I’ll never forget the first time our oldest daughter, Felicity (now four years old), casually asked me about marriage and religious life. It was only days following our long-awaited, annual visit from my close friend, Sr. Theresa Marie. Sr. Theresa and I met before she joined religious life, but those long few years she spent as a postulant and novice in New York City shortened the years considerably for us; our friendship never wavered.
We kept in touch when I was pregnant with Felicity, and Sr. Theresa left her life as a civil engineer in Indiana behind her in order to embrace the call she experienced in pursuing religious life with the Parish Visitors of Mary Immaculate. I wrote letters, and she responded in kind. After a while, they became fewer and fewer, but we always remained in each other’s daily thoughts and prayers.
I was thrilled when Sr. Theresa announced that she would be visiting us on her yearly, two-week vacation; she was traveling to spend quality time with family and friends, so I was honored that we were included. Felicity, then two years old, stood – frozen – at the doorway when Sr. Theresa arrived at our house in full novitiate habit. I could see in Felicity’s eyes the wonder and awe at this woman who dressed so differently from us. She was immediately captivated.
Sr. Theresa played with Felicity, and we visited for several hours, catching up like long-lost friends, as if no time at all had passed us by. Felicity squealed with delight at the extra attention, and I knew somehow that she would remember this visit quite clearly in the years ahead.
About a week after our heartwarming time spent with Sr. Theresa had passed, Felicity was sitting in my lap, and we were reading books. After the second or third book, she hopped down and walked over to our antique cabinet that displays family photos. She pointed to the one of her Baptism. “Father Steve,” she said. I nodded but was shocked she remembered Father Steve, as she had only seen him once or twice in her little life.
Then she asked, “Mommy, you married Daddy?” I nodded again, eager to watch her thought process unfold. “Father Steve married? Sister Theresa married?” I paused before replying and offered a silent prayer to the Holy Spirit for inspiration. Then, with deliberation, I answered her, “Yes, sweetheart. Father Steve is married to the Church, and Sister Theresa married Jesus.”
I wondered if this would sink in to her toddler mind, and she did appear to be momentarily confused. Then her eyes brightened, and she smiled. “Mommy, I want to marry Jesus someday, too!”
I did not want to influence her, either positively or negatively, because I knew that much more groundwork would need to occur before she would truly be able to discern the vocation God had created her to fulfill. Slowly, I smiled and said, “Felicity, some people grow up and marry another person, like Mommy and Daddy did. But other people learn that they are called by God to marry Him or to dedicate their entire lives to Him and His service. You will know what God is calling you to do as you grow.”
Since that initial conversation, Felicity has continued to share with Ben and me her desire to “marry Jesus someday.” She has since seen Sr. Theresa on two more occasions and has spent time with priests and deacons who are family friends. But she also spends time with holy, married couples who are close to our family, as well.
Though I am no expert on fostering discernment in children, I do have a few ideas of what we, as parents, can do to provide a solid foundation upon which we can build deeper discussions of vocation discernment with our children. Here are some of my thoughts I’d like to share with you:
- Model holiness in your marriage and family life. Children learn best from the behaviors that are modeled to them by adults. They absolutely will mimic what we do rather than what we say, so we must be vigilant in self-awareness of our own sins and weaknesses. I believe that when we frequent the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Holy Eucharist, we are more apt to recognize what we need to change and how we can model authenticity in our families. Children will appreciate a mother or father who apologizes over a mistake and uses that as a teaching opportunity about forgiveness and humility far more than a parent who never apologizes for wrongdoing. And they will learn far more from it, as well.
- Pray together daily as a family. This pointer may sound like a no-brainer, but consider how busy most of us are these days. We all tend to make excuses from time to time that result in our inconsistency in this area. Family prayer provides a sense of the eternal in conjunction with our daily rhythms and routines; it necessarily gets our children thinking about God early and often.
- Pray for your children. Make sacrifices – perhaps small and hidden ones – each day as an offering for your children’s souls. With your spouse, pray for your children; include their struggles and ask for the intercession of Our Lady to protect and guide them. Perhaps adopt a special saint each year for your children to intercede for their particular needs.
- Expose them to people of different vocations from a young age. I truly believe this is a very powerful testament to how our children first form the concept of vocations in their minds. To enjoy a meal with a loved one who is a priest, to spend the day at the park with a family friend who is a religious sister, or to simply engage in conversation with people in religious or consecrated life will certainly make an indelible imprint in our children’s hearts. For children to see that priests and nuns are people like we are, that they laugh and have fairly ordinary lives like we do, makes them less intimidating and more approachable. In turn, our children may become attracted to the sacrificial lives of our priests and religious.
- Talk to them about vocations. When children are a bit older, open the door to conversation about religious life. Tell them that not everyone ends up getting married like Mom and Dad, and that’s okay. Explain that God created each person for a special reason, a specific purpose, and some of us are created to serve God in a special way by giving our entire lives in a permanent union with Him as a religious brother or sister, a priest or consecrated lay person. Have this conversation with them as it seems natural, because it will get them thinking – and hopefully, praying, too.
- Teach them to discern God’s voice among the world, the self, and the devil’s. Our consciences must be formed to know right and wrong, good and evil, from a young age. When our children are older (middle and high school), we can have more complex discussions about how they know something is right or wrong. This is based upon the more rudimentary lessons we initially taught them in early childhood. In turn, they may pay closer attention to how the Holy Spirit speaks to them. This will help them discern their vocation.
- Encourage them to attend a vocation discernment retreat. Obviously this is best when they are adolescents or young adults and have shown an openness and interest in religious life.
I often smile when I consider Felicity’s comments over the years about religious life, and it warms my heart to acknowledge the possibility that she may be called to it someday. But my heart is open, for she is still so young, and I truly do not want to impose my expectations or projected dreams upon her. No matter what God has called and created her to do with her life, Ben and I only hope and pray that Felicity will discern it well and rightly, according to God’s will for her life. If we can teach her to know God’s voice and to follow Him, then we know whatever vocation suits her will be one from which her personal path to sanctification will most assuredly come.
I believe the same is true for all of our children; when we truly seek to be holy in our individual and family lives, God honors and blesses that far more than we can comprehend in the present moment.