Every woman who has ever guided her offspring through the educational process knows the potency of September. Whether she is homeschooling or sending her children to the next grade in a traditional classroom, it’s a thrill to think of what a new school year brings for each child: new subjects and new friends… new challenges and new worries… new ideas and new places.
Amidst making lists and schedules, designing lessons, fixing meals, getting supplies, shuttling children back and forth, doing homework, and establishing new routines in the endless dance of September mothering, let us be mindful of our greater calling beyond the tyranny of the September-to-June calendars.
Our goal as Christian parents points well beyond the academic education of our children: That of helping them to heaven. One of the ways we do this is by encouraging a sense of vocation. And that means, encouraging not only "what" a child want to be when they grow up, but also "who"?
When we know the ultimate goal, we can take steps toward achieving on-going Christian formation in the lives of our children. In a broad sense, it is what successful business managers call "beginning with the end in mind." It’s also what spiritual directors have called having "an eternal perspective".
So, as the new school year begins, it might be fruitful for us parents to wonder just how this coming year might shape the future Christian vocations of our children? Will this be a year that opens their heart more fully to God’s plan for their life? No parent can predict a child’s future, of course. Yet a parent’s good example can provide an excellent foundation for a child to grow in the ability to hear God speaking to them about the ultimate path for their life.
To grow a sense of vocation, we must try to teach our children to love and to serve God and one another in a selfless manner. And that’s not easy. It comes from years of example on the part of parents, and other loving adults in a child’s life. It also happens in practice by trial and error on the child’s part.
In serving others, a child comes to learn that "Love of God" and "Love of Neighbor" are intertwined. They cannot be separated from one another. This is the foundation that any future vocation is built upon. It is the discovery that to love is to serve.
All strong vocations come from asking the question: "Whom are you going to serve?" And having the response be: "God and others." Strong vocations come about slowly… from years of dealing with our own tendency toward selfishness, and deciding to be generous and charitable in those moments, instead.
The Vatican Council fathers wisely surveyed the depth of human nature when it comes to finding one’s calling in life when they wrote "man… cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself. (See Gaudium et Spes, 24.) "
Whether a child’s vocation is to marriage, or religious life, or the priesthood, or to a single life, the same universal call to love applies: in what way can will that child best make a sincere gift of himself or herself to another? Or to Another (who is God)?
In a recent blog post, I wrote the following:
Vocations, whatever they may be, are all about the intersection of living a life of love and service both to God and to others.
In a pivotal scene from The Sound of Music, Maria, the impetuous postulant nun and star of the film, discloses her vocational "crisis" to the Reverend Mother: Maria, who once thought she would enter the convent and take permanent vows, now fears falling in love with a local widower and his children.
The wise Reverend Mother counsels, "Maria, the love between a man and a woman is holy, too… You must find out how God wants you to spend your love… you have to live the life you were born to live."
You must find out how God wants you to spend your love. Therein lies a holy dilemma: choosing a fitting response to God who has first chosen to love us. God invites human persons to respond to him freely. He does not coerce or force; he respects the dignity of the person. But each person must find out for themselves how to best spend their love.
The point here is that, for our children, a religious vocation to the priesthood or religious life will never be considered if a child does not first hear it is a viable option for their life and love. The same is true for the married life. A child will never consider the benefits of sacramental grace acquired through the Sacrament of Matrimony, or hold on to the sanctity of the home, if we do not show them the benefit of "the domestic church" in concrete ways.
A strong home life is a garden where vocations of all kinds grow. It will be years before the harvest is ready… but one day, it will be.
Here are few suggestions that may help shape a sense of vocation in your home. (These come from our own experience, and no doubt, you might have many others that I invite you to add in the Comments Box below):
- Give your child your unconditional love, and disclose their true identity in Christ. This is not always easy to do, if we ourselves struggle in these areas. But we should strive. With words and actions tell your child that they mean everything to you. But more than that – they mean everything to God. Show them pictures from their baptism. Tell them of the graces they have received from whatever sacraments they may have received. Tell them that God has a special plan for their lives, and its unfolding even now, at whatever age they are!A very powerful way of communicating just how well a child is growing in Christ is to "catch them" in the act of "doing good". Too often, we parents act as if we are traffic cops handing out citations for infractions of the home rules. But compliments and appreciation for the good we see our children doing should be genuinely noted, and once in a while, rewarded.
- Foster the spiritual life in your home. Attend Sunday Mass as a family whenever possible. Take your children to the church: introduce them saints they see in the statues there, or in the stained glass. If there is Eucharistic Adoration, make a short visit and teach them about Jesus being present in the Host. To be sure, teach them to reverence His Presence in the tabernacle.Offer routines of prayer through the day at meals, at rising or retiring. Be a prayer leader in your home, and slowly teach them to lead as well. Young children can start devotional lives that include praying the rosary with the family, reading saints’ biographies, and finding ways to celebrate Catholic life through the liturgical year. (There are many valuable suggestions found here at the CatholicMom.com website on enriching family devotional practices.)
- Teach "people" before "things". One of the greatest cultural pressures our children face is the lack of respect for the dignity of human persons. At all times, the moral development of our children must always respect people first. A person’s needs always trump a person’s wants.Putting another person first will affect how we will spend our time, our money, and our love. And yet it is the simplest way to show that sacrifices must be made on behalf of others. A small child can be taught to share. A teenager can be encouraged to tutor a younger student, or to serve a meal at a soup kitchen, or cut an elderly neighbor’s lawn for free. In each of these moments, one gives something up for the sake of another.
Every time a child makes a sacrifice on behalf of another person, they are growing in virtue that will serve their ultimate vocation one day.
Along the same lines of not over-valuing things, children need to learn about the value of money as tool, as well as detachment from it, and from possessions. The point here is that some children are easily "owned" by their toys or possessions, or their personal bank accounts, rather than the other way around. As parents, we have to take decisive action to prevent our children from becoming addicted to pleasures of any kind, and teach them self-mastery of their time and their spending. These days, digital technology tools such a computers, cell phones, and video gaming must not monopolize a child’s time so much that it desensitizes them to the people around them.
- Introduce your children to strong married couples, as well as to priests and nuns. Pick up the phone and invite ‘em over! Have a priest come by for coffee and dessert after dinner one night. Ask why they chose their vocation. Or ask a married couple to tell their wedding story. Invite a sister to come by, or ask if you can visit a convent, or share in their apostolate for a day. Support a religious order or apostolate financially and share that mission with your children.
- For teens, find youth ministry options that offer a spiritual component. This is often harder than it looks. During the teen years, it is vital that teens find points of connection with Christ and the Church in a personal way. In our house, we’ve often had to look to other parishes, and even programs out of state, for our teens to take part in. These might be Catholic retreat offerings, service projects, and religious conferences geared for teens. It took effort, time, and money to support these projects, or to get involved as parents. But again, it’s part of on-going Christian formation.
- Do what you can to inspire a sense of beauty. This might be through love of the arts, music, literature, or through appreciation of the great outdoors … anything that builds a sense of heightened awareness that life is beautiful and joyous. In our house, that meant years of painting classes, music lessons, and camping trips. In your home it might be creative writing or drama groups. There are so many options for families today. By cultivating a sense of the beautiful, and the kinds of moments that capture your child’s imagination can raise the spirit to seek the Ultimate Beauty: God.
This few suggestions are just scratching the surface of developing a sense of vocation in our children. Again, kindly add your own thoughts below in the Comments Box.
©2010 Patricia W. Gohn
About the Author
Pat Gohn is a married "empty-nester" with three adult children and one grandchild. By day she is the editor of Catechist magazine. And by night the host of the Among Women Podcast. Her books include the award-winning Blessed, Beautiful, and Bodacious: Celebrating the Gift of Catholic Womanhood, and All In: Why Belonging to the Catholic Church Matters. Visit PatGohn.net