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Is There a Priest (or Sister) in the House? PDF Print E-mail

Parents, Kids, and the Religious Life

What kind of home is the most fertile ground for religious vocations?   What characterizes the parents of children who become nuns, priests, brothers, and consecrated virgins?  Are they holier than most?  Is their family life more filled with Catholic practices and devotions?  And is there anything that other parents can learn from their experience?

To find the answers to these questions, I spoke with a good number of new priests and sisters, and their parents, from various parts of the United States.  Much of what they told me confirmed my earlier observations.  There were also a few surprises, as well as encouragement for my own vocation as a parent.  I hope the following selection of family snapshots has the same inspiring effect on you.

 

THERE’S A RANGE 
On the more overtly Catholic end of the spectrum is the family in which John Paul Erickson grew up.  Ordained in 2006, he serves as associate pastor of the Cathedral of St. Paul, Minnesota.  Two of his five siblings are religious sisters.

“Our family was down-to-earth, normal, but also proud of our Catholic identity,” he says.  His parents, Richard and Patricia Erickson, “made it clear to us that Catholicism was not just another club we belonged to.  That meant, for example, that if we had sleepovers, they were on Friday night and not Saturday, lest we be zonked out for Sunday Mass.”

They also communicated the importance of “looking out for the poor and marginalized,” says Fr. John.  “We gave time and money to charity, and served at the soup kitchen and elsewhere.  It was in the family that we received our primary formation, though we also attended Catholic schools.”

For Sr. Mary Barbara, of the Nashville Dominicans in Tennessee, the strongly Catholic home atmosphere that her parents created was also key.  “Family prayers, the rosary, the Bible, spiritual reading – it all instilled in me the importance of prayer and following the Lord.  When I attended National Youth Day, I was ready to answer the altar call for men and women who wanted to enter religious life.”

 

THE POWER OF EXAMPLE
But Tom and Kathleen Lynch still haven’t figured out exactly how they fostered the vocation of their son, Brian, who is now associate pastor of St. Ambrose in Woodbury, Minnesota.  “No one was more surprised than we were when Brian told us he was considering the priesthood,” they say.

“We can’t think of anything special we did, other than try to set a good example of living.  We never talked about the priesthood when he was young and rarely even talked about the faith at meals.”  Church missions and saying the rosary were only occasional practices. “Now, to top it off, his younger brother is considering the priesthood, too”!

But children do watch how their parents live, and they draw conclusions.  Sr. Mary Juliana, also a Nashville Dominican, points to the example of the father.  “He didn’t become Catholic until my older sister was confirmed, but I would often watch him outside in the morning as he looked out at nature.  ‘I bet he is praying,’ I said to myself.  That had an impact on my prayer life.”

 

JOINT EFFORTS
A number of the stories I heard are testimonies to the good fruit of parents and Catholic educators working together. Sr. Mary Juliana remembers that when she was seven, her religion teacher told the class that the goal of life is to get to heaven.  “I figured that the best way to do that is to marry the King of heaven.  He would have to let me in!”

Fr. Kevin Augustyn of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Boulder, Colorado, is thankful that his parents sent him to Catholic schools and wanted him well prepared to receive the sacraments.  Their choices were foundational for his vocation, he says.  A conversion experience at a high school retreat launched his desire to serve the Church.  Attending a good Catholic university, along with involvement in an evangelistic outreach serving high school kids, also helped him to discern a call to the priesthood.

Mot of the men I interviewed mentioned the significant role played by priests.  “They were the biggest influence in my vocation,” notes Fr. John Silva.  He remembers the priests at his school as patient and outgoing. “They played basketball with the kids and joined our recreation times.  I also have two second cousins who are priests.”  One of them is the pastor of St. John’s in Newburgh, Indiana, where Fr. John serves as associate pastor.

“Going to an ordination Mass in high school got me thinking seriously about the priesthood.  I couldn’t get over that someone would give their whole life to God like that.”

 

FREEDOM AND SUPPORT
Sr. Elizabeth Ann Dockery wasn’t raised by her parents, grew up in the Nazarene Church, and never experienced family prayer or discussion about the Christian life.  Yet she ended up joining a community of religious sisters, the Disciples of Our Lord Jesus Christ, near Amarillo, Texas.

“I gave my life to Christ when I was twelve, at a concert by a Christian musician and evangelist.  “One day, while I was standing in line at the post office, one of the sisters began talking to me and invited me to visit her convent.  Because it was a charismatic community, I felt right at home.”  She joined two years later, after college, and after becoming a Catholic through her friendship with a fellow music director.

Sr. Elizabeth Ann is grateful to her grandparents for helping her to the religious life she loves.  “Though they aren’t Catholic, I owe my vocation in large part to them because they always supported me.  They encouraged me to pursue my musical dreams, and that path eventually led to where I am today.”

Fr. Bob Roggenbuck, the chaplain at Powers High School in Flint, Michigan, also cited the importance of family support.  He thought about the priesthood as a youth, he says, then again as a teen – “I wanted to respond to God.”  That desire was nurtured at home. “My parents talked about the faith at dinner, and we would discuss the priesthood.

“Their love was always unconditional, even if I did something they disagreed with – even when I became Protestant for years.  They kept the perfect balance by telling me they didn’t agree with what I was doing, but giving me leeway at the same time.  They were a compelling witness of the love of God.”

 

HELPING TO HEAR
Some parents mentioned the importance of giving children enough unstructured play time.  What does this have to do with vocations?  It provides natural opportunities for kids to reflect on God, creation, the meaning of life, and other big issues.

Parents also spoke of creating a home environment where the still, small voice of the Spirit didn’t have to compete with a lot of other input.  Mort Mattson thinks that he and his wife’s decision to eliminate TV for a number of years and to ban certain kinds of music was important in keeping a Christian environment.  “The media never got a hold of us,” he said.  Instead, when his son, now Fr. Steve, and his siblings were growing up, “they were involved in scouting and read a lot.”

Some parents consciously encouraged their children to think about what God was calling them to do wit their lives.  This was the case for Nashville Dominican Sr. Mary Barbara.  Her father, Fred Keiser, was in Jesuit seminary for over eleven years, and has been a director of religious education and a youth minister; he now teaches high school religion.

“We taught the kids religion at home,” he says, “and when we talked about the future, it was always, ‘when you get married, or when you enter religious life.’ Both options were always presented equally.  When there were retreats, missionaries, or talks in the area on vocations, we would take them so they could hear from others, not just from us.”

A few mothers said they always had a sense that God was calling a child to religious life.  Jan Mattson experienced this in regard to one of her four sons.  “I asked him at one point of I could pray that he become a priest.  He said, ‘No, mom.  I love children and want to get married.’  So I asked if I could pray for him to do God’s will in the matter, and he said okay.”  Fr. Steve now serves a parochial vicar of St. Thomas Aquinas in Lansing, Michigan.  “I have never felt more myself,” he told family and friends on his ordination day.

 

RIPPLE EFFECTS
It struck me that every parent I spoke with expressed delight, pride, and peace with the decision of their son or daughter.  Any initial misgivings and reservations had vanished away.

“We found out that we didn’t have to be afraid that we would give our kids away to religious life and never see them again,” says Fred Keiser.  “When Sr. Mary Barbara comes home, or we visit her, as with two of our sons in seminary, they are all ours.  Our relationship is just as close, or closer, now.”

Ken Przybilla still goes on hunting trips with his son, Troy, now associate pastor at St. Peter in Foster Lake, Minnesota.  There’s nothing like it, he says.  “When he puts on his vestments and says Mass in the little cabin, it is a holy, moving, special moment,”

Bill and Marilyn Cox, parents of Sr. Mary Juliana, see their whole family as reaping spiritual benefits since their daughter joined the Dominicans.  Her growth in joy and peace is visible, says Marilyn.  “It has led to our transformation, too.  We have moved from Texas to outside Nashville and have become Third Order Dominicans.  The sisters are now a big part of our life.  As my husband says, ‘we couldn’t be more proud of her if she was a doctor or lawyer.’”

 

TRUST GOD – AND EAT DINNER
It also struck me that there is no perfect or prototype family from which religious vocations most often arise.  Like the rest of us, the parents I interviewed have experienced failures and made mistakes.  Sometimes the “track record” is mixed, including a child in religious life and another who may not be following the Lord at all.

But I did notice two common denominators. One of them – attending Sunday Mass – came as no surprise.  But I hadn’t expected that every child and parent I talked to would also mention the importance of eating dinner as a family.  Even in homes where religion was rarely or never discussed at the table, frequent family meals seem to have played a critical role.

The bottom line is that God is so much greater than our limitations as parents.  We don’t have to do everything right in order for our children to hear his call!

Reprinted with permission of The Word Among Us, 9639 Doctor Perry Road #126, Jamesville, MD  21754, www.wau.org, (June 2007)

 
   
 


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