WASHINGTON – When young people feel called to the priesthood or religious life, they can’t keep it a secret. Eventually, they need to break the news to their parents.
And whether their parents expected the news or are pleasantly surprised or shocked by it, their response carries a lot of weight.
Sister Mary Angela Woelkers, a 27-year-old Sister of the Servants of the Pierced Heart of Jesus and Mary, said it was a “great blessing” to have her parents support her decision to become a sister, but she also clarified that it didn’t mean they “joyfully carried me to the convent.”
She felt called to religious life when she was 18 but didn’t tell her parents about it until a year later.
“Now looking back, I think of it like dating,” she said, adding, “If I were dating, maybe I’d tell my parents, but I wouldn’t bring him home to meet Mom and Dad until I knew for sure.”
Woelkers, who grew up in Great Falls, Montana, and is now on a mission assignment in Rome, thinks she would’ve been able to pursue her vocation even if her parents hadn’t supported her.
“The call of the Lord was very strong and I think that I would’ve been able to follow it even in the midst of great adversity, but it’s been an immense gift from the Lord for me and for my parents that they were open to receive the vocation,” she told Catholic News Service in an Oct. 27 Skype interview.
When she broke the news to her parents, her father’s response was: “This is something very serious, like getting married,” which she was glad to hear because she wasn’t sure how he would react. And now, two years after Woelkers professed her final vows, she said her parents continue to be open to her vocation, or as she put it: “They want to know more and to walk with me.”
That’s also the attitude of Barb and Tom Niezer of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Fort Wayne, Indiana, whose son Daniel is studying for the priesthood for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
Barb Niezer said she and her husband “continue to pray that God’s will be done.”
“We’ve learned a lot through Daniel. As much as we want (his priesthood), it’s not our decision or his, it’s the Lord’s,” she said.
She also said she and her husband didn’t do anything particularly unique to set the foundation for their son’s calling, instead she attributes it to the Holy Spirit, to going to church every Sunday as a family and being involved in parish life.
She also said she and her husband encouraged their four children to have an open mind about a religious vocation.
Beth and Brendan Glasgow, parishioners at St. Peter’s Church in Olney, Maryland, and the parents of two seminarians, similarly stressed they didn’t do “anything extraordinary” in their home lives to lead their sons on their current path.
What they did, Beth Glasgow told CNS, was “allow the Holy Spirit to do extraordinary things.”
She founded a group called Joyful Mothers of the Cross, which includes other mothers of seminarians who get together once a month to pray for their sons and other seminarians and just to connect with each other.
She said she never had misgivings about her sons’ decisions because she personally knows many happy priests.
She said it is harder for some parents to let their children follow this call or trust that they will be OK and not be lonely.
It’s important your children know “you support them and are praying for them to discern God’s will for them,” she said, adding that the more this prayer is said, the easier it becomes to embrace their calling.
Ivany, who is based at the St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington and also is the director of priest vocations in the Washington Archdiocese, said it breaks his heart when seminarians don’t have their parents’ support, a trend he says has been on the rise.
“The reality is these parents love their sons, but they might have had a bad experience with the church” or a distrust that comes from society or the modern culture, he told CNS.
To counter that, the minor seminary has events during the school year to include seminarians’ parents and families.
It’s not like the old days, he noted, when a pastor would drop off a young man at the seminary and he might not see his parents for a year.
As Woelkers pointed out, joining a religious order doesn’t have to mean being cut off from one’s family. Instead, she described it as a “definite reordering,” noting that she doesn’t call her parents every minute of the day, but she keeps in regular contact with them, especially through social media.
Her parents are also able to say they didn’t lose a daughter when she became a sister.
“Instead, they joke that they gained 30 more,” she said, by calling the other sisters in her order the in-laws.