for a young man who wants to give his life to the Lord. (The report on sisters says that parents object to their daughters because they fear that “joining a religious order means sacrifice.” Duh . . .)

The lack of participation in the life of the Church is a huge factor in the declining number of vocations. How can a young man even think of serving at the altar if his family never goes to Mass; if his family has abandoned the Church except for special social occasions like baptisms, weddings and funerals?

The Church itself must shoulder some of the blame for the dearth of priestly vocations. The number of Catholic schools has declined; our catechetical programs have been deficient; our liturgies have become mindless mélanges of secular, social and sacramental ingredients, barely recognizable as Catholic; and our priests and bishops have often acted badly, giving little reason for a young man to follow in their footsteps.

In this context it’s extremely difficult for a young man to hear and respond to God’s call. There’s just too much noise, too many distractions and too little support. Robert Cardinal Sarah, in his fine book, God or Nothing, puts it this way: “How can we not be saddened by the sight of all the young men who hesitate to respond to the Lord’s urgent appeal, ‘Come and follow me’? God is still calling as many men as in the past; it is the men whose hearing is not what it used to be.”

Into this mix then, throw the sad fact that parents are hesitant to encourage their sons to think about the priesthood, and sometimes actively oppose them when they do. But in truth, the role of parents as “vocation directors” is pivotal. St. John Paul, in his letter about priestly formation says that “the family is truly a ‘domestic church’ which has always offered favorable conditions for the birth of vocations . . . and that families should be the first seminary in which children can acquire an awareness of piety and prayer and love for the Church.” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, #41)

Every Catholic family worthy of the name should encourage their sons and daughters to pray about serving the Church in the priesthood and religious life. And if they are called and qualified, parents should gladly support them on their journey. I believe that it’s seriously wrong for parents to discourage their sons and daughters from following the Lord on this special path. How arrogant it is to say no to God; how wrong to cover our ears when He’s speaking to us!

Does a religious vocation involve generosity and sacrifice? Of course it does, but that’s a condition for following Christ in every age. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me,” Jesus said very clearly. (Mt 16:24) But it is also a noble calling, a respected profession, and source of joy and fulfillment.

May all the members of the Church in the Diocese of Providence, including parents, willingly and joyfully accept “the grace and responsibility of looking after vocations.” In the Catholic community, it used to be a great privilege to be a parent of a priest or nun. It still is.