One thing most loving parents say to their kids at one time or another is, “Honey, you can be anything you want to be when you grow up!” I used to think this was a wonderfully affirming statement—until I became Catholic.
I was married and pregnant with my first child when my husband and I converted together. For me, there was no “vocational discernment” process. When our daughter was born, I spent many bitter days as an immature new mother crying over the sacrifices I had to now make, resentful I hadn’t been given a choice beforehand. It chafed me royally that there were nuns in the world living it up on austere vegetarian diets and middle-of-the-night prayer vigils, while I had to eat things like steak and cheesecake, and didn’t have a choice about getting up in the middle of the night like they did. I was sure that if I’d been a cradle Catholic who’d had a whole host of vocational choices, I’d have chosen to be the next Mother Teresa of southern Virginia. (Somehow, it didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t have my wonderful husband and daughter if I’d become a nun.)
One day, my husband pointed out the obvious: that my “Be in charge or don’t participate” personality would cause me problems in religious life. “You’d constantly be arguing with your superiors, Misty,” he said. “You’d never be able to silently follow orders if you knew there was a better, more efficient way to get the job done.”
In one of my rare moments of humility, I begrudgingly admitted he was right. And that finally stopped my ridiculous romanticizing of religious life and finally started me down the path to embracing my vocation as a wife and mother.
As idiotic as I’d been though, that initial wrangling with my vocation brought some very important truths. The most important being that we don’t choose our vocations—God does. Why God? Because He created us and endowed us with our own unique strengths and weaknesses, so even more so than ourselves, He knows which vocation will best help us to grow in holiness and make it to heaven. Just as an inventor designs a machine to work best with a specific kind of fuel, so does God design us to work best in a specific vocation.
Eventually, I realized that God had known exactly what He was doing when he’d called me to marriage and motherhood. The joy of giving and receiving unconditional love through motherhood was redeeming the damaged relationship I’d had with my own mother. Seeing my husband sacrifice for our children and treasure them was healing the distorted image of fatherhood I’d gleaned from my own father, too, which had served as a serious impediment to being able to trust God the Father. The good fruits of embracing my vocation are too numerous to mention, but I now feel grateful that I’d stumbled into the right vocation! (Or did I?)
I think we’ve all known someone who seems discontent in her vocation. I once met a priest who was upset when Benedict XVI was elected because, “I was hoping we’d get a pope who’d allow me to get married!” he told the stunned RCIA committee. This statement, along with the priest’s admission that he was loathe to preach on moral issues(!) made me wonder what exactly drew him to the priesthood. And we’ve all met women who, upon having children, calendar-watch until the kids go to school or turn 18 so they can “finally start enjoying life.” I’ve had at least one single friend who was hell-bent on getting married, despite getting sign after sign that she was likely being called to religious life. Most of us struggle within our vocations, but it’s not hard to see when a person is struggling with their vocational calling itself.
God, of course, can write straight with crooked lines and even if we resist His vocational calling; He can guide us into greater holiness wherever we end up. But like God, those of us with children want nothing more than to see our own kids reach their fullest potential. And the best way to ensure that they do is to help them discern and then assent to God’s vocational calling in the first place. My husband and I tell our five kids that they can achieve the greatest happiness and true peace if they surrender to God’s will and accept the vocation HE chooses for them.
Can they be anything they want? Contrary to popular wisdom, no–they can’t. Temperamentally, I’d make a great nurse, but I can’t because I faint at the sight of blood. I admire engineers, but I don’t have the aptitude for math. Likewise for our kids: everyone has talents, but no one does EVERYTHING so well that the world is their oyster. Even more generally, though, our kids need to learn that the only true path to being the best version of themselves is by embracing the vocation that God has chosen for them.
How can we best prepare our kids to hear and give their own “fiat” to God’s vocational calling? Here are a few practical suggestions:
1. Make vocational discernment part of their life early on. From the time our kids were old enough to get asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” we directed them to listen to God’s call. I even wrote a small book for my preschool-aged daughters, to get them thinking about vocational discernment.
2. Expose children to those who have answered the call to religious life. We’ve always invited priests, nuns, and brothers into our home to interact with our children. Kids have plenty of examples of people who answered God’s call to marriage, but they often see the calling to religious life as a calling for “special people, but not for me.” Let them spend time with religious, both men and women, so they can see that these are ordinary people (like them) who simply answered God’s call to that vocation, which is perfect for them.
3. Expose children to people who are called to the single life. This may be the hardest vocation for you to find friends in, as most of our culture assumes that the only two vocations are religious life or marriage. But for some souls, God does call them to live in the world singly, in Christ-like service to their friends, family, and coworkers. We are blessed that several of our closest friends are single men and women who tell our kids what joy they gets from growing their relationship with Jesus above all other relationships.
4. Watch movies and read stories about people in all vocations, and discuss their choices. There are many excellent movies out there about saints who were called to religious life, but there are other saints who lived singly and as married couples, too. Mix it up!
5. Emphasize that how we work out our salvation ought to be God’s decision above all. When your child says, “I want to be a pilot when I grow up,” respond with, “Yes, God could call you to that.” Or if they say, “I don’t want tobe a nun,” just say, “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what vocation God has in store for you, won’t we?” Don’t quash their excitement about their future; let them bask in the possibilities, as we once did. But gently reiterate that God ought to be in charge of setting them on the right path.
6. Pray as a family for vocations. For ALL vocations. Include prayers for priests and religious, but also prayers for married couples and single individuals to grow in holiness, too. The world is trying its best to convince our kids that the only path to fulfillment is a romantic, sexual relationship, so we need to ensure that our children understand that God loves diversity and has a unique plan for each one of His children. And finally…
7. Train your children to listen for God’s vocational calling. Every night, our children pray a simple prayer: “My dear Jesus, I want what You want for me.” Whenever they have a difficult situation, we tell them to take it to Jesus. Our hope is that over time, consulting God for every decision will be second nature. That reflexive habit of asking God to guide them will pay the greatest dividends of all when it’s time to make serious decisions about their vocation as an adult.