Parents respond to children entering religious life

Parents respond to children entering religious life

By Lori Williams, Kevin Cummings, Sister Grace Marie Del Priore C.S.S.F., and Brother Luis Ramos F.M.S.


If an adult child is happy in religious life, more often than not, parents will be glad their son or daughter has found their bliss. Pictured here are Michael and Lori Williams, with their daughter (center), Sister Kelly Williams, R.S.M. Photo courtesy of Lori Williams.

 

EVERY PARENT IS UNIQUE. Every parent’s response to an adult child entering a religious community is also unique. The response is connected to many layers of emotional concerns, some that cannot even be named: hopes and dreams for their child, good or bad experiences with church figures, expectations and concerns about their own aging and the aging of religious communities, expectations regarding family time, desires for grandchildren, and sometimes even a concern that their own lifestyle is perhaps being rejected. It can be complicated, and adding to the complexity is that responses can be mixed or muted.

Still, a few things are clear. Modern parents tend to have strong ties to their adult children, and no matter how faith-filled they are, few are willing to automatically favor a church vocation. Equally clear is that parents want their adult children to thrive. And if they see a son or daughter happily living religious life, they tend to support the choice, over time if not immediately. Most have questions and appreciate when communities take them seriously and put in the time to answer questions and build trust and friendship with them. The average Catholic does not know much about religious life, so parents frequently begin their contact with a blank slate or with misinformation. 

HORIZON brings you the parent-reaction stories of two parents and two younger religious. Their stories first appeared in the Religious Life Today webinar series, now on the Youtube channel of the National Religious Vocation Conference, youtube.com/natrelvocationconf. 

Supportive but plenty of questions

By Lori Williams, mother of Sister Kelly Williams, R.S.M. 

Lori Williams (right) with her daughter, Sister Kelly Williams, R.S.M.  Photo courtesy of Lori Williams.

MY INITIAL RESPONSE to our daughter entering religious life happened while she and I attended a youth conference when she was in high school. She and several other teens had gathered for Eucharistic Adoration. I happened to look their way briefly. In that moment, God spoke to my heart, “Will you be OK with my plan for her?”

Kelly had never been one to openly cry in front of others even when she was hurt. In that moment I saw her glowing smile and tears of peaceful joy. I quietly whispered to myself and to God, “Yes.” 

Over the next few days, I began to process this extraordinary experience. I realized I had been given a gift, a window into the possibility of her future as a religious. I knew Kelly would be the one who needed to make that choice, and I would be the one to provide the space to do so. 

Then I thought about the impact her potential decision would have on me. We have five sons and only one daughter. I would never celebrate her engagement or be the mother of the bride. She would not need me to be with her when she welcomed children into the world. She would have so many women to support her, to guide her, and to celebrate important moments in her life. I would no longer be her primary confidante. What place would I hold in her life?  
 
I concluded that it would be selfish on my part to even try to hold her back. I had realized long before that night that our children really do belong to God. All that we are called to do, whatever that might be, is for a greater purpose and that purpose is to glorify the Creator. Kelly has so much to offer our troubled world, so much positivity, so much joy, and so much love for God and God’s people. It would be many years later and with prayerful discernment, that she joined the Sisters of Mercy.

There were some initial concerns among her brothers. Here is a sample:

1. How often would they get to see her? 
2. Would she still get to have fun? 
3. Would she get to choose her profession? (Now they know that in religious life it is called ministry.)
4. Does she have a voice on where she will live? 
5. Will she have a car and what about car insurance?
6. Can they visit her?
7. Who will be responsible for her health insurance?
8. Will she have a personal cell phone?

When my sons brought their questions to me, I simply suggested they ask her instead. Soon they realized the Sisters of Mercy community is very welcoming. They see her on holidays, summer breaks, and family occasions. They all know they will be invited to attend her important formation events as well. They recognize that her voice is heard regarding how she feels called to serve, and they have visited her at many of her community homes. She is always on board with whatever fun activity is to be had when she is with them.

My mother also expressed misgivings regarding Kelly’s choice to enter religious life. Her most frequent question was, “When does she get her habit?” My mum’s youngest sister, clothed in a black habit, entered the convent nearly 60 years ago through a formidable black gate. Religious life was very mysterious at that time. For the Sisters of Mercy, much has changed since then. Mum realizes now that Kelly is very happy as a sister, she won’t need to cut her very long hair unless she wants to, and she is not required to wear a religious habit. (My aunt no longer wears one either.)

The 2020 NRVC study of newer members revealed that parent hesitation is not uncommon. Only 60 percent of the parents were “somewhat or very much” in support, and around one half of those favorable parents fell into the lukewarm “somewhat supportive” category. I had a hint of this reality through discussions with Kelly and some of the other newer members. As parents, we always want what is best for our kids. We especially want what will make them happy. It is so important to remember that God also wants what’s best for them and what will bring them joy.  

I intentionally looked for ways to support and encourage Kelly as much as I could. I did a great deal of praying and tried to remember to invite God into this life decision process, just like I did with all our children. I had to come to terms with the fact that the average age of the Sisters of Mercy today is between 70 and 80 years old. Instead of focusing on this huge difference, however, I focus on the positive. I realized Kelly would be mentored with the wisdom of so many women, who, in their advanced stages of life, are still active in their ministries. 

As a Catholic lay minister myself, I was blessed to have had a working relationship with the sister who would later be Kelly’s vocation minister. I felt very comfortable expressing my thoughts during our many conversations. It took away the mystery, and she was receptive to my suggestions about how to put parents at ease. It is so important to invite parents to share their concerns openly. 

Technology has given us opportunities to stay in touch with Kelly and be informed about her life. It should be readily available to those in formation to keep in communication with their families. Through the Sisters of Mercy website and their social media, I was able to become very familiar with the formation process and other aspects of the community.

All these approaches have helped me to truly be at peace with Kelly’s decision to be a Religious Sister of Mercy. I can see very clearly that our daughter is not leaving her family. Through the grace of God, she is joyfully expanding it. 

Lori Williams is a retired educator, a parish RCIA director, and the mother of six, including Sister Kelly Williams, R.S.M.


Surprise and support 

By Brother Luis Ramos, F.M.S., member of the Marist community

Brother Luis Ramos, F.M.S. with his father, Luis Junior, his sister, Raven, and his mother, Noemi. Photo courtesy of Brother Luis Ramos, F.M.S.

WHEN I THINK OF SERVICE, I think of my parents immediately. They definitely modeled and instilled qualities in me that made me open to a life of service. Watching them work in New York City Public Schools in teaching and counseling was a major example of service and responsibility. Their work was not always easy, but they were dedicated to young people. They also taught me to be grateful and to share. They are two very generous people, whether it is time, energy, or resources. I always see them giving.

Even though service and giving were important values for my family, my parents had a mixed reaction to my interest in and exploration of religious life. They sent me to Catholic schools from grade school to college, and they knew I was especially involved with the Marist Young Adult community. That was a really important group of people for me, with whom I regularly shared my faith.

When I started talking about joining the Marists, my dad said: “I kind of figured this was a possibility.” I was received into the Catholic Church while I was in college, which was a change for our family. We had attended Pentecostal and non-denominational churches my entire life. I became really attracted to Catholic worship and the sacramental tradition when I was in grade school. College seemed like the right point to make that transition. 

My mom and dad had questions and concerns about religious life. They never resisted it or tried to hit the brakes on the process, however. They always gave me space, asked questions with care, and emphasized listening to the Holy Spirit. They both said they would never stand between God and God’s work in my life! I’m continually grateful for this response.

My parents had met plenty of Catholic brothers and had a basic sense of what life as a religious could look like. One concern of theirs was whether I would be independent. In religious community, we let go of some of our personal independence to become more interdependent. We don’t become religious robots, though. I always admired how the brothers I had met were very much themselves while belonging to something larger. Thankfully my parents experienced that, too, having met them.

Another concern was definitely the question of grandchildren. My parents were never ones to push a career or lifestyle onto me or my sister. They modeled what it looked like to be educators, members of the community, and a committed married couple. As time has passed, we’ve talked about the reality that I’m not looking to start a family. They would have welcomed that if it was a reality in my life, but they know it is not. They don’t make a fuss and they don’t drop hints, either. That would be really annoying!

Their ultimate concern is that I be happy, fulfilled, and connected to God. As my discernment continues in temporary vows, I am confident that we’ll keep supporting each other. As a family, we continue to learn together. I’m watching my parents grow as my sister and I enter adulthood. We’re each living different lives with their own circumstances and challenges. It’s a pretty cool vocational journey for us!

Brother Luis Ramos, F.M.S. is a member of the Marist Brothers and teaches at Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, New York.


Uneasy reaction grows warmer with time 

By Sister Grace Marie Del Priore, C.S.S.F., member of the Felician Sisters.

Sister Grace Marie Del Priore, C.S.S.F. with her mother, Laureen, and sister, Andrea. Photo courtesy of Sister Grace Marie Del Priore, C.S.S.F.

I WAS, FOR THE MOST PART, raised in a single parent household by my mom. My two sisters and I grew up with my mom, mostly in New Jersey. I think she was generally confused by my interest in religion. She had been raised Catholic but in a number of ways had rejected the church; we seldom attended Mass, and she voiced only negative opinions about the church. Despite this, I was drawn to religion at a young age. It was something I took initiative on—I went to Vacation Bible School with one friend and to church with another friend. 

But I was also surrounded by secular values. I went to public school until college. My mom encouraged me to pursue a professional, competitive career so I could be independent and make good money. Overall, I wasn’t raised to be a religious person. As I got older, these attitudes became a part of who I was. I didn’t become actively Catholic until college. 

In other ways, though, my childhood prepared me for my future vocation. For instance, I always did well in school, and it was partially due to my mother’s support. She encouraged me to challenge myself and believe that I could do it. She instilled in me a confidence in myself and my abilities that has carried me through many difficult situations. This has helped me as a sister, and it makes me want to do the same for others. 

When religious life became part of my life, my mother had a number of concerns. Some were helpful in guiding me to make better decisions. Others were more reflective of her needs. 

First, she worried that I was rushing into this decision. When I was first discerning religious life, I was in my young 20s. She cautioned me not to make big decisions in my 20s, as women change a lot in that decade. This was based on her own experience: she got married in her young 20s and it didn’t end well. But it was also good advice. At the time, I had barely finished school and hadn’t moved out on my own yet. I also hadn’t dated much. What if I did those things and realized that’s what I really wanted? A few years later, I revisited the idea of religious life, and I was ready to move forward with it. 

I think my mother was afraid I was leaving her, like I wouldn’t be her daughter anymore. At one point, she told me I could do it if I didn’t change my name—I remember her saying, “I gave you that name!”—and if I didn’t move out of our home state, New Jersey, when I became a religious sister. She said this early on, but by the time these things happened, she was accepting of them. 

My mother also worried that she hadn’t given me a good example of marriage, that I was renouncing it because I had not seen a positive, loving marriage at home. She’s been divorced twice, and neither relationship could be called amicable. I assured her that her experiences were not why I wanted to become a sister. 

I think what helped my mom the most was time. As time passed, she saw how happy I was and was happy for me. She realized that she wasn’t losing me to the Felicians. She also appreciated that I was settled into something, and she valued the opportunities I had as a sister. But all of this took time. 

It also helped when religious life, particularly life in the convent, became less foreign to her. When she was exposed to my life with the sisters, she became more familiar with my daily life. Meeting the sisters helped. The Felicians did a good job with reaching out to her, inviting her to events and dinner in the convent. Before I became a postulant, my candidate director came to our house for dinner, which helped my mother get to know the Felicians. 

My family, particularly my mom, had a lot of questions. They were not so much against my choice as they were confused by it. I think communities can help parents, families, and newcomers to religious life most by simply answering their questions throughout the discernment and formation process. 

Sister Grace Marie Del Priore, C.S.S.F. serves as an archivist for her community, the Felician Sisters of North America. 


Uncertainty eased with visits and knowledge

By Kevin Cummings, father of Father Evan Cummings, C.S.P.

Kevin Cummings with his son, Father Evan Cummings, C.S.P., and his wife, Kit. Photo by Marie Mischel

FOR AS LONG as we could remember, Evan said he wanted to be an engineer. When he came home one Thanksgiving and declared that he felt called to be a priest instead, we were surprised but not stunned. We had always been open to a religious vocation for our two sons; we didn’t push it, but it always made the list of possibilities.

We were proud that he was considering a religious vocation, and at the same time we had a lot of questions. We had no idea what the process of becoming a priest looked like or what Evan would have to do. Would he finish his bachelor’s degree or go right off to seminary? Who would cover the cost of seminary? What would his life be like in seminary and after?

We started researching and found there wasn’t much information available for parents. Most of what we did find was along the lines of, “Congratulations! Pray for your child!”

This wasn’t entirely satisfying. Two things helped us. First of all, Evan’s vocations director came to Utah to visit us. We had him over for dinner and then sat on the patio and talked for a couple of hours. The relaxed atmosphere made it safe for us to ask our questions. The second thing that helped was learning that formation (the first time we heard the word in that context) was about on-going discernment. It wasn’t a single moment in time, but a process that would continue through the next several years. 

Based on that first conversation, we realized that we had a lot to learn. Since we didn’t find any really satisfying parent resources, we decided to start a blog to record our experiences of Evan’s journey and to post answers to questions as we found them. The blog still exists at seminarianparents.com.

We dove right in and explored the nature of vocations, the role of a vocation director, the difference between a religious priest and diocesan priest, how long formation took, what the stages were, whether religious are happy in their lives, and whether or not we’d be able to talk to Evan. The big question (and the one that drives the most traffic to our site) is: who pays for seminary?

Through the blog, we heard from other parents and young people with questions similar to ours. Religious life is a mystery to most Americans. Most of us only know the priest as that guy on the altar every Sunday, and we only know religious sisters if some happen to minister in our community. Otherwise, everything we know about religious life comes from TV and movies.

There can be a clericalism that separates the priests from the people. Priests and religious are often seen as remote and unapproachable, so it’s natural parents think that they will lose contact with their child. Our experience with Evan has been quite the opposite. We’re able to talk to him frequently. More importantly, we were able to visit him in the seminary as welcome guests of his community. Through those interactions, we got to meet and spend time with several priests. Getting to know them gave us insights into what Evan’s life would be like.

After Evan began his discernment—entering the community in 2013—we made it a point to host visiting priests for meals as often as possible. Even though they weren’t in Evan’s order, they were able to tell us about their experiences, good and bad, of the priesthood. The more we were able to see the priesthood through their eyes, the more comfortable we felt with Evan’s path.

In NRVC’s 2020 study of new vocations to religious life, around 60 percent of parents were at least somewhat supportive of their children’s religious life vocation. Only 34 percent of religious said that they received “very much” encouragement from their parents when they first began discerning. A further 27 percent said they felt “somewhat” encouraged. This is among those who entered religious life. I have to wonder how many expressed interest and were so discouraged they stepped away. This low level of parental support represents parental fear and misunderstanding. As vocation directors, you are inviting a young person into a new and alien life. It is important that you help parents understand that life as much as possible. All of us share in the responsibility to make religious life less remote and mysterious.

It all started with that positive first interaction with Evan’s vocation director. He clearly understood that, in a very real way, Evan was contemplating leaving our family and joining the family of his order. In that instance, telling families, “Thanks! We’ll take it from here,” isn’t satisfying. Parents want to know that their child will be safe and well cared for. Communicating with parents in the early stages of discernment can make them comfortable and increase their chances of being supportive. 

Kevin Cummings is the founder of seminarianparents.com and father of two sons, including Father Evan Cummings, C.S.P.



Published on: 2023-10-31

Edition: 2023 HORIZON No. 4 Fall -- Vow of celibacy


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