Parents play a huge role in shaping the vocations of their children—and as the stories of two priests and a seminarian attest, it’s often the simple things that matter most.
by Jeanie Egolf
This year, we begin celebrating the annual Vocations Awareness Week starting Sunday, November 5. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) sponsors this “special time for parishes in the United States to actively foster and pray for a culture of vocations to the priesthood, diaconate, and consecrated life.” Many parishes have special prayers and activities to raise awareness to callings to the religious life. As a Catholic mom, I especially tune in when our priests’ homilies reflect upon their own personal vocations journeys.
One particular homily given by Father Jerome Zeiler, O.P., friar at St. Patrick parish in Columbus, OH, spoke volumes to me. Fr. Jerome described a very specific childhood memory, something he saw, that sparked his vocation. He described the event as so life-changing, he knew instantly that he was called to be a priest.
At this point, I think Fr. Jerome had us all on the edge of our pews, expecting to hear the details of his surviving a plane crash or tornado or some such tragedy that would cause a young boy to vow to devote his life to God.
“I looked over and I saw,” (we waited for it!) “my mother, sitting in her chair, quietly praying.”
Fr. Jerome must have known he had us going, for a light little laugh escaped him. But he was serious, too. As he described seeing his mother, the woman he looked up to and trusted to have knowledge of all things important, simply praying, I got a real sense of what a holy and life-changing experience this was for Fr. Jerome. “She prayed often,” he recalled, and it brought him a sense of peace and stability.
Father Stephen Alcott, O.P., pastor of St. Patrick parish, related that the difficult transition leaving behind his parents to go away to college shaped his decision and discernment to become a religious. The first of the children in his family to leave the nest, Fr. Steve was very nervous about being a seven hours’ drive from home, his first time away from his family for a period longer than a couple weeks.
“I didn’t know a single person from my high school class who was going to that college (Franciscan University of Steubanville),” he said.
A rather shy and introverted young man, Fr. Steve said he felt very alone and “in a far-away place” the day he and his parents arrived on campus. Upon pulling up to the freshman dormitory, a group of student-volunteers welcomed him and helped him carry his belongings to his room. Although it was a very simple gesture, it made a big impression on him.
“Some of those volunteers later became my household brothers…it was that household, that sense of brotherhood, belonging, and commitment, in the presence of God, and for God, that made a decisive impact.”
Mom and Dad for the win again in the vocations journey recalled by Theodore Madrid, a fourth-year seminarian at the Pontifical College Josephinum.
“There were many ways that my parents taught me to listen for God’s call.”
“There were many ways that my parents taught me to listen for God’s call,” said Madrid. “The first was an insistence on the necessity of daily prayer; we would always start the school day with prayer and end the night with prayer. We often prayed a Rosary together and went to daily Mass if my mom was able to wrangle the whole circus of kids into the car. Additionally, regular Confession, Adoration, etc. were all practiced.
“In all of this, the regular disposition of my young mind and heart was regularly focused or refocused on God. This refocusing was especially needed during those universally tumultuous teenage years when common sense often went out the window and boyish mistakes were prone to distract my attention from God. It was this regular rhythm of living life in the context of desire for God which gave me the ability to look at my future as an adult, for which I had to make my own decisions, with the perspective of how it would bring me to God and allow me to serve him.”
“But even outside of the sacramental life, there were many small things my parents did,” Madrid continued. “Perhaps the biggest impact was the plethora of the Lives of the Saints books we had around. I never read all of them, but God led me to read certain ones which would inspire me. In my case, Don Bosco, St. Dominic, Ignatius of Loyola, and St. John Paul II became some of the greatest heroes. Sure, sometimes I would dress up as Buzz Lightyear, a Jedi, or Batman like any little kid, but I would also frequently wear my JPII costume and play Mass, etc. That is to say, I knew what heroic sanctity looked like and I was able to dream of being a priest, just as intensely as any little kid dreams about being a super hero.”
Parents clearly play a huge role in fostering vocations awareness in their children. But anyone involved with shaping the lives of our youth can help.
“We may never know how our lives may have an impact on someone else’s story,” writes Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the Chair of the US Bishops’ Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life, and Vocations.
Considering the examples above, we, as parents who hope to raise saints, don’t need to give our children anything obviously extraordinary to be blessed with a religious vocation in the family. Providing a solid Catholic family environment including regular Mass and sacrament participation, consistent parental guidance throughout the stages of children’s lives, and setting a good example such as letting children see us pray, are the simple ingredients we as parents can give our children as we pray that they may hear a special calling.
Cardinal Tobin urges us, “As we go about our everyday life and most especially this week, we must keep vocations in our prayers, while, at the same time, being a mindful witness with our own vocation.”
Prayers for vocations as well as a list of “the ABCS of Fostering Vocations” can be found at the USCCB vocations page.
Jeanie Egolf is the creator of the Molly McBride picture books, which are written to foster religious vocations in an entertaining way. For more information on the Molly McBride series, please visit www.mollymcbrideandthepurplehabit.com.