This is the second column in a series (Part 1) on the different vocations available to Catholics, remaining single and celibate, entering consecrated religious life, or getting married, and how we might help our children discern God's vocational calling for their lives. Here I will focus on the usefulness of the vocation of marriage to the worldwide Body of Christ or the "Catholic Village," and how we parents can joyfully transmit the vocational blueprint of marriage to our children, even if we are parenting without a spouse.
Last winter I joined a group of 40 moms on retreat at St. Benedict's Abbey in Hartford, MA. We withdrew from our hectic lives for three glorious days of vocational rejuvenation. We lived a kind of microcosm of the Catholic Village with the Benedictine monks feeding us, sheltering us, and bringing us the Sacraments. In return we brought them babies, stories about family life, and lots of junk food. It wasn't really a fair exchange — they ministered to us much more than we did to them — but it symbolized to me how each vocation could offer what it had in order to lift up the other.
While thanking one of the monks for his hospitality, I asked if there was anything I could give him in return. He paused, and then said, "No, you just keep doing what you are doing (being a Catholic parent) and that would be good. Oh, but, next time you visit, bring the whole family."
This monk's answer showed me two ways married couples are needed and can be useful to the Body of Christ. The first was to generously accept children from God and to diligently raise them in the faith. If Catholic spouses intentionally close themselves off to having children, or if they do not bring their children up in the faith, Catholicism as we know it could easily be lost in one generation.
The second way this monk showed me the usefulness of marriage to the Body of Christ was by including him and his brothers in our lives. Loneliness and isolation are genuine hardships for some priests, brothers, and sisters. Even with the companionship of his fellow monks, this brother enjoyed our motherly doting and the opportunity to hold our babies. In our home parishes, just think how much more satisfying the ministry of each parish priest would be if the whole congregation jumped to attend his Lenten prayer talks, invited him to dinner, prayed for him regularly, or asked what we could do for him personally. By living an authentically Catholic family life and including our fellow religious in that life, we support, bless, and make their lives so much easier. The hidden bonus of living this way is that we encourage our children not only to know the joy of marriage and family, but also to know the joy of men and women who are part of our Village, but who have different vocations. By showing them all these joys, we give our children concrete reasons to be open to God's calling in their own lives.
The overall blueprint for a Catholic marriage is that it would be a conduit of God's grace for spouses and a sign of the union in love between Christ and his bride, the Church. All spouses fall short of this ideal, but when we do, we are called to pick ourselves up and continue on this sanctifying path. Even if we are parenting without a spouse, we can still present God's blueprint for marriage to our children. We can do this by not demeaning an ex-spouse, not degrading the entire institution of marriage, and not distrusting all members of the opposite sex. We can be truthful with ourselves and, in an age-appropriate way, with our children about the failings of our marriage. We can seek an annulment, if it is appropriate. We can be sure our children experience the joy of married life through the positive marriages of friends and extended family. We can continue to practice our faith, thanking God for his abundant grace and mercy.