Studies track effect of family encouragement on vocation pursuit

Bishop David R. Choby of Nashville, Tenn., celebrates the ordination Mass for nine men at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville in 2014. (CNS file/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register)

Bishop David R. Choby of Nashville, Tenn., celebrates the ordination Mass for nine men at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville in 2014. (CNS file/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register)

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — There is no single answer to what spurs a young man or woman to consider a vocation to religious life or the priesthood.

“Vocation is a very complex chain of events,” said Mark M. Gray, a senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

There is no doubt, according to Gray, that the influence of family contributes to a son or daughter’s decision on whether to pursue a religious vocation. But, just as parents can encourage a vocation, they also can discourage consideration of a vocation.

Gray, who is director of CARA Catholic Polls, points to a study issued jointly last year with the National Religious Vocation Conference, “The Role of the Family in Nurturing Vocations to Religious Life and Priesthood,” as particularly telling on a family’s effect on vocations.

Family members of seminarians, priests and religious are usually Catholic themselves and are more likely than Catholics in general to have attended a Catholic school, according to that study. They are more likely than other Catholic adults to say that their faith is the most important part of their daily life. One in five also had a priest or a religious already in their extended family, according to the study.

These family members report a more engaged prayer life than do other Catholic parents or other Catholic adults in general, the study said. Nearly nine in 10 pray daily, compared to just over half of U.S. Catholic adults and just over a third of Catholic parents. They also feel more strongly than Catholic adults in general that it is important that younger generations of the family grow up Catholic.

“We know it’s obviously a consideration,” Gray told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview.

“The importance of family is in encouraging. But it takes more than one person,” Gray said. “If it’s just your mom … or just your dad, that’s probably not enough. If two people encourage you or three people encourage you,” one is more likely to consider a vocation, he added. Friends, priests and sisters can assist in this process.

“Unfortunately, it’s just as often that sometimes parents are the people that discourage you” from consideration of a vocation, Gray said. That’s the reverse from two generations ago or more, when families were happy to have a son or a daughter enter a convent or the priesthood.

“There’s a real sense of ‘that’s not my role,'” Gray said. Those attitudes, he added, stem from “a sense of individual autonomy that people should pursue their (own) interests — ‘I want my children to follow their dreams’ — rather than some sort of negative attitude toward the church.”

One reason parents may discourage a vocation is that, with lower birthrates, they have fewer children to follow their own dreams.

In “New Sisters and Brothers Professing Perpetual Vows in Religious Life: The Profession Class of 2015,” issued in January, CARA asked those new members of religious orders, both male and female, about the size of their family. Only 4 percent reported being an only child.

The most common response from both men and women was that they had three siblings; 25 percent said so, and close to 25 percent reported they had one sibling. But 15 percent said they had two siblings, 9 percent said four siblings, and 22 percent said they had five or more siblings.

Catholic heritage is another indicator of openness to vocations, with 78 percent of the Class of 2015 saying both parents were Catholic. Moreover, 28 percent said they have a relative who is a priest or a religious.

While parents may be encouraging their children to think about religious life, more survey respondents said they got encouragement from parish priests, other religious and friends.

Mothers did more encouraging than fathers, but new male religious got more encouragement from parents to pursue a vocation than did women religious by roughly a 2-to-1 margin.

A 2012 study, “Consideration of Priesthood and Religious Life Among Never-Married U.S. Catholics,” examined family discouragement in some detail.

Encouragement was highest by the grandmothers of ethnic groups that weren’t white or Hispanic, with 14 percent saying they had gotten a nudge from their grandmother. Ten percent of white respondents said their mother, and 9 percent said their grandmother, encouraged a vocation — the highest percentages among this group. Among Hispanics, 10 percent of “other family members,” other than parents or grandparents, encouraged a vocation.

But by the same token, 10 percent of other family members of Hispanics also discouraged a vocation. As a result, the difference between encouragement and discouragement was a wash, as it was with the other family members of other ethnic groups. Mothers, fathers and grandmothers recorded single-digit “net encouragement rates” across nearly all categories, but their percentages were lower compared to those rates for priests and priest chaplains.

Schooling also can play an important role in the choice of a vocation, since parents have the final say in what schools their children attend.

A CARA study done with Holy Cross Family Ministries and conducted in the fall of 2014, “The Catholic Family: 21st-Century Challenges in the United States,” showed that only 11 percent currently sent their child to a Catholic elementary, middle school or high school; 5 percent, to a youth ministry program; and 21 percent, to a parish-based religious education program. In all, more than two-thirds, 68 percent, said they did not have any of their children enrolled in formal Catholic religious education.

“Even those in the highest income brackets are still relatively unlikely to enroll children. Among those in households earning $85,000 or more per year, only 14 percent have a child enrolled in a Catholic elementary school and 4 percent in a Catholic high school,” the study said.

Family influence might have been greater when more Catholic children went to Catholic schools, but also when young men and women attended seminary or convent high schools, which were more plentiful in the post-World War II era. They provided a direct path to priesthood or permanent vows.

With men and women making the choice for a vocation later in life, family influence wanes, Gray said. “At CARA we’re constantly looking at the next layer,” he added. CARA recently received a grant to determine the impact of social media on vocations.

Women in particular, according to Gray, are “looking for religious institutes online” for one that matches their interests — if they don’t already have a relationship with a religious order. But, Gray cautioned, “you have to have an institute with the ability to work through social media to be found,” and for many leaders of religious congregations, “the internet isn’t something they grew up with.”

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Follow Pattison on Twitter: @MeMarkPattison.

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