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Study says parents won’t push vocations

NCR Staff

A grassroots study reveals that U.S. Catholic parents are unlikely to encourage their children to consider religious life, with many citing concerns about mandatory celibacy, an all-male priesthood and worries about the loneliness of the lifestyle.

Some Catholic parents surveyed also said they lack information about modern religious life. According to the National Religious Vocation Conference, parents “are not even sure what it means to be a priest, brother or sister as the century comes to an end. They may see priests and religious engaged in ministry, but parents want to know what the rest of the lives of religious are all about.”

The study was conducted by the conference, a national organization committed to fostering religious vocations. From January to July, dozens of meetings with Catholic parents were organized by vocation ministers in all of the conference’s 13 regions.

From 110 meetings, over 2,000 pages of reflection sheets from parents were sent to the conference headquarters in Chicago. The feedback was summarized in a report released Aug. 24. Results of the study will be used at the conference’s biannual convocation Sept. 11-15, and 100 Catholic parents have been invited to discuss the findings.

“One can find every possible opinion, belief and strong conviction in these handwritten pages -- about religious vocations, about American Catholic youth, about church teaching and church discipline,” said School Sister of Notre Dame Catherine Bertrand, executive director of the conference. “These are parents who live their faith, and sharing nationwide snapshots of that faith life is both a humbling and privileged experience.”

Study participants were required to be committed to their faith and active in their parish community; reflect a theology and spirit of Vatican II; be able to articulate their understanding of religious life and priesthood; be open to participating in an ongoing follow-up after the convocation; and have children who are young adults or younger.

Among the positive aspects of religious life singled out by participants was the dedication to service. “My children are being raised to believe in the importance of helping others,” one respondent wrote. “I see religious life and priesthood as the ultimate helping vocation.”

Many respondents said that religious life offered the opportunity to devote one’s life to a relationship with God, in contrast to the distractions found in the secular world.

Parents also approved of the support found in community life. “It provides a spiritual and personal security akin to a family,” a respondent said.

Another parent wrote, “The only difference between marriage and religious life is that one has chosen to live with one person and the other has chosen a community.”

However, the report said that “the single most discouraging element for these parents is celibacy for priests, brothers and sisters. ... Celibacy also seems to be an umbrella word for its side effects: no marriage, no kids, no grandchildren, no one to carry on the family name, the family business. And with smaller families, parents become even less generous about giving up the chance to be grandparents.”

One parent said, “I do not feel that a forced celibate life is normal. God told us to join together and go forth and multiply, and I don’t recall any caveat that excluded religious leaders.”

Parents also worried that religious life often seems lonely, with only one or two priests in rectories and sisters living alone in apartments.

“There is something about ‘coming home’ to a family and a sharing of the day’s activities that somehow makes even a bad day a good one,” a respondent said.

Many saw the restriction of the priesthood to men as another obstacle. “Many mothers no longer hold priesthood in esteem stemming from the fact that as women they have felt treated as second-class citizens in the church they love,” a response said. “Though they will not leave the church ... they [will not] encourage their sons to be priests and so help perpetuate a system they find discriminatory.”

The report noted that a large issue was lack of information about religious lives. The parents, it said, “are quick to admit they have no idea what priests, sisters and brothers do these days. They say most of their role models have disappeared. They view priests from 30 pews back in church on Sundays, and that’s the extent of contact for most of them.”

“Not a single comment shows any familiarity with what religious brothers are about these days,” the report said. “As for sisters, many parents have trouble identifying any ‘value-added’ quality to vowed religious life for women -- they don’t know what sisters can do that their lay daughters can’t do.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 11, 1998