In “Law and Marriage Go Together” (The Angelus, July-August 2014) I explained how the natural law defines immutably the very essence of marriage by its end or final cause. The primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children. Within this primary end the ultimate final end is the education of children since although their conception and birth come first in the order of time, their education is that reason for which children are born. The word education is derived from the Latin “to lead out from.” Thus, the ultimate reason parents have children is to lead them out from the family that welcomed them into the world. Our modern world has distorted the obligations of parents into the “choice” of having children. According to the spirit of the world dominated by sentimentality, parents have children solely for themselves. According to this exaggerated view children enter families merely to fulfill emotional desires and bring satisfaction to their parents. Properly raised children who take their place in the world and fulfill their supernatural purpose in life will bring both natural satisfaction and eternal joy to their parents, but exalting this effect upon parents’ happiness has produced several generations of selfish parenting habits. Children are seen as objects of gratifying their parents’ emotional happiness, and education and discipline are distorted to serve that end.
Truly Catholic parents understand that the real purpose of having children is not covetously to hold onto them but to lead them out from the family. The end of education is to equip children with the physical, intellectual, moral, and spiritual resources to go forth from their parents and take their place in the world and ultimately in eternity. As my wife and I have learned poignantly from our older children’s being sent to boarding school, fulfilling this duty to form children to emerge from the family will actually bring children closer to their parents by deepening the relationship between child and parent. Having formed them to go forth into the world, children will return to their parents with respect and gratitude. All of the work in the trenches of early education must culminate in the children’s discerning God’s will for their life. How should parents approach this critical moment in their child’s education when the child makes a first choice of what path to test? More precisely, how should a parent respond to a child considering a vocation? Having recently confronted this issue for the first time1 as a father, I wish to share some reflections on my experience and some indispensable advice2 I have gathered along the way. Although I write from the perspective of a father guiding a son, the principles apply to daughters.
One should always begin with the end in mind. A father must be clear in his own mind and must make clear to his son the nature of the decision to try a vocation. One cannot clearly discern if he does not clearly understand that which he is attempting to discern. Father McMahon emphasized to me that the focal point must always be God’s Will. “What do you believe God wants? If that remains the constant theme of all vocational discussions, we will never be far from where we must be.” A father must strive to persevere in this purity of intention and must communicate this intention to his son. The decision must not revolve around what his son feels he would like, enjoy, or desire. Even more importantly the path chosen must not be oriented to what will please his parents. As parents it will be impossible not to have inner hopes and desires for our children. Yet, we must lock these tightly within our hearts so as to grant our sons the liberty to discern God’s will, not their father’s hopes. Children who have come to love their parents will naturally want to please them. Thus, the father must be clear in his own mind and must clearly communicate to his son that the only choice which will please him is a choice that is in complete accordance with God’s Will. Fathers must set their will on this more than anything else. They must make an act of the will to want nothing but God’s Will for their children, even if that turns out on the natural level to conflict with natural sentiments.
Focusing on creating this liberty to pursue God’s will emphasizes another important aspect to this phase of education. Until this point, fathers must lead by making decisions for their children. Decisions concerning matters such as in what school a son should be instructed, whether to homeschool and if so what curriculum to use, what books to read, what leisure activities are permitted, etc., must be made by the parents for the children. It would be ridiculous to ask a seven-year-old child to decide if he should be homeschooled or sent to a school. The parent may take note of a child’s thoughts on a matter, but until he is properly formed to make such decisions, the election must be made by the parents. The decision to try a vocation must be treated differently. The father must change the mode of leadership. Rather than making the decision for his son he must lead primarily by example, exemplifying the purity of intention to do God’s Will, and by mentoring and guiding the decision process. This change of mode should occur gradually with the locus of authority shifting from the parents to the maturing child. The vocation decision should serve as the watershed moment of this change in mode, in a sense acting as the culmination of a process throughout the last years of childhood.
The first point of action must be to communicate this change in mode to the son. He must understand that he is being asked to make the first major adult decision of his life. He must know both that you will support and guide him in that process and that ultimately the decision must be the first major one that is truly his own. If he is to operate in this new territory of liberty of election, his father must clearly communicate the importance of this transition of primary authority in making the decision. All children thrive in environments that provide clarity of expectations. As noted above, it is natural for children to desire to please their parents. The greatest source of anxiety for a child is often created by uncertainty as to the expectations of his parents. Thus, making certain your son knows your expectations are that he make this decision and that the rule and measure of that decision must be God’s will is essential to the success of this process.
Launching out into this territory is naturally intimidating to a boy on the verge of becoming a young man. As much as he may have complained about your making all the rules for him, there is a security in that life. He who lacks authority is relieved of obligations and responsibility. Therefore, a father must couple this explanation of the shift in authority with an assurance of his continued involvement as guide and mentor. In the words of Father McMahon: “[S]uch an important decision needs and really demands (more so at this particular age than any other) mentoring in the discernment process....A wise man should never make an important decision without seeking proper and prudent advice from those with the grace of state, expertise and experience. In normal circumstances, one’s father should be part and parcel of each and every important decision throughout one’s life. At the very least in those cases where the father is not an expert in a particular area, he is the boy’s permanent and providential ‘expert’ and should prove to be a sounding board and confidant at all times.”
A guide performs two functions. He keeps the one he guides focused on the end. Secondly, he advises with respect to the means to that end. He must make sure the Will of God is always before his son. He must also focus his son on the precise means to that goal. A child may overstate the finality of those means. The initial decision is not simply should I be ordained a priest or even make the vows of a subdeacon. More modestly at this stage the question is should I try a vocation so as to know if this is God’s will for me. Framing the question precisely is critical to orderly thinking. The ultimate question of whether to ask for ordination will be answered over a period of time. The question at hand is should this process be undertaken. This question can be taken up from several points of view. First, the father can ask his son if there is some other life or profession that seems to present itself for serious consideration, be it college or training in a skill or profession. If yes, then that path should be explored with all seriousness and vigor in conjunction with considering the seminary. Even if a vocation is tried and ultimately found to be of God, this effort will not be in vain. A true vocation will be tested and will also be challenged by the devil. The future priest will necessarily pass through periods of doubt. If he has given real consideration to other possibilities this effort will be a strong defense against a temptation that he did not know what he was doing and should have explored another path. The young man will be able to dismiss such temptations with the firm knowledge that he gave due consideration to obvious alternatives and made this decision to try a vocation with sufficient knowledge of the options.
Further, as noted earlier, children want to please their parents. You need therefore to reassure your son that if he tries a vocation and truly finds that he is not called you will not be disappointed in him. Finding that one is not called to the altar is not a failure. Your son may see it as the equivalent of failing out of college for lack of effort and thus meriting your disappointment. The goal, and your desire, is to discern God’s Will. Learning for certain that one is not called to a vocation accomplishes that goal. Your son needs to know you will be proud of him for trying the higher way. You should remind him that even if he learns after a year or two of testing a vocation that one is not present, God will still abundantly reward his docility to Divine Providence and shower him with graces for his diligent effort. He must know you will not be disappointed in him but rather proud of his serious effort.
In implementing these principles Father McMahon provided two very helpful practical suggestions. First, you must ensure that your son selects and discusses the more particular aspects of this decision with a trusted spiritual director. The wise man takes prudent counsel before making an election. A father’s guidance is indispensable, but the father’s guidance must know its own limits, and there are aspects of the decision which must be pursued with a spiritual director. Secondly, in order to balance the seriousness of the decision with the proper perspective of it being merely a temporary election to try a path which at this stage is not final, you should require your son to establish reasonable procedures for the process. Doing so will build good habits of decision making throughout life. The young man need not think about it, and he should be discouraged from thinking about it semper et ubique; rather he should designate two, maybe three very concentrated and longer periods of time for thought and prayer, approximately 30-45 minutes each. The virtues of counsel and prudence can be violated by defect and excess. Making a snap, ill-considered decision as well as disproportionate agonizing over a decision are both vices. Virtue avoids both extremes. These defined periods could be during or following an Ignatian Retreat (again another way to start good habits of adulthood early). During these periods he should consider the matter as well as beg grace from God to see clearly His path. Finally, he must choose a “decision date” and stick to it. He must do all necessary to be properly prepared for that date. The process of contemplation must be directed to a definite end. Unless a very striking manifestation by God’s Providence can be clearly seen otherwise, he should not deviate from the decision taken that day.
1 My oldest son has recently applied for admission to St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary.
2 This advice was provided principally from the headmaster of my son’s school, Father Michael McMahon, SSPX, without whom I could not have navigated this territory effectively.