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Seven ways to foster vocations in the family

What do you want to be when you grow-up?” This is one of the all-time most popular questions for children when they go to visit the relatives for Thanksgiving or Christmas. At least, when I was a kid, this was the one question that I remember hearing the most from my aunts and uncles. I think I used to reply that I wanted to be a baseball player or an architect; one awesome job and a back-up, dependable, boring job. But now imagine if you were a mother or a father and you asked your son, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and he answered, “I want to be a priest!” How would you react? Excited or concerned? Either way, it’s very important that we as parents learn to handle the hearts and future vocations of our children with compassion and wisdom. God has a beautiful plan for everyone and he wants all of us to be happy in our state of life. God desires our happiness even more than we do ourselves! So, if you are truly concerned about your own and your children’s well-being, then learning about vocations and encouraging discernment are very good for the entire family. I’m going to lay out seven ways that we can promote a culture of vocations in our families.

1. Read a book about the lives of saints. This can be a great way to get your children to think about the life of a religious sister or a priest. There are many different age-appropriate books about saints which you can find at your local Catholic bookstore. I would also recommend any of the books about the lives of the saints by Louis de Wohl. He has some very entertaining and engaging books about St. Francis of Assisi and St. Catherine of Siena. Or if you’re so inclined, there’s even a comic book about St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. John Paul II. Spending time reading as a family also discourages too much screen time and is a great excuse to waste time together as a family. You can take turns reading if everyone gets bored listening to mom read all the time.

2. I’m going to make a recommendation that even I sometimes find hard to receive: watch a Catholic movie. I struggle recommending the average run-of-the-mill Catholic movies about the lives of the saints because I do not like most of them as quality movies. I like good art and while some Christian directors have very good intentions, their art is lacking. So, here is a list of Catholic Christian movies that I have found to be very entertaining and full of grace and truth. In no particular order: Pinocchio (1940, G), A Man for All Seasons (1966, G), Groundhog Day (1993, PG), Field of Dreams (1989, PG), The Song of Bernadette (1943, not rated), Cinderella (2013, PG), Les Miserables (2012, PG-13), Joan of Arc (1999, PG), The Wind Rises (2013, PG-13), Angels in Outfield (1994, PG), The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000, PG-13). So, instead of watching Frozen for the 100th time, or another Marvel movie, consider one of these classics and have a little conversation afterwards.

3. Talk to your kids about sexuality and relationships. Social media sets the wrong expectations around dating and relationships. Authentic love is not very popular now-a-days, and it is primarily the responsibility of the parents to establish definitions and boundaries around dating and relationships with the opposite sex. A good place to start is to learn more about the sacrament of marriage and then have intentional conversations with your children. I want to encourage adults to work through whatever shame or confusion that prevents you from having open and honest conversations with your children concerning sex and marriage. I firmly believe that I was able to receive a celibate vocation from the Lord Jesus because my parents took seriously their responsibility to teach me and speak with me about sexuality. Thanks, Mom and Dad!

4. If your children are still young enough to play with their imaginations and enjoy playing dress-up, I recommend playing “priest” or “sister.” It’s easy to imagine a blanket as a religious habit and use crackers for the host at Mass. Children learn how to be mothers and fathers by playing house and lots of other imaginary games, why not normalize the idea of living for God by pretending to be a priest or a religious sister? 

Photo by Andrew Wright

5. Pray together as a family! Many of us learn to pray when we are little children as our parents tuck us into bed, and some of us continue praying the rosary together as a family, but I do not know many families who pray from the heart together on a consistent basis. I love rote prayers like the rosary and the divine mercy chaplet! Sometimes, I pray the rosary in my dreams, and I begin to say it out loud and wake myself up! Ha! But by far, the most valuable kind of prayer throughout my life has been praying out loud from my heart with family and friends. This type of spontaneous and simple prayer from the heart opens a whole new area of honesty and humility. It’s important for children to hear their parents speaking to God directly and asking for guidance and blessings. Children need to hear their parents ask God to bless their children, and it’s spiritually enriching for children to add their own simple prayer of the heart to the conversation. This type of prayer does wonders for discerning a vocation and knowing God’s will.

6. Speak openly about vocations to marriage, priesthood and religious life. We parents need to make it clear to our children that there is more than just one way to live a happy and fulfilling life. I grew up thinking that marriage was the only way I could ever be happy as a man, but my life as a priest has shown me that there are many different modes of discipleship in the Christian life. The most important point to emphasize with children is that happiness in life comes in following God’s plan. Too often, we tell people we love that we want them to pursue happiness, but this is all wrong. What we need to communicate is that happiness is a product of following God’s will. Most of the people I know who made happiness the pursuit of their lives are not very happy. Speak of how great it is to be a priest because they bring us the sacraments, and how special it is to make vows as a religious brother or sister.

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7. Invite a priest, brother or sister to dinner at your home. In all of discipleship, personal relationships are very important. Jesus uses real people in our lives to help us follow him more closely. It is very hard to consider a call to the priesthood or religious life if you have never had some kind of close personal contact with a priest or religious. When children begin to see the humanity and relatability of priests and sisters, then they begin to feel more comfortable with the idea of being called by God to that kind of vocation.   

Finally, I want to acknowledge that a lot of Catholics who love God and the Church are still reluctant to encourage their children to consider priesthood or religious life. This is normal, but I also want to point out that your judgment is biased to the way of life that you have chosen to live. And I would also challenge the married couple reading this article to consider how they discerned God’s will before they chose to get married. Perhaps your own understanding of discernment is limited and untested. If your child expresses interest in the priesthood or religious life, please be supportive. And if you’re excited, then please don’t push too hard. Either way, TRUST in God’s plan. Our children do not belong to us, they are gifts from God that we nurture for a handful of years, and we must let them go. The best thing a parent can say is, “Whatever God wants for you, I want for you, too.” 

Father Ryan O'Neill
Father Ryan O'Neill
Father Ryan O'Neill is the Director of Vocations for the Archdiocese of Denver.
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