Children often wonder how a vocation comes about. They will often ask how a priest, brother or sister first came to know that they were called to the religious life? For superficial souls, such questions are motivated by mere curiosity. For deeper souls, they offer evidence of serious reflection and self-inquiry.
There is no simple answer that explains the confidence with which young persons choose to try their vocation. Some are motivated by personal piety and find the religious life congenial to their tastes, others choose with the desire to serve the common good of the Church, a little like the soldier who decides to serve his country. A treasured friendship with Jesus Christ is never lacking.
Although each vocation has its own personal story to tell, most vocations share a common thread: family! Pope Pius XI writes: « But the first and most natural place where the flowers of the sanctuary should almost spontaneously grow and bloom, remains always the truly and deeply Christian family. Most of the saintly bishops and priests whose "praise the Church declares," owe the beginning of their vocation and their holiness to example and teaching of a father strong in faith and manly virtues, of a pure and devoted mother, and of a family in which the love of God and neighbour, joined with simplicity of life, has reigned supreme. To this ordinary rule of divine Providence exceptions are rare and only serve to prove the rule. » (Encyclical Ad Catholici Sacerdotii, 1935)
Catholic families must exhibit certain criteria if they are to offer the right atmosphere in which a vocation can germinate and develop.
Many priests spontaneously speak of their parent’s piety as the primary cause of their own vocation. Parental piety, of the sort that generates vocations, goes beyond the norm. It is one that is built primarily around assiduous devotion to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and to the Rosary. It is a piety that readily embraces the efforts necessary to grow in the knowledge, love and service of our Lord and of the Church. Too often a parent’s prayer life does not go beyond prayers with the children, as if the child’s spiritual diet was sufficient. It is not. Children must see that their parents are in earnest about the Faith and the good of the Church.
Parents should make known to their children their desire for a vocation in the family. To this end, family prayers should include supplications for priests and seminarians, that they persevere in their vocation, and for young men and women, that they have the courage to give up their lives in the service of the Church and souls.
A reverential respect and esteem for men and woman of religion is also a vital ingredient in the genesis of a vocation. Children who are privy to their parents’ disapproval of or dissatisfaction with their priests or parish or school become immune to the idea of the priesthood or the religious life. They equate such life choices as reserved for people who are unable to make a living in the world. The transcendent beauty of the priestly or religious life passes them by and they take for granted that others give up their lives so that they can keep theirs.
Giving up one’s life is perceived as a great sacrifice (though marriage too entails much self-surrender). The courage and determination required to pursue a vocation is therefore dependent on a young person’s capacity for self-renunciation and adversity. Parents should not make their children’s lives too easy and comfortable. There is a reason why children who have been to school and, in particular, boarding school, embrace more readily a vocation. The efforts and constraints of institutionalised living do not frighten them. They are better suited to giving up personal convenience and comfort for the common good. They understand better what it is to commune with others and to find satisfaction and pride in school or community membership rather than in themselves and their own personal endeavours. A child who references himself in regard to his contribution to a school community, however minor the achievement, is a child who is conscious of and happy to contribute to a good beyond himself, i.e. a common good.
Love of the Common Good
It is imperative to pass on to children a clear understanding of the common good and one’s obligations to it. Too often families will withdraw into themselves in an attempt to ward off the temptations of the world. Children are thus at risk of evaluating their lives and their future in regard to their own specific desires and needs rather than those of their neighbour. Soldiers sign up out of a sense of patriotism passed on to them through their contact with civil society. Priests and religious are also motivated by a sense of duty and service to the Church passed on to them through contact with Church institutions. Catholic schools allow for prolonged contact with persons who have dared to risk their happiness in religion. Their example is an invitation and encouragement to children to consider if God does not want them also to join the ranks.
Children should be used to participating in church and parish initiatives. Altar serving is a privileged means of removing the fear of a life dedicated to the sanctuary. Care of the church precincts brings to life the words of psalm 83: « How lovely are thy tabernacles, Lord of hosts! … Blessed are they that dwell in thy house, O Lord: they shall praise thee for ever and ever. »
Much can be written on the best means of fostering vocations. Not enough can be said, however, on the importance of making our Lord a living entity within the bosom of the child's school and family. He is not an ideal to follow, or a distant deity, but a living, breathing Person who is as present and close to us as we are to each other. In fine, it is friendship with Christ that pushes a soul to think of a vocation. Lovers want to spend their lives with each other, and we must love our Lord, really and truly love Him, if we are to consider spending our lives with Him in consecrated service, forever.