Discerning a religious vocation is a huge decision that affects everyone in the family, and most especially parents.
Even for parents who strive to raise their children as devout Catholics, a religious vocation can come as a (sometimes unwelcome) shock; most especially, it seems, when it comes to women.
A 2014 study released by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that nearly a third of women entering religious life were discouraged to do so by their mothers, compared to just 11 percent of men considering the priesthood.
Just a year after the study was released, Pope Francis declared 2015 as the Year of Consecrated Life, drawing the Church’s attention to the beauty of and the need for religious vocations. Several religious or parents of religious from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles shared what it was like to either break the news of a vocation to the family, or to hear about a child considering the consecrated life.
nMeet the Sisters
Sister Mary Patrice, a sister with the Carmelites of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles, served as a directress for potential sisters for four years. She said she’s seen the aforementioned statistics about discouragement in action when it comes to religious sisters.
“It is more than fine for families to have a son who’s a priest, they hope for that, but as soon as their daughters are discerning, they’re not so sure,” she said.
That’s probably because parents are often more likely to be familiar with the life of a priest than they are with the lives of religious sisters, Sister Mary noted. She said the freedom that priests have, or appear to have, compared to the more restricted life of sisters is also usually a big cause for hesitation on the part of parents.
“Whereas the beauty of our life is that we are free to be wherever God sends us, and be totally present to the people we’re with,” she said.
Not raised in a particularly religious family (they went to Mass on Sundays, and that was about it), Sister Patrice said she found her vocation after spending time with the Carmelite sisters who were teaching alongside her at school. When she told her family she was considering religious life, it was hardest for her stepfather to accept.
He would show Sister Patrice newspaper clippings about Church scandals in hopes she would reconsider.
“He would keep [the articles] for me and say, ‘This is the Church you’re entering,’” she said.
Her mother was more supportive of her decision, but still found it difficult when the day came for Sister Patrice to leave. The turning point for Sister Patrice’s parents, especially her stepfather, came when they met the Carmelite sisters in person.
“I think that is the biggest thing for families, that once they have met the sisters, and they see how happy their daughters are, then they’re better,” she said.
nThe power of prayer
Sister Khristina Galema of the Daughters of St. Paul said while she grew up in a devout family, a religious vocation was never something that was directly addressed.
The Galemas, originally from the Philippines, were living in Canada when Sister Khristina first felt called to the religious life. In her late 20’s at the time, Sister Khristina didn’t tell her parents about her first discernment retreat, but she involved them in the process after that, which helped them transition into her new phase of life.
“My mom was very supportive, like immediately,” Sister Khristina said. “My dad, he’s very quiet anyway, so I remember him just saying, ‘As long as you’re doing it for the right reasons …’ That’s it, that’s all he said.
“I’m really happy because I don’t know how the process would have been for me if they were not supportive,” Sister Khristina said.
She also said her mother’s faithful daily rosary, during which she would pray for each of her children, provided the graces needed for welcoming a vocation in the family.
“I was in awe and all I can say was a big, ‘Really? Is this true?’” said Tina Galema, Sister Khristina’s mother, as she recalled first hearing about her daughter’s possible vocation. “Personally, I felt so blessed but somehow I felt so unworthy that, sinful as I am, God used me to bring forth someone who is willing to dedicate her life to serve him.”
The biggest blessing of Sister Khristina’s vocation for the family is how it’s united the family spiritually, Galema said.
“We are confident that someone is always praying for us, as if we have a ‘direct line’ to heaven,” she said, “and it enhanced our prayer life.”
The hardest part has been the physical distance — Sister Khristina had to leave Canada for the United States in order to join the Daughters of St. Paul. It’s especially difficult for Galema when she can tell her daughter is feeling sick or down.
“But the thought that she has a bigger family at her side is very comforting,” Galema said. “Also, thanks be to God for technology, especially the video chat that we can connect with her whenever possible.”
nLet the Holy Spirit work
Technology has also been a blessing for the Mota family from Lakewood, whose daughter joined the Salesian sisters of St. Don Bosco and serves with her order in Laredo, Texas.
“It has really kept the family together, and all her siblings are really proud of her,” said Lorenzo Mota, the father of Saleisan Sister Bernadette. “So even though she’s seldom with us, we’re all in communication with her by email or text or Skype now.”
Sylvia Mota, Sister Bernadette’s mother, said she doesn’t remember ever directly talking about religious vocations with children, and she was a little surprised when she found out her daughter was considering the religious life, because she had never heard her mention it.
“But the kids will talk about when they were younger. Bernadette would get out the piano bench and that would be her altar, and then her younger sisters would be the congregation, so they would play church,” Sylvia said with a laugh. “And I guess they would use crackers or cookies for the host.”
The Motas said their biggest concern was that their daughter was making the decision for the right reasons, but other than that, they realized that she had to live her own life.
“We’ve met girls in the formation process that the parents are adamant, they don’t want their daughters to become sisters,” Lorenzo said.
“The parents want control, but it’s their life. How can you control their life?” he added. “And we always tell them, ‘Look, if you allow the Holy Spirit, he will, if you don’t, he won’t.’”
nA brother’s perspective
Brother Tom Mass is a Salesian religious who serves as the executive director of the Salesian Boys and Girls Clubs of Los Angeles. He said while his vocation came as a shock to his parents, it was more because of his personality rather than his gender.
“You wouldn’t meet me somewhere and say, ‘Oh yeah, this guy has a religious vocation,’” Brother Tom said. “Being kind of a wild man when I was younger, and dating, and almost being engaged, it just didn’t fit.”
When he told his parents of his change of life plan, they got very quiet.
“Then my mom asked the question, ‘Well, don’t you want to get married and have children?’ And I said, ‘Well yeah, I do,’” recalled Brother Tom. “And then there was more silence and she asked, ‘Well, how does that work?’”
Brother Tom said he explained to his family that while he had a desire for a family and children, he felt called to a religious vocation and had to make that sacrifice for God. But he never saw his parents’ questions or concerns as a discouraging thing.
“They asked what I felt were very legitimate questions,” he said. “It was out of concern, not necessarily trying to discourage or encourage, but I thought there was a genuineness in making sure that I knew what I was doing.”
When it comes to religious life, it’s often difficult for parents to understand why their children would volunteer themselves for a life of poverty, chastity and obedience, when they’ve often been trying to build a child’s life to be the opposite of that.
“I think they really want us to be a happy, joyful person, to be fulfilled,” Brother Tom said. “And since they don’t really understand religious life, they’re not sure that it’s going to be a life that is fulfilling, with all its challenges.”
Brother Tom said while young people who are discerning a religious life should be understanding of their parents’ concerns, they need to follow the vocation God desires for them.
“You are a genetic combination of your parents, but you are not your parents,” he said, “and while you need to love and respect your parents, you have your own life, you have your own opportunity to follow what God’s asking you to do.”
The Year for Consecrated Life began Nov. 30, the first Sunday of Advent, and concludes Feb. 2, 2016.