Has your son or daughter told you they think they have a vocation to the religious life? Perhaps one of these days, you’ll hear your little girl playing nun, or your college student tell you he wants to go to seminary. As a parent, your response to that first stirring of the heart towards the possibility of God’s call is a definitive factor in your child’s discernment.

To start from the beginning, "vocation” literally means "a calling," from the Latin vocare, to call. In the Catholic Church, we use the word specifically to mean a call from God to a particular state of life: marriage, religious life, or the single life. (Ultimately, each of us is called to love—the only question is how God wishes us to love.) “Discernment” is the process of prayer, spiritual direction, and personal journey through which one understands God’s desire for his life.

Over the past few years, I've seen both friends and family discern the religious life; and I've seen parents and families react in three different ways to their child’s thoughts about being a priest, friar, nun or sister. Worst-case scenario, the parents react harshly, overtly dissuading the child from any thoughts of pursuing that vocation, telling him “you don’t know what you’d be missing” or “you’re not holy enough for that.” A number of parents choose to smile, nod, and wait for the child to “grow out of it,” encouraging her meanwhile to go explore all the options of the secular life, dismissing the religious life by omission from conversation, if not by actual dissuasion.

But the last, and best, parental option is outlined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. #1656 says, “It is in the bosom of the family that parents are ‘by word and example . . . the first heralds of the faith with regard to their children. They should encourage them in the vocation which is proper to each child, fostering with special care any religious vocation'.” #2226 adds, “Parents have the mission of teaching their children to pray and to discover their vocation as children of God.” 

I know first-hand the kind of sacrifice a family makes when a child discerns a vocation.  My older sister was a cloistered Carmelite nun for several years.  And if surrendering your son to the priesthood is hard, so is saying goodbye to your daughter at the door of a cloister, knowing that you may never give her another hug again.  Giving your child to God takes courage, tears, and prayer, and it’s not easy.  You moms know that well!

But besides raising us in the faith, my parents always made it clear that they would support their daughters on every path we walked. For me, that meant welcoming my boyfriend into their home; for my sister, that meant affirming her desires, driving her to retreats and Come and See weekends, encouraging her to write to various convents, and driving 18 hours to South Dakota to deposit her with just a small suitcase at the cloister door. Ultimately, it meant welcoming her home and helping her to transition when, a few years later, she realized that the convent wasn't where God ultimately wanted her to be.

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Encouraging and supporting your child’s vocation doesn’t mean pushing her towards marriage, or railroading him into the seminary. You, as parents, have to understand the reason behind every vocation: that your child is meant to be a saint, and the easiest path for each person to heaven is through the door of embracing their God-given vocation. A religious vocation, because its fulfillment is the direct following of God's will, can only be a recipe for the happiness and grace of your child and your family.

As a parent, you have the great blessing of being able to gift the world with a unique child of God, called to a specific role in the love of God.  The more each one of us understands the great joy and beauty of a religious vocation, and prays for our children and peers to embrace God's call, the better off our Church - and our world - will be.

P.S. By the way, I'd encourage you to read the excellent suggestions from the Diocese of Chicago's page "For Parents"! It addresses, easily and succinctly, myths about the priesthood (most of which could be applied generally to any religious order), how to encourage vocations, and practical suggestions for parents.

Copyright 2016 Rebecca Willen