One aspect of the family’s particular “vocation” is to inspire the children of the family to discern and follow their own vocations from God, be it to marriage or to religious life. In this article we will focus on the Church’s insights about religious vocations in particular, which always need special emphasis and care due to their innate vulnerability as a spiritual calling, one that is out of the natural order so to speak. To embrace a religious vocation also requires an extra measure of discernment and encouragement that goes beyond the discernment of natural attraction to the married state.
In all of its teachings, the Church always understands “family” to mean the “Christian family,” that is, the basic unit of society as well as the “domestic church” in which God is worshipped and relationships with Him formed. The Church’s catechesis on the Christian family’s role in vocations promotion may be divided into four fundamental categories. Each of these categories relies on the others and together they form a unified picture of the family’s proper “mission” with regard to religious vocations.
1. Family as the Context for the Call
The Church believes that the family is the “seed ground” for religious vocations, the first school of faith in which children learn to recognize the call of the Lord and respond to it. Like young Samuel who heard the Voice of the Lord in the quiet of the Temple (cf. 1 Sam 3), the family provides the holy space in which the Lord’s Voice may echo and be recognized in the hearts and souls of young people.
The number of creative terms Church documents use to describe this reality is truly astounding. The family is described variously as a “school of deeper humanity,” “nursery of vocations,” “seedbed of vocations,” “domestic church,” “initial seminary,” “sanctuary of love and cradle of life,” “natural setting” for the care of vocations, “natural and fundamental school for formation in the faith,” “first experience of the church,” etc. In essence, the Church believes that the family is the proper environment for their children to listen to the divine call and to make a generous response. Furthermore, the strength and stability of the family represents the condition for the growth and nourishment of vocations because stability creates an environment of harmony, love, and joy in which to discern spiritual realities. Above all, the family is the place to discern the Lord’s particular call to holiness for each of its members.
2. Parents’ Witness
The Church uses an astounding term to describe the role of parents in handing on the Christian faith. It says that parents are the “first preachers of the faith” to their children, a task they carry out both by word and by example. Their preaching of the faith is likened to a “witness” and a “ministry” to their children, for which they are specially endowed with grace that comes from the Sacrament of Matrimony. Parents who love their own vocations – and who love each other – are the best witnesses of vocational love to the children and have many privileged years when the children are young in which to cultivate the life of love.
Love – and diffusing a culture of love – is the family’s essential mission. It is a task of evangelization both internally, to each member of the family, and externally, to the world. Church documents highlight the role of intact families with two parents, both mother and father, playing complementary roles of carrying out this mission of love; however, the Church has always manifested the greatest care for divided families and believes in the ongoing witness of single mothers and fathers to their own children’s faith and vocational discernment.
3. Role of Formation/Education
In Church parlance, “education” always means “formation in the faith,” not necessarily book education in schools. Since the Church’s mission is the salvation of souls, the inculcation of human and gospel values is the essential concern of all Christian education at any level but fundamentally so at the level of the family. From time immemorial, official church documents have spoken about – and defended – families’ and parents’ obligation to be the “primary educators” of their children. “Formation” in the faith, then, is primarily a work of catechesis. To the extent that catechesis and secular learning go together, they strengthen each other; authentic human values and authentic religious values are never in conflict. The family is the environment in which human personality and affective maturity are to be formed in children so as to prepare them for productive life as Christian adults and citizens.
Parents are to zealously impart this catechesis to their children, most especially in the formative years of infancy and childhood, and accompany them with age-appropriate catechesis and Christian formation as they go through adolescence. Adult accompaniment is especially important in the difficult moments when young people struggle to choose their proper vocations. Parents are to help their children to “listen” and “respond” to own personal call from the Lord who they already know intimately through years of faithful formation. Church documents also place a high value on the parents’ cooperation in the work of Christian formation with educators and pastors. Perhaps it is best to say that parish catechetical programs and schools are encouraged to cooperate and coordinate with parents who have the primary responsibility for and authority over their children’s education.
4. Spiritual Support
Above all, the Church asks the family to provide spiritual support for those of their members who feel the call to consecrated life. The family is to provide a “ministry of encouragement” to them and to cooperate joyfully in the vocational decision and journey. This cooperation takes the form of both aid in discernment and support for the decision to embrace a religious vocation. Parents, by accompaniment and dialogue, offer that positive help for a child to follow the Lord’s call. At the very least the Church asks that parents and families not place obstacles to one of their number who wishes to follow the Lord unreservedly in the religious life. The role of prayer in the family is indispensible, not only for the growth of the life of faith but most especially in the planting and growth of a religious vocation, which in itself will be dedicated to the ministry of prayer and liturgy in the future. To this, the Church counsels that young people have generous contact with priests and religious in order to see living symbols of the vocations they wish to embrace.
Finally, parents are even encouraged to pray that one or more of their children may be called to religious life – if it be God’s Will – so that an abundant blessing may come down upon their family and that their married love might find a full expression of its spiritual fruitfulness.
In the documents and prayers on this site, parents will find an incredible treasure trove of wisdom on the role of the family in promoting and nurturing religious vocations, particularly the links entitled “Vocations Wisdom.” They provide ample evidence of the Church’s deep wisdom and practical advice for parents and families who wish that their “domestic church” may become the good soil of religious vocations for the service of the Church and their fellow man.