I never fully realized how a mother feels when she loses her child in a crowd until I witnessed a heart wrenching scene a few summers ago. We were celebrating Mass in a beautiful plateau after a long hike while, during the homily, loud screams and sobs and hysterical yelling broke lose. A mother had finally found her youngteenage son, peacefully resting by a water fountain, waiting for the rest of his family to catch up on his fast-paced hike. She had been so anxious and possessed by fear at having lost him on the mountains, that when she finally found him all her emotions lashed out at once upon the poor boy. I think that all of my hiking companions spent the rest of that Mass praying for this woman and for her son, that they both may be granted healing from the aftermath of this emotional outburst.
Seeing the anxiety that surrounded this event, I caught a glimpse of the internal turmoil that Our Lady and St. Joseph must have experienced when they lost Jesus –their teenage boy- for 3 days while returning from Jerusalem. Although we know that Mary was filled with the Holy Spirit and never sinned, I believe that this did not shield her from deeply feeling the pain or anguish of any mother, as much as Jesus’ Divinity did not prevent Him from sweating blood and beingfilled with anxiety in the Garden of Gethsemane.
“Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” He replied, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subordinate to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” Lk 2:48-52
I chose this frame of the Holy Family for this meditation on the role of a family in vocational discernment, so that we can have in mind a realistic view of what family tensions may look like, from the holiest family down to our own.
One of the primary tasks entrusted to parents is to teach the faith to their children; Mary and Joseph did so with Jesus, as they ministered to his human needs of being taught, cared for, and led in a growing understanding of the Faith of the Fathers. The Preparatory Document for the 2018 Synod on the Youth reminds us that faith is the foundation of vocational discernment. A family that gives the gift of faith immediately allows one to enter a vocational dynamic. Looking back, I realize that the name my parents gave me – Raffaella, which means God heals – already contained in itself, like a seed, my own vocation, that of bringing God’s healing in people’s lives through my ministry and care.
The relationship between parents and children, when it comes to the vocational search, can be at the same time very blessed and very delicate; it often sets the stage for an interplay of desires for freedom, expectations, encouragement, fears, daring, and the journey through the unknown.
“The level of maturity and freedom comes from the knowledge of and the readiness to do God’s will. Someone might never become an adult or become free, rather remain always small, dialoguing only with his own needs” (S. Fausti)
As we continue our reflection, I choose to be guided by the 4 beautiful virtues that the Church has defined “Cardinal”, i.e., the 4 hinges upon which our human nature revolves when it comes to growing into full Christian maturity. They are Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. We will now look at how each of these virtues is at play in the beautiful –yet challenging reality of vocational discernment within the family context.
The virtue of Prudence suggests a young man or woman to devote some good time to vocational discernment; this is because the Word of God, like a seed planted in good soil, needs time to take roots and produce fruits. The opposite of this virtue is not so much the rushing recklessly into action (we will approach this later when we talk about temperance); rather, it looks more like being stuck in a paralysis of uncertainty. In fact, the Catechism says “With the help of this virtue … we overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid.” (CCC 1806)
Looking from the parents’ perspective – as well as siblings and extended family -, the virtue of prudence invites them to bring up the topic of vocations with simplicity and gentleness, making it a topic that the children become familiar with fromchildhood. An imprudent approach, on the contrary, is that of expressing expectations on one’s vocational choice, thus placing a heavy burden on the youth, who might then struggle with the fear of disappointing the family members.
When Jesus questioned Mary and Joseph saying “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”, He introduced them and us to the truth that we are called to render Caesar what is Caesar’s and onto God what is God’s.When a college age student, for example, is still financially dependent on the parents, the virtue of justice requires that he or she respects the parents’ indications and guidelines, like Jesus who“was subordinate to them”. The temptation that we at times see though while working with college students, is that this truth is brought to an extreme, to the point that young adults end up being more submissive to their parents than to God. “Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.” (CCC 1807) Part of the formation that we Apostles of the Interior Life give to young adults through spiritual direction and through Samuel Group is geared at finding the correct and balanced approach to life’s decisions through a life of virtues.
A beautiful aspect that parents are encouraged to uphold is the inviolable character of their children’s conscience: as stewards, they are called to respect and protect their children’s ability to make choices in life.
The Preparatory Document for the Synod of Bishops on the Youth offers a very good insight into this aspect:
As taught by the Second Vatican Council, conscience “is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths” (Gaudium et spes, 16). Conscience is therefore an inviolable place where a promising invitation is present. To discern the voice of the Spirit from other calls and decide how to respond is the task of each person. Others may accompany and affirm a person, but they can never take another person’s place in this regard. (Chapter II, Paragraph 1)
“Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good.” (CCC 1808) This particular virtue is beautiful when lived out together in the family, with the adult child staying firm through struggles and difficulties, aided by the parents’ help and encouragement. Often parents can serve as a safe sounding board, encouraging their child’s dedication to discernment while also providing helpful insights that come from having raised and loved the child for so many years.
On the flip side, a danger occurs when parents equate support with rushing in to take control in order to prevent the child from being hurt. Along with being a potential warning sign that the parent may be protecting their own imbalanced desires for their child, it also interrupts growth out of a narcissistic phase necessary for the child’s (and parents’) emotional maturity. In order to transition into a healthy parent-child relationship, the emotional umbilical cord that prevents the child from growing into full maturity must be severed, thus marking his/her true birth into adulthood”.
Aware of the risk of someyoung people jumping head on into action without proper discernment, we AVI coach them to develop a steady and healthy progression of steps towards their vocation. This patient waiting of the Lord’s timing is a great gift that a parent can give to a child, reassuring him/her that the family will be at their side as they learn to listen to God’s voice in their heart.
“Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable.” (CCC 1809) I find myself smiling when I think about some parents who were already making plans for their child’s ordination or profession of vows, when in fact they were still simply in the application process to enter seminary or a community! What this shows is both a deep longing to offer their child to the Lord, as well as a realistic need to live in the present moment while entrusting our deepest desires to the Lord.
In conclusion, what I wished to offer in this month’s meditation is a snapshot of a masterpiece in the making: vocational discernment, whether lived in first person or watched from a family member’s perspective, is a very sacred place where God is at work. The best response that any onlooker can offer is a song of praise for the marvelous work that the Lord is doing in a young adult’s life, aware that our role is that of accompanying them through prayer and respectful care.
- I plan on actively adding to my prayer intentions the young adults from my parish or friendship circles who are discerning their vocation.
- If one of my family members or a dear friend’s son or daughter is actively discerning, I will reach out to them and offer my availability should they desire to open up and share about their journey.
- I will extend an invitation to anyone discerning their call to marriage to come over for a meal and ask questions of me and my spouse about our own experience in living out our vocation.
- If I have not yet discovered my vocation, I will ask the Holy Spirit in prayer to show me which of the four cardinal virtues I can most work on right now
- When I pray the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary, I will offer the fifth mystery for my family (“The Finding of Jesus in the Temple” for my family, that they may have peace as I discern God’s will.