Families foster openness to religious life

Are there any religious in your family? That is, is any family member a sister, brother or priest in a religious institute? Your aunt or uncle, your sister or brother or cousin, perhaps? How would you respond if you learned that your daughter or son was considering religious life?

Why would a chapter dealing with vocations to the religious life appear in a text devoted to the family? After all, religious women (sisters and nuns) and men (brothers, monks, friars and priests) do not, by definition, marry and start families! Just the opposite. They forgo marriage and family by making a permanent, public commitment to virginity or celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Why, then, include religious in a catechesis on the family?

Sister Sara
Sister Sara Butler

One reason is that the Church views the vocations to marriage and consecrated celibacy as complementary and mutually supportive. Esteem for marriage and esteem for consecrated celibacy go hand in hand. When marriage and family are highly valued, the sacrifice made by those who forgo them for love of Christ is appreciated. Conversely, when religious life is highly valued, couples more readily discover how the joys and sacrifices of their own vocation contribute to their growth in holiness. These two vocations are natural allies, and they need each other.

Another reason is that families are the seedbeds for religious vocations. Children whose parents practice their faith are the ones most likely to hear and respond to Christ’s invitation to follow him in the consecrated life. And parents who love their faith and do their best to hand it on to their children are the ones most likely to encourage their children to expect and accept such a calling, and if they receive it, to embrace it as a gift from God.

In fact, a religious vocation is a gift; this call from God is not given to everyone. It is an invitation to follow Christ, poor, chaste and obedient in a stable way of life in an institute whose charism and constitutions are approved by the Church. Men and women in religious life publicly vow to observe the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience; they commit themselves to live the “common life” and to carry out the mission of their institute under the direction of their superiors.

Aren’t all the baptized called to holiness — that is, to the love of God and neighbor, the “perfection of charity”? Why is religious life special? Pope St. John Paul II explained the difference between the “universal” and the “particular” calls in this way in his apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata (“The Consecrated Life”):

“[A]ll those reborn in Christ are called to live out, with the strength which is the Spirit’s gift, the chastity appropriate to their state of life, obedience to God and to the Church, and a reasonable detachment from material possessions: for all are called to holiness, which consists in the perfection of love. But baptism in itself does not include the call to celibacy or virginity, the renunciation of possessions or obedience to a superior, in the form proper to the evangelical counsels” (No. 30).

In other words, those called to religious life voluntarily assume a stricter way of observing the evangelical (or “Gospel”) counsels that Jesus addressed to all the baptized. They freely choose this in order to follow his way of life “more closely.” They make a total gift of self to Christ and his Church by making perpetual vows. Their vocation, rooted in the sacrament of baptism, publicly associates them with the Church and her mission by a new and special title.

In particular, religious are set apart, or consecrated, by their commitment to celibacy. Following the Lord’s example and accepting his invitation, they choose celibacy “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (cf. Mt 19:12). Celibacy, by definition, is a deliberate choice to remain unmarried. Consecrated celibacy, in addition, is the choice to express one’s entire gift of self in a bodily way. It is, in this way, analogous to marriage; it is a positive choice, motivated by love, for a lifelong, faithful and fruitful relationship with the Lord. Religious have a vocation to “bear fruit” through spiritual fatherhood and motherhood; they also have a “prophetic” vocation to remind the rest of the baptized of their own call to holiness. Because religious life belongs to the Church’s life and holiness, it is necessary, even essential, that some fulfill this calling.

How can parents encourage their children to be open to a religious vocation? First, their commitment to Catholic practice needs to be firm and consistent. That means attending Mass on Sundays and holy days, arranging for their children’s catechetical instruction or, if possible, sending them to Catholic schools, and seeing to their preparation for first penance, first holy Communion and confirmation. Parents do well to receive the sacrament of penance with their children on a regular basis, and they might also bring them to Eucharistic adoration and Benediction, to novenas for special intentions, and to services during the great liturgical seasons (e.g., Holy Week) and other devotions.

Many Catholic children today do not know any religious, but parents can remedy this by visiting parishes, shrines and other events sponsored by religious communities. Families can plan outings to programs and celebrations held at monasteries, motherhouses and spirituality centers, and they can seek ways to take part in the ministries religious carry out for the poor, disabled, sick and elderly in the community.

These activities, and the children’s personal exposure to men and women religious, need to be supported by prayer in the home — prayer upon rising and retiring, grace before and after meals, and the Rosary. In the family, they can learn the Bible stories, read the Gospels and the lives of the saints. If their parents teach them, children who pray and acquire the virtues of Christian living will be ready, even at an early age, to give their hearts to Jesus. If they are encouraged to do this whenever they receive holy Communion and taught to pray to know God’s will for their lives, they will be ready to recognize the Lord’s invitation to religious life.

Sister Sara Butler belongs to the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity and has taught theology to seminarians for over 25 years.

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