According to a study released in 2011 a little over half of those who were ordained report being actively discouraged from their vocation by a family member. Beyond that, it is difficult to say how many potential vocations have been lost because someone who was discerning was steered onto a different path. In some ways, it seems like we are our own worst enemy when it comes to recruiting and forming new religious.
There’s a certain amount of speculation about why parents might be so selfish. Some point to cultural changes, or poor liturgies, or unbridled capitalism. I suspect there is truth to these ideas, but I think they tend to paint parents with a broad brush and ignore the very real experience of the parents.
Rachel Watkins writes about her experience of having a daughter enter religious life over at the Sioux City Diocesan Vocations site:
We will experience the same feelings and concerns most parents feel but in a different way. We miss our children deeply and worry about them. This worry is especially true of parents whose children are missionaries abroad. And while their needs are taken care of by their dioceses or orders, we have concern for their well-being and support them financially with as much as our incomes allow. Our lives can seem almost easier with the care they receive from their dioceses or orders but that is not always the case.
In truth, ours can be a difficult lot. This is not to discourage anyone from encouraging their children to listen for God’s call. My daughter does not know about what concerns me. I say it only in an acceptance of the fact that our child’s choice is atypical, making us as their parents also uncommon. Our children have chosen Christ first and foremost for their lives and their loves. We could not be more proud, could we? However, we know that this choice comes at a cost rarely understood. We often find ourselves at a loss. We may stumble when trying to tell others what our children are doing. A teacher, a plumber, an at-home mom, even a tattoo artist, is easily understood but a monk, nun, consecrated or a priest? These often require an explanation that extends longer than the line at the deli will allow…
…We do our best as parents to answer all the questions. However, quite honestly, after a while, it can become distressing. Some of the questions and comments we can receive are so negative. My husband and I joke darkly to each other that we might have had a better reception if we had announced her decision to join a traveling band of jugglers rather than a recognized order in the Church. In the end, all these questions come down to this: Why would anyone choose a priestly or vowed religious life?
In the face of these kinds of objections, it is understandable if parents begin to doubt the validity of their child’s vocation call. They aren’t villains, just parents who are in uncertain territory. It is natural that they’ll want to know how their child’s decision will impact their lives. Vocations – like any other life choice a child makes – will have an effect on the family.
The Eastern Dominican Vocations page offers some thoughtful advice to those discerning a Dominican vocation. It starts in a wise place, inviting the discerner to explore their parents’ objections:
Have you listened to your parents’ reasons? Before you try to explain the mystery of a vocation to them, allow them to tell you what their concerns are. These reasons could range wildly. They may think that you don’t really listen to them or honor them. They may want you to have a “normal” life that would include marriage and their expected grandchildren. They may think that you have abandoned them and won’t see them. They may think that you need to have several years of experience after college before you can make a decision. They may think that a religious community is full of misfits, or that religion is a scam. They may think that you will be happier and be more productive in doing just about anything else than becoming a religious.
From there, it goes on to offer several concrete suggestions for engaging in dialogue with parents. It ends on a very encouraging note:
Parents often feel bonded with the brothers in their son’s formation, and they come to realize that their son has many, many brothers. The brothers themselves look with affection on the parents of one of their own. In a sense, parents don’t lose a son so much as gain many, many sons!
(Kit and I have certainly felt that way about the Paulists. We have enjoyed meeting many of the seminarians and priests and frequently joke about all of our new “sons”.)
Answering the call to religious life raises questions for parents and we – those discerning and the Catholic community at large – owe it to them to take their concerns seriously and do our best to accompany them as they undertake the vocations journey with their child.
— Dad (of Evan)