Monday, August 25, 2014

On Encouraging Religious and Priestly Vocations

Dominican Saints by Fra. Angelico
I have had an interesting experience with people over time as I've been a parent now for some thirteen years. Every once in a while, for some reason or other, I mention that maybe insert-name-of-child-here will be a sister or monk or friar or priest. And it is kind of surprising to me how often my Catholic friends are quick to tell me, "or they could be a parent!" Or they say more directly, "you shouldn't pressure him/her to be religious. Being married is equally good." Something like that.

I'm trying to wrap my head around why Catholic friends are so quick to downplay the value of religious and priestly vocations. I think these would be the same folks who would readily pray for vocations to the priesthood and religious life and generally be supportive of parish awareness/promotional type activities for these vocations.

Why would it be great and okay and no reservations to pray for and encourage these vocations in the abstract/general, but when applied to a particular parent and child, we are all too quick to downplay it and really push that being a mom/dad or single lay person is just as grand?

I have had one explanation a couple times--"you don't want to force them into it, not that I think you would ever do that [but still I felt I should tell you this because I probably am not sure that you wouldn't]."

What are we so worried about? What would be so terrible about encouraging a child towards a religious or priestly vocation? 

Let me say that I am not calling any of my friends out, and I do not intend to fault people for offering such a caution--it is a perfectly understandable concern to have, and I know they have good intentions. The reason I am taking issue is that I think we all need to second guess this tendency we have to make comments like this.

"Don't Pressure Them"

Part of their motivation seems to be extrapolating from the all-too-common story of parents wrongly pressuring their children to "follow in their footsteps" or discouraging them "from their dreams." I know that in our individualistic society today, such pressure from parents seems categorically wrong. It is certainly portrayed that way in popular media, over and over and over again. Whether it is choosing one's spouse or choosing one's profession, it's always the bad parent pushing against the freedom of the child.

Here's the thing, though. Not all parental pressure is bad. In fact, I'd say that the vast majority of it is good--when it is done for the good of the child. Even when parents can be mistaken about the good or go too far with the pressure, it would be a dereliction of parental duty to essentially wash our hands and say, "you do whatever you wanna do." Parents have a right and a duty to guide their children towards what is good for their children.

Granted, that doesn't mean that parents always know best nor that they don't sometimes mix up their own personal good with that of their children. Sometimes parents can't see past their own prejudices for the good of the child. Sometimes parents just don't know their children well enough to provide informed guidance.

But when it comes to religious or priestly life, I have a hard time seeing how we could go wrong in encouraging our children to consider pursuing it, especially if we think we see signs of such a vocation. If we see a tendency towards art, would we not consider encouraging them to pursue that? If we see a tendency towards engineering, would we not encourage them to consider that career path? If we saw them showing interest in become a fireman or doctor, would we not encourage that?

"But Marriage is Equally Good"

It seems there is another underlying motive behind these kinds of comments. In the past, there has been a sense in the Church that downplayed the value of lay vocations. To counter that, there has been a concerted effort since Vatican II to promote the value of lay vocations and, in particular, lay participation in the life of the Church. I get that. It is good and right.

But I can't help but feel that we are not somehow overreacting and in our eagerness to promote the value of lay vocations, we feel we must somehow downplay the value of religious vocations. Or even say that they are equally good.

Interestingly enough, both our Lord (Matt 19:10-12) and St. Paul (1 Cor 7) indicated that unmarried life for the sake of the Gospel is superior to married life--for those who can accept it, for those who are called to it. The Council of Trent put it a bit more forcefully, and definitively (Session XXIV, Canon X):
If any one saith, that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema.
Saints have also noted that religious life, in particular, is a better way. (Several are mentioned in this article.) As that author notes, even recently Pope St. John Paul II said in his apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata: “it is to be recognized that the consecrated life… has an objective superiority.” St. Thomas expounds at some length the interrelationship between the state of religion and perfection.

The constant teaching of the Church is indeed that a life of consecration to God is more excellent than that of the lay life because of the very many graces and helps it provides towards perfection in charity. She also teaches that for those who are called to it and can accept it, they should. Strictly speaking the married state is not equally good, from an objective point of view.

At the same time, this does not deny the value of lay life, nor lay contributions to the Church, much less lay contributions to the world, which is our proper sphere of activity and responsibility. More importantly, not every person is called to consecrated life. This means that for an individual, it may or may not be better for him or her to choose consecrated life--it depends on what God has called them to do.

We Should Encourage Vocations to the Priesthood and Religious Life

As the author of the article referred to above ("Sacrificing Religious Life on the Altar of Egalitarianism") points out, though, we cannot expect religious vocation to be obviously desirable in our contemporary culture. It is a way of total renunciation of worldly goods. In our fairly hedonistic, consumeristic, materialistic society, it is in many ways far more difficult to appreciate the good of religious and priestly life than it is to appreciate the good of lay/married life. Not only that, it is considered "normal" for people to get married and have kids and enjoy the good things of this life.

For children to even consider consecrated life, I propose that we actually do need to actively encourage it more so than lay/married life. We do at least need to clearly teach our children that it is an objectively better way of life. We do need to encourage them to seriously consider it and seek God's will to know if he is calling them to that life, and even more so when we see signs of such a call in them ourselves. Any inclination and willingness to look into it should be met with lots of encouragement.

We need not worry much about pressuring our children towards consecrated life for the wrong reasons. For most parents, having a child pursue such a life--especially if they have few children as is common today--is also a kind of sacrifice and renunciation for the parent. You are renouncing the good of grandchildren and, potentially, "the carrying on of the family name." You are renouncing the potential that they will "follow in your footsteps." You are renouncing the chance that they can take care of you when you are old or infirm. In many ways, all the toil of raising the child becomes a gift to God and the Church.

Granted, there is some small danger for pride to slip in, but I'd say that it's generally much easier to just go with the flow and let your children be "normal" and that we have far more wrong reasons to hope that they do not pursue such life. So if we need to be on guard against anything, it would be against apathy towards consecrated life, against a false sense of egalitarianism, against our own natural desires for our children to have the many good things in this life that they would have to renounce should they choose consecrated life.

We humans need help to participate in God's grace, and choosing consecrated life is no different. God may be calling many people to it who are not responding because they are too caught up in this world, because they never seriously considered it, or because their parents and friends didn't even mention it much less encourage them in it.

Similarly, parents need encouragement to encourage their children in this way. What they don't need is to be made to feel wrong or bad or defensive for encouraging religious and priestly vocations in their children.

Not only that, other adults in children's lives need to offer this same kind of encouragement. When children see what their parents teach them confirmed by others in their lives--especially others that they respect or perceive to be wise or authorities in some sense--then it can only help them to feel freer to consider this as a good and viable option for themselves. But above all, they need their parents' support and encouragement.

So the next time you hear a parent being thoughtful or wistful or excited or (especially) worried about their child considering religious or priestly life, I suggest that you encourage them rather than dissuade or warn them. And if you know the child, by all means, encourage him or her, too!

Some notes for the nit-picky..

1. I realize there is a distinction between religious and priestly life. That is why I have tried to be careful about my terminology here and mentioning both despite its repetitiveness. That said, they both involve degrees of renunciation of worldly goods and are countercultural, so I think the discussion here applies to both.

2. I know first hand that marriage and parenting in particular (especially for large families) require many sacrifices that also help us on our way towards perfection in charity. I am not devaluing that here; however, I do maintain with the Church that religious life offers a more sure path towards perfection in that it requires more absolute renunciation of worldly goods.

3. This is written primarily about Catholics and to Catholics, even though it is on my public blog. So this is not the time or place to discuss how crazy consecrated/religious life may sound to non-Catholics. If such comments are made, they will be deleted. You can contact me personally if you want to discuss that.