Parenting a Potential Priest
The following excerpt is taken from To Save a Thousand Souls: A Guide to Discerning a Vocation to Diocesan Priesthood, by Fr. Brett Brannen
“Father, wouldn’t it be wiser for my son to get a couple of years of college under his belt first, to date a few girls, and have some normal college life experiences? Then if he still wants to go to seminary, I will support him.”
While this may seem like good advice in most cases, sometimes the suggestion to live a “normal college life” is really an invitation to live a life of grave sin. This will not help anyone discover the call of God. I am not saying that the parents desire that for their son, but that is the reality on many campuses today.
I am convinced that God calls some men to go to seminary earlier than others. One high school senior asked me point blank if he should disobey his parents, sign up for the diocese, and go to the seminary. I told him, “No, obey your parents for now. They love you very much and they are giving you prudent advice. The seminary will still be there after you finish two or four years of college. But find a way to grow in faith while you are there.”
While I would almost never recommend to an eighteen-year-old senior in high school that he disobey his parents and go to the seminary, I have at times had to recommend to a twenty-three-year-old senior in college that he obey God’s call, despite his parent’s wishes—and then trust God to help his parents understand in time. In my experience, given enough time, parents usually do become more comfortable with their son’s decision to become a priest. My father is a Baptist and he was definitely not excited when I told him that I was going to seminary. However, now that I have been a priest for many years, and he sees that I am happy, fulfilled, and doing good work for the Kingdom of God, he is proud of me and very supportive. Parents can see when their son is happy and fulfilled doing the work of a priest. In my experience, these parents become very proud of their sons, even if they still have some lack of understanding and discomfort with the whole idea.
A Common Mistake: Too Much Support
Some parents can be too supportive, actually placing undue pressure on their son to go to seminary and become a priest. This is a grave mistake. I certainly understand the pride that parents feel to have one of their sons become a priest, but parents must be careful not to be overly exuberant.
Here are the mistakes that some parents make. They call all their relatives and friends immediately and tell everyone that their son is going to become a priest. They start buying chalices and vestments when their son begins first college or pre-theology—still six or eight years away from priesthood ordination. They constantly say things like, “When you are ordained a priest, you will…”
This is undue pressure. It must be explained to parents that—to use a marriage analogy—going to the seminary is like beginning to date someone exclusively. It is still a long way from buying a ring and getting engaged. Much can happen. It might not work out. Parents should be supportive but not overly exuberant.
I have known men who went to seminary primarily because they wanted to please their mothers. This is not a good reason to become a priest and it will often end badly. I have known others who went to seminary, discerned God telling them to leave seminary, but they did not leave because they feared disappointing their families. These ended badly as well. If God tells you clearly that you are not called to become a priest, no matter how far along you are in the seminary, please do yourself and the Church a favor: leave the seminary! Go home and find your true vocation. And do this even if your parents will be disappointed.
The Ideal Parent of a Seminarian
Many parents have asked me this question. “Father, I want to support my son, but I don’t want to put too much pressure on him. What should I do?” I always advise parents to tell their son something like this: “I love you very much and I am proud of you for even considering priesthood. I will pray for you and support you as you go to the seminary. I will be very proud of you if you become a priest. But I will be equally proud of you if you discern that you must leave the seminary. I will welcome you home and help you in any way I can to find your true vocation. I am just proud that you love Jesus this much and that your faith is this strong.”
“Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and when he was twelve years old, they went up according to festival custom. After they had completed its days, as they were returning, the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Thinking that he was in the caravan, they journeyed for a day and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances, but not finding him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” -Luke 2:41-49
Many parents experience great fear and anxiety when they first learn that their son might want to become a priest. They fear losing their son, even as Mary and Joseph feared losing Jesus. They fear he might not be happy. Since parents have many of the same concerns as the candidate, it is important to give them good, accurate information. One idea is to invite your pastor or vocation director to dinner. Over a meal, the entire family can ask questions and listen to the vocation director respond. The evening usually ends with parents feeling much more at peace about their son giving seminary a try. Vocation directors love to do this, not only to give the parents more peace, but also because meeting the family of a candidate can tell him a lot more about the candidate himself. As a vocation director, I always wanted to meet the man’s family and spend some time with them prior to accepting the man as a seminarian.
Many diocesan vocation offices have an annual event for seminarians and their families. This enables the parents of the seminarians to meet one another and to exchange contact information. Some vocation directors actually provide parents a list of the names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of other seminarians’ parents, in order to facilitate communication.
Besides what happens in the diocese, some seminaries have Family Weekends where parents and siblings can come to visit. They see their son’s seminary room and classrooms, learn about the formation program, meet other seminarians and their parents, and receive answers to many of their questions. Parents are consoled to meet the rector and professors of the seminary who are in charge of their son’s priestly formation. I have seen mothers of seminarians become good friends through events like these. Many mothers talk frequently to one another about their sons as they pass through the different stages of priestly formation. Bringing parents with you to attend an ordination Mass is also a great idea to accustom them to what might be coming in the future. In a sense, parents are in formation also, learning to be the parents of a seminarian and eventually, of a priest.
A Final Word of Advice
Let me give one final word of advice to you when the time comes to tell your family that you are going to seminary. Please give your parents a break! This is not an easy thing for them to hear. They likely will have mixed emotions about this news. They need some time to process all of this and to get answers to their many questions. You are their child! They brought you into this world and sacrificed themselves to raise you and to teach you about Jesus Christ. Be patient with them no matter how they react. Parents are not the enemy here! On the contrary, in most cases, God used them to nurture your vocation in the first place.
Once you have made a diligent discernment and reached stage 4—the time you know you must continue discernment in a seminary—you must sit down with your family and let them know. No, you cannot go to the seminary in secret! You must tell them. Go ahead and get it over with. You might be pleasantly surprised by their reaction.
But even if it does not go well, trust that God will take care of both you and your family. As time passes, as they get more information and as they see that you are happy and fulfilled as a priest, they will come around.