From the USCCB Committee onClergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations
By Reverend Timothy T. Reker
Today’s youth score high in Catholic identity,
but their parents have reservations about
Vocations Directors share a telling anecdote about a colleague from a Midwest diocese. The man involved in the story is a happy and effective priest who has a good relationship with a family in his parish. He admires them and thinks their feelings are mutual. Then he asks the parents if they think their teenager might make a good priest. “Oh, no, Father!” they exclaim. “We don’t want our son to be a priest. We want him to be successful.”
It’s a story that hits close to home.
Recent findings by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate reveal that support for religious vocations is indeed weak among those whose support is most needed -- parents. But the Center’s study, conducted among youth ministers by a Georgetown University research team for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, indicates cause for hope among young people themselves. In fact, U.S. bishops intend to use the survey of more than 6,000 tens as a blue print for developing youth ministry into the 21st century.
In many ways, the study’s results are good news. Youth score high, for example, in Catholic identity. Results show that almost all are “proud to be Catholic” (94%) and “admire the pope” (89%). Virtually all “feel welcome at church” (90%), which may well offer ripe ground for future vocations.
The survey also found that today’s young Catholics value the Mass -- 72% attend weekly or more often. And about a third, or 30%, have thought about service as a priest, Brother, or Sister -- 36% of young men and 24% of young women.
More discouraging is the area of parental encouragement. Though one-third of the youth have considered a religious vocation, only 26% of young men and 15% of young women report parental encouragement.
Apparently, priestly and Religious life, which were acceptable, even highly regarded career choices decades ago, are less so now. Then, most Catholics were from low- and lower-middle-class- families. Materially, success meant steady employment and a regular paycheck. People entering the workforce aspired to service jobs in policing, fire fighting, and in teaching and nursing. Service in the Church was honorable.
Now, however, as U.S. Catholics have advanced economically, they’ve changed their concept of success. Today, it frequently includes massive earning power, accumulation of wealth, and a prestigious profession.
The problem, of course, touches not just priesthood and Religious life, but all career choices, as any college student can report. More than one collegian has felt pressure from parents to major in business or another lucrative field rather than in English, history, art, philosophy, or education. The advice that “teachers don’t make much money!” is heard in the same homes where parents demand quality schooling. The irony escapes them.
At one time, vocations personnel worried that Catholic parents might be pressuring children to pursue religious vocations. That is not the problem now, and the Georgetown study makes clear that the Church must revise its approach to promoting vocations.
Toward this end, the U.S. bishops’ three-year plan for vocations to the priesthood and Religious life, entitled A Future Full of Hope, states that parents must be included as important partners in building a positive climate for vocations. One task is to address head-on parents’ attitudes toward success, their understanding of Church and vocation, and even their images of Religious life.
In addition to concern for success, there are other reasons parents do not encourage religious vocations.
Loneliness is an issue. Many priests report that their parents worry they will be lonely. And there is no denying that loneliness is a part of the human condition; no one escapes it. At the same time, most priests and Religious live happy and fulfilled lives, usually because they are immersed in the lives of the people they serve. Not to be overlooked either is the Community shared by Religious, who also maintain ties with families and friends.
To be sure, there’s strong statistical data to underscore arguments that priesthood is satisfying. A 1993 survey by the Los Angeles Times, for example, looked as priestly satisfaction and found an incredibly positive feeling among clergy. On the question of the likelihood of leaving the priesthood, for instance, only 2% said they were very likely to leave the priesthood; 87% reported they were very unlikely to leave. A related Times survey moreover, found similar levels of satisfaction among women Religious.
A decreasing awareness of the meaning of vocations also influences parent’s attitudes. Everyone has a vocation -- and persons who see God walking with and guiding them recognize that. This sense of vocation, the call God has placed in the human heart, requires recognition that God loves each person individually into life and gives each a unique mission in the world.
It’s a concept wrapped in mystery. That God has called one to do something special and unique, and that God operates unseen in the everyday world is hard to accept in a pragmatic society where seeing is believing. Consequently, parents who have a deep sense of their own personal vocation, how God has called, guided, and assisted them in living out their baptismal commitment, can better understand and feel honored that their own child might have a religious vocation.
Attitude toward the Church also affects how parents directly advise their children and indirectly convey attitudes toward Church service. When parents have difficulty with the Church, encouraging sons and daughters to serve in the church becomes complicated. It is easy for a parent to pass on a bias or agenda without realizing it: in snide comments, negative judgments, biting critiques. As a result, some young persons may never know the Church as a place of comfort and challenge, of helping others, and of meeting God.
The negative images associated with priests and Religious also have a detrimental effect. Sexual misconduct scandals are an embarrassment to all Catholics, and some parents may fear their children will be tainted by close association with the priesthood. It needs to be recognized, however, that as horrific as cases of pedophilia are, they involve a tiny percentage of priests. This kind of behavior taints other professions that deal with children and families, too.
Another very personal reason that may influence parents is that celibacy deprives them of grandchildren. When a child is an only child this can be devastating. These parents face in a special way Jesus’ challenge to follow Him.
Bishops are now formulating a strategy for strengthening vocations that addresses many parental concerns. Even before the Center for Applied Research pointed to a weakened parental support for vocations, designers of the strategy recognized that developing parental perspective on vocations is vital. This is affirmed by the new study, which recommends “bringing parents into dialogue and developing a greater understanding of a parent’s perspective on vocations.”
This, the study notes, “may have a greater impact on Church vocations than working with youth alone. If parents more directly encourage Church vocations, more youth may well pursue such a path.”
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