MY HUSBAND AND I often joke that we are counting on a cushy retirement because we just know one of our kids will hit it big. As farfetched as it may be that our baseball-loving 4-year-old will make it into the majors, it's a harmless little fantasy I like to indulge in while I'm waiting in line at K-Mart to buy new wiffle balls.
Sometime in the next several years, however, we'll be thinking hard about what our kids really will do when they grow up. Our two older children, ages 10 and 13, still have time to try on lots of dreams. But eventually they'll start making choices about their lives, setting goals, and working toward them. When they consider life vocations, I hope they'll consider ordained or consecrated life.
I say that knowing just how politically incorrect such a notion is in many circles, including plenty of Catholic circles. I grew up in the age of the laity. As someone who has frequented parishes and diocesan offices a-plenty, I know the problems of the church. I am fully aware that laymen and laywomen are still second class citizens within church structures, and I know full well that women can't be ordained, can't officially preach, and can't reach key positions of power in the Catholic Church.
But if my sons or my daughter expressed interest in a church vocation, I'd cheer them on. Why? Because in spite of all that may be lacking within the institutional church, I know it is possible for one to grow and blossom and become his or her very best self within the priesthood or religious life.
I know this because I've met and worked with hundreds of generous, Spirit-filled priests, brothers, and sisters. Many of them have a happiness that comes from the inside, from dedicating their lives to something with lasting meaning. And the ones I admire most have an edge to them--an intolerance for injustice, an unease about environmental ruin, a desire to shake up spiritual superficiality. Those are qualities I'd love to see in my children.
My children don't have to choose religious life to become deeply spiritual, loving human beings. But a church vocation could be their best path toward that goal, so I encourage them to consider it. There is something to be said about the disciplines and expectations of religious life. Brothers, priests, and sisters usually have a community encouraging them toward the practices that build strong Christians: regular prayer and reflection, sacraments, and a spirit of "ministry" to accompany their work.
Laity share in all these riches; we come at these treasures differently, though. We write books like My Monastery Is a Minivan (Loyola Press, 2001) (I love that title!). Still, I don't believe that it diminishes the value of the lay vocation to also uphold the value of ordained and consecrated life.
One criticism I hear about church vocations is that the life is sad and lonely. Well, yeah, I've met some sad and lonely sisters, brothers, and priests. But I've met sad and lonely people from every walk of life. Would I urge them never to marry because they might have a heartbreaking divorce? Never to have children because it's a difficult responsibility?
Every life choice carries its own joys and burdens. I chose marriage, and there are days when I wake up thinking that dedication to community, ministry, and prayer sounds a lot better than waking up three crabby young people, herding them through breakfast and on to school while listening to their complaints about cereal, toothpaste, and uniforms. Wouldn't an hour before the Blessed Sacrament be a lot more inspiring? Then again maybe not. It depends on the person and what he or she brings to the chosen vocation.
No one ever said life was going to be easy, but it can be joyful. A friend of mine who has spent most of his life in lay ministry--20 years in South America and several years in U.S. church work--says that when he and his wife considered life as lay missionaries in the jungles of South America, they knew that they would suffer. And they did: heat, isolation, funding shortages, illnesses, cultural adaptation--you name it. But they found the work extremely rewarding and have never regretted the time they spent with indigenous peoples, recording their language, ministering to their needs, helping them cope with the Westernization of their tribal lands.
They had the wisdom to know that if they had, in contrast, chosen to work for a Wall Street law firm, or for a family grocery store, or any number of other possibilities--life would still have its setbacks. They wanted their sweat, blood, and tears--as well as their happiness--to come in the course of living their heartfelt longing.
Here's what I to say to my kids--and it is a message for all children: Listen to God. Pay attention to your heart. If you're inclined to throw in your hat with a group of brothers, sisters, or priests--go for it! It can be a great life. Along with all the good, you'll have bad days, bad months maybe, but that's because you're human. Be the best human being you can be, and along the way you will know God's joy. Because joy comes from a life well-lived. You will find God's peace because you will be living your calling.
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, novelist Milan Kundera meditates on the mystery of making choices in life: "Human life only occurs once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third, or fourth life in which to compare various decisions."
No, we cannot rewind our lives like a video and undo the consequences of choosing badly or not choosing at all. That's why I'm glad my kids are part of a church that teaches discernment, the prayerful consideration of life choices. I want them to pray and think and consult with others about big decisions in their lives, including the possibility of a church vocation. It might take their whole lives to get really good at discernment. So it's a skill and a habit worth cultivating early.
Should they lean toward a religious calling, they'll have my blessing. If I wind up without grandkids because my children decide to follow their bliss, I'll find a way to get over it. It seems to me there are a lot of kids in the world who need the attention of a caring adult. I know that my children were never really mine anyway. From the day they were born, they belonged to God, as we all do. I don't own them. I owe them. I owe them the gift of being free to be themselves. As the Catholic catechism tells us, our life's purpose is to find the best way to love and serve God. If priesthood or religious life is their best way, congratulations!
All this is not to say that my husband and I wouldn't equally welcome having season tickets to the ballpark and living in the reflected glory of a sports superstar. Our youngest son really does pack a wallop when he bats. Mmm . . . Let the mystery of life unfold.