Religious Life and Family

Fr. Nathaniel Dreyer, IVE
Originally preached on the Feast of the Presentation

​A seminarian recently mentioned how difficult it was for Blessed Miguel Pro to accept his sister’s entrance into religious life; he had a quote from the blessed that read, “Heaven must be beautiful, because it costs so much.” Unless we have a sibling or a close relative who is a religious, we don’t really realize how difficult it is to have a family member enter religious life. 

As religious, the Feast of the Presentation is our feast, but, in a sense, then, it’s also the feast of our families, because that’s where we come from. They are the Mary and Joseph of the presentation, the figures who bring us to that point where we can offer ourselves to God’s service. It’s an important role, and not one that we should forget. It’s hard to give up a child to religious life, harder than we realize: I remember receiving a very angry letter from the mother of a good friend of mine who entered religious life around the same time I did. The nicest thing she wrote was, “You will never know how much this hurts us parents,” and the first time I saw her when I was home for a visit, she refused to speak to me. Even as time goes on, it’s still hard: at one of the feast I was speaking to the dad of one of the sisters who was in a foreign mission and had been there for a while. I told him that he must have gotten used to having his daughter far away, and he looked at me like I didn’t know what I was talking about and said, “It gets easier, but you never get used to it.” “It gets easier, but you never get used to it.”

Of course, vocations can also inspire family members to holiness, and even to consider the religious life; we can think of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux’s family, with its ten saints and blesseds, and yet there’s always that sacrifice and difficulty, even amidst the joys of having a child enter religious life. Perhaps an echo of every vocation, a mirror of the family response to that calling, can be found in the mystery of the finding of the Child Jesus in the temple. The mystery is the Rosary’s fifth joyful mystery, because, after all, Jesus has been found, but when you really examine it, it’s not quite that straightforward. It almost seems like those twelve baffling verses (Lk 2:41-52) are oddly forgotten, since they’re read only once every three years: on the Feast of the Holy Family in Year C.

When Mary and Joseph finally find the Child Jesus, Luke recounts: “When his parents saw him, they were astonished.” The English astonished doesn’t convey the full strength and brutality of the Greek word ἐκπλήσσω (ekpléssó), which literally means “to be entirely knocked out of one’s senses.” It’s rough; what Jesus is doing seemingly comes out of left field, and perhaps parents of religious feel that way too. Why my child? Why this one, out of all of them? Or, why this one, because he or she is the only one I have? It was a common experience for many religious that their parents simply to refuse to discuss a vocation, even after discernment. Luke later adds that Mary and Joseph “didn’t understand.” They came to the Temple to find Someone who was missing, but when they found Him, He had changed; He was very different than when they left Him. What they recovered wasn’t the same as what they had left behind. In that instant, in a sense, if the expression can be permitted, Jesus ceases to be simply their child, and became His Father’s.

Something of that, too, happens every time a vocation is followed. It’s a sacrifice made by the child, but also imposed on the parents. As Chesterton wrote that “A woman loses a child even in having a child. All creation is separation. Birth is as solemn a parting as death.”[1] The birth to a vocation is in many ways a parting with the old ways of understanding things, seeing things, doing things, and loving things. In a sense, God simply calls the parents to give Him what is His: at baptism the celebrant traces the sign of the cross on the forehead of the child and says “I claim you for Christ our Savior.” The parents raise the child, but he or she is really God’s, claimed and purchased. That’s the deal, and often parents echo the words of Saint Bernard when his brother Gerard died: “Since then I lost sight of my agreement with you, but you did not forget. What more shall I say? You entrusted Gerard to us, you have claimed him back; you have but taken what was yours.”[2]

And the difficulties continue: “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.’” That word, translated here as anxiety, has been rendered in other versions as sorrowing (KJV, DRA), anxiously (RSV), or with heavy hearts (GNV). That’s because the Greek ὀδυνώμενοι (odynōmenoi) encompasses all these meanings, since, as one concordance has it, it means “to experience intense emotional pain, i.e. deep, personal anguish expressed by great mourning; this sorrow is emotionally lethal if experienced apart from God’s grace which comforts. This root (ody-) literally means ‘go down’ (as the sun in a sunset) and refers to consuming sorrow.”[3] That sorrow is overwhelming, and we can think of how many tears are shed from family members when someone follows through with their vocation. Parents have had trouble accepting religious vocations since that first model, that first exemplar.

In the Confessions (Bk. V, Ch. 8), Saint Augustine describes his mother crying for the shore as he heads, unknowingly, to follow his vocation. Speaking to God, he says: “[Monica], wild with grief . . . filled Your ears with complaints and groans . . . and the gross part of her love to me was whipped out by the just lash of sorrow. But, like all mothers—though even more than others—she loved to have me with her, and knew not what joy You were preparing for her by my absence. Being ignorant of this, she did weep and mourn.”

The example of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga is particularly beautiful. His father violently opposed his entrance into the Jesuits, and he only relented after his servants brought him up to Aloysius’s room, and, as he looked through the keyhole, he could see Aloysius crying and scourging himself, covering the floor with both tears and blood. His father was so moved that he finally gave his permission, but, when he sent Aloysius off to the novitiate, he sent him with a letter to the Jesuit superior general, which read, in part, “I merely say that I am giving into your Reverence’s hands the most precious thing I possess in all the world.”[4]

What is important, though, is that the saints reciprocated that love. They never abandoned their vocations, but they keenly felt the sorrow of their families and sought to alleviate it as they could.

Saint Theophane Venard, in a letter to his sister shortly before leaving for the missions, expressed his profound love for his family, and the mutual sorrow at their separation, writing:

“My darling Sister,—oh, how I cried when I read your letter! Yes, I knew well the sorrow I was going to bring upon my family, and especially upon you, my dear little sister. But don’t you think it cost me tears of blood, too, to take such a step, and give you all such pain? Whoever cared more for home and a home life than I? All my happiness here below was centered in it. But God, who has united us all in links of the tenderest affection, wished to wean me from it. Oh, what a fight and a struggle I have had with my poor human nature! But then our Lord, who asked the sacrifice at my hands, gave me the strength to accomplish it. He did more. He gave me the courage to offer . . . the bitter chalice to those I loved. I undertook it because I knew you all so well, and I was full of faith and hope; and that hope has not been disappointed. And now I can only adore His mercy, and praise Him who has led me so tenderly through this terrible trial. Can it be, then, that family ties and family joys are not holy and blessed? Has God forbidden them? Or were our hearts too absorbed in them, so that God, to punish us, wished to withdraw them altogether? Or have we all gone crazy? No! no! A thousand times no! One more sacrifice is asked of us; but does not our Lord prove those He loves so as to make them more worthy of Himself? Must we not all pass through the crucible? A cross is given to us. Let us embrace it generously, and thank Him. Our tears must flow. Well, let us offer them up to Him who has called them forth. This earth is after all but a valley of tears; and the Divine Master has said, ‘Blessed are those that mourn, for they shall be comforted.’ And then, even if we do part here for a little time, it is only our bodies that are separated. Our souls are united more closely than ever in thoughts which know no space or distance. We shall meet one another in heaven. Yes, all of us shall be together then. Let us trust in God, and make the sacrifice generously.”[5]

In a letter to his dad, Venard makes the same request, and lovingly tells him: “Am I not more than ever the child of Providence? Did you not yourself give me up to God? He who watches over the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, will He not take care of me wherever I may be? I cannot help longing for you, and missing you terribly sometimes; but love suffers and is resigned, and the thoughts of Heaven grow more vivid as we become more detached from all on earth. Only a little more trust! A little more confidence in God! A little more patience! And the end will come, and the past weary years will seem as nothing; then will arrive the moment of reunion, and all will be amply compensated for and repaid, principal and interest.”[6]

In one of his last letters to his mom, Saint Aloysius Gonzaga tells her, “When [God] takes away what he once lent us, his purpose is to store our treasure elsewhere more safely. . . .  I write the more willingly because I have no clearer way of expressing the love and respect I owe you as your son.”[7]
Even if the sacrifices are great, so, too are the rewards for our families. Saint Luis Orione said that “the family of a priest is saved down to the third and fourth generations,”[8] and this because of the role they play in bringing that priest to life. Saint Claude de la Colombière wrote to a mother who was wavering about permitting her daughter to enter the convent,: “[God] inspires you with the plan of consenting to the retirement of your beloved daughter [to the convent], and you will perform an action that will merit more for you than anything you’ve ever done well. Perhaps nothing more will be necessary to erase all the sins of your life. Remember that you will never have such an advantageous opportunity to win God’s heart, and that you let escape a treasure that you will never be able to recover.”[9] Such is the greatness, and the sacrifice, entailed when a family offers their child to God in the religious life.

[1] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane Company, 1908), 142.

[2] Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Homilies on the Song of Songs, homily 26. Bernard had prayed that Gerard would recover enough to make it home from a journey so as to die among friends, and this God permitted.

[3] HELPS Word-studies for both oduné and odunaó.

[4] Cited in: James Martin, My Life with the Saints (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2006), 335. For more on his life, see Virgil Cepari, Life of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga (New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1891), 68.

[5] Walsh, James. A Modern Martyr: Theophane Vénard (Maryknoll, NY: Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, 1913), 40.

[6] Walsh, James. A Modern Martyr: Theophane Vénard (Maryknoll, NY: Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, 1913), 48.

[7] Liturgy of the Hours, Vol. III, 1475.

[8] Cited in: Buela, Carlos. You are Priests Forever Vol. 2 (New York: IVEPress, 2013), 271.

[9] Œuvres du R. P. Claude de la Colombière, Vol. 6 (Avignon: Seguin Aìné, 1832), 276-278.



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