To All Parents of Religious
Written by Rachel Watkins
So, your child has a vocation. Congratulations! He or she has told you about their desire to enter a seminary, cloister, order, or monastery. This is wonderful news. You thank God for this gift to the Church; you make telephone calls to family and friends to announce the news. You find yourself busy with all that this decision entails. Eventually, in the days and weeks that follow you also find yourself pausing over a cup of coffee, lingering over your rosary beads and you find yourself saying to yourself, “What does this mean to me?”
I know exactly how you feel as I am one of you. My oldest daughter wears a simple gold band as an outward symbol of her promises to poverty, chastity and obedience. She is a bride of Christ. Her vocation is a source of great joy for our family but it does cause for some awkward moments, the first of which may come from our own hearts and souls.
We find ourselves wondering because, while our child has been given the blessing of a vocation, we aren’t sure where that leaves us. Not that we are asking for anything specifically but understanding is always welcomed. The particular vocation known as “parent of a seminarian or priest" or "parent of a religious” is rarely discussed, so in a spirit of solidarity, I offer you my thoughts on our mission.
Who are we as parents of children following religious vocations? I have some familiarity with this role as do my parents. My youngest brother is a priest, now serving as an Army military chaplain. I remember the joy in my hometown when he came to celebrate his first Mass there over 8 years ago. An older parishioner took my mother aside, giving her a hug, she said, “You must be so happy. You are guaranteed a place in heaven for this!” My mother thanked her for her sentiments. Later alone with me, she laughed at the opinion offered, “Great, now I can begin that life of crime I always wanted!” Little did I know, back then, that I would join my mother in this challenging role.
While I am still learning how it all works, I already know parents of priests or religious are guaranteed nothing - not even a seat in heaven. 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.
The current secular atmosphere can make our children’s vocation suspect and our acceptance even more so. Even those who sit in the pews with us can question their decision in light of the scandals a few years ago. Their questions can range from the humorous, “Is there much a future in religious life?” (“Eternal”, we want to reply.) To the, “There certainly can’t be much money in that work,” rude folks may comment. And even the perplexing, “Don’t you think she should get a degree first so she has a back-up plan if it doesn’t work out?”
Doesn’t work out?
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?
Why, indeed. Perhaps we have these questions ourselves. How did this call come to our family? While people may tell us we are holy for having a child with a vocation we know otherwise, don’t we? Their call from Christ came even with our failings as parents. Their “yes” to God came despite our many “no’s”.
Some of us may have rejoiced with the news, having prayed throughout our marriages for a religious vocation. Truthfully, though, for others it may have come as a shock or even a disappointment. For these parents, perhaps there is some shame in recognizing those feelings but perhaps not. These parents often find it hard to support their children in their call.
For those who are not parents of a vocation it may be hard to even understand this, but it happens; I know it does. My daughter tells me of her sadness in having companions who never get phone calls or letters from home. The perseverance these vocation “orphans” display despite the silence from home gives her additional strength for her own call.
In some families, such as my own, our children’s vocations were less of a surprise. While it may have come along without any real prompting on your part, you are pleased. In some instances, your child has always had a love for Christ and the Church that set him or her apart, like Samuel, hearing the Lord call his name when he was young. Their vocations seem more like an obvious choice. It is much like the parents of the 'gearhead' who aren’t surprised when their child announces a decision to be a mechanic. Finally, he will be getting paid for all that he did for free, every chance he could. Finally, what he loves is also what he does.
So, here we are, parents watching them leave for seminary or college or the mission field. We packed them up, depending on their diocese or order, with many things or nothing. Depending on where they are located and their mission, we might hear from them every week or only a few times a year. There might be access to the Internet for e-mails or we may have to rely on erratic snail mails. They may be sent far from home or preach to us from a pulpit in our own dioceses.
Whatever your child’s call, they didn’t write about it in the parents’ books or magazines. There isn’t an article titled, “Now That You’ve Become the Parent of a Religious” to be found. As a result, much of what you learn comes as you go along. You come to know and accept the rules and norms of your child’s diocese or order. But honestly, some of these are easier to accept than others.
As much as I complained about shopping when my daughter was younger, I miss the fact that I don’t buy her clothes anymore. Her clothes are given to her and while I contribute to the costs of these through our donations, I don’t have the small pleasure of seeing a sweater that I know she would look great in and sending it to her “just because”. It's a silly thing I know, but one I take to prayer regularly.
Money as a whole is so different now. I am like so many other parents of a young adult, as I get letters requesting money, but mine come as those formal donation letters many receive. However, unlike so many other parents who might wonder where all their money goes, I know the money I send is never going to be spent unwisely on a weekend bash but on such necessities as milk and heating bills.
I worry about her daily, not with concern about what decisions are being made but more in regard with loneliness and acceptance. My daughter faces the rejection that Christ did during His life here on earth. I know people close the door in her face both figuratively and literally. I know they are really refusing Christ as they dismiss her, but I can’t stand the thought of anyone not liking her. She’s a great person. She’s beautiful, smart and funny. How could anyone not love her as I do? But they don’t, just as they don’t love God. I feel a closeness to Mary that I never had before, from the moment my daughter spoke her vows. Holy Mary knows, more so than I, how painful it is watching your child be rejected.
But these are minor struggles and our lives are a blessing. As parents of religious, we all have peace knowing our children have found their vocations at a time when so many young people are still wandering. We miss them, but knowing where they are — a rectory, mission field or chapel — gives us a peace many parents lack. We also have a closeness that texting cannot replace. We join hands and hearts through the Tabernacle. Whenever my family communicates with my daughter, we close with the reminder that we’ll “see each other at the altar”. Every Mass reminds me of her and as I receive Christ I can imagine her doing the same though far away. We both say goodnight to the Blessed Mother and ask her to watch over us as we sleep.
So, there should be no complaints should there? However, if I could beg for a little latitude, I would like to grouse a bit without sounding ungrateful. A friend of mine told me of a recent visit to Italy to spend some time with her son who is a priest. As they walked about the city, her son in his collar, they were often greeted quite warmly. She blushed with pride as she told of the small items placed in her hand by shopkeepers and the kind words of thanksgiving given her. “The mother of the priest deserves great blessings!”, she was told repeatedly.
I do not often hear such words except from other families with religious. I get awkward smiles and “Oh, that must be nice!” before the subject is quickly changed. Or I will be subjected to the barrage of prying questions that reveal a dislike or distrust of the Church. I will openly admit that I wish my daughter’s vocation generated the same respect and pride that other professions do, such as doctor. The vocation of a religious should be seen to have equal value if not more. While a doctor may save the body, a religious is trying to save a soul. The body will eventually die; the soul, with good care and formation, will live forever. However, I know this adulation doesn’t often come and probably shouldn’t, as all praise and glory remain God’s and God’s alone. He called and my child answered; I am but a very small part of the picture. But, honestly and humanly, a more frequent favorable reception would be welcome.
Therefore, in companionship of a fraternity created by our children’s calls to serve Christ — Congratulations (again)! — you are not alone in your role. We may not have weekly support group meetings, but we are in very special company, are we not? We have role models in the recently beatified Louie and Zelie Martin, parents of the Little Flower, St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and her religious siblings as well as the Blessed Mother herself. May they watch over all of us and grant us the graces and comfort we need on the tough days. I also offer the prayer below, written together with my husband and with my daughter’s approval. May it give you comfort just as it does us:
PRAYER FOR OUR CHILDREN WITH RELIGIOUS VOCATIONS
Lord, I thank you for my child’s vocation. Never cease watching over him/her. Grant him/her all the graces necessary to fulfill his/her sacrificial call; especially strength, dedication, and fidelity. Though we are not together, allow my prayers to give him/her comfort and strength.
May he/she never regret his/her gift of self, despite the cost. Keep us united through the Eucharist and the love of our mother, Mary.
Grant us the courage to continue to be open to his/her call and to help spread our generosity to others. Allow us eternity together with you where we will rejoice forever for the gift his/her vocation is to the Church and to our family. Amen.