Catholic Fears of the Dreaded Religious Calling

The other day I walked into our bathroom to encounter a small stack of towels, folded on the floor—the same stack my wife had earlier asked our eighth grade son to put away. She hadn’t told him to put the towels on the shelf rather than the floor. Hence the stack on the floor. This is our son. He’s not malicious or defiant, but at times willfully lazy.

I asked him later if he recalled the incident and his thinking at the time. My son is honest: he remembered his mother’s request; his explanation, “I guess I wasn’t thinking,” held little water as he clearly did think to acknowledge the request, but didn’t take it beyond that most literal and minimal interpretation.

Now, I have taught high school for twenty-two years, worked with middle school students as well, and was an adolescent male myself. So I can assure you that when an adolescent answers, “I don’t know” or “I wasn’t thinking,” it’s pretty much the truth.

For most non-Catholics, this event would mean nothing more than another eye-rolling memory, one of our kids’ “endearing” quirks that once got us so lathered up. But not for Catholics, for we have mastered the habit of infusing our worries with guilt and weighty significance.  So beyond just irritating us, these experiences fuel our deeper fears of our children’s inevitable “unthinking” actions and decisions, the neglect they will almost surely extend to their faith, and what may befall them as a result.

While adolescents may realistically claim, “I wasn’t thinking” or “I don’t know,” the rest of us surely can’t. And yet many of us Catholics pretend “not to know” in various ways, thereby limiting our faith commitment. At the root of this mindset rest our many nameless fears.

As children, we fear the unknown—the phantasms of our dreams—conjured by images we absorb from movies and TV—embellished by our own imaginations. We fear the “monsters” conjured by our parents as well: strangers, sex offenders, speeding cars, stray dogs, germs, which all carry the vague promise of horror and death, though what that means we don’t know. Even into adulthood we can’t claim to understand death completely.

How Early Fears Pervade Our Faith Journey
Along with these common fears, we develop a subtle fear of God—knowing that we are in His sights, vulnerable to being singled out and “Called.”  Just when we’re starting to have fun, to consider the sowing of wild oats, this realization grows; we ignore it with gusto, for the last thing we want is a religious calling to interfere with our plans, however murky and self-interested they may be. We begin to know the fear that we all carry into adulthood—of being called to account and to live a more religious life. We don’t want to end up in the position of telling God no, and we certainly don’t want to accept any invitation he may proffer, unless it’s one without strings, and we sense that he doesn’t make too many of that sort.

Then we become parents and we begin to know real fear, as opposed to the relatively inconsequential fears we knew before; eventually our old fear of religious calling returns, only this time it’s for our children. But in our amazing pride we take comfort in the belief that we can influence not only whether our children will be Called, but also their response to a Calling. Many of us, I suspect, feel we have the power to interpret and if necessary thwart God’s will, though we would never admit it. In a feat of Orwellian “double-think,” we convince ourselves we are living according to God’s will while simultaneously knowing we’re not.

Our wishes are contradictory on every level: we want our kids to study the faith more in Catholic schools, to participate more regularly in the sacraments, to shine as lights of God against the darkness of materialism, greed, and corruption; we want them to live their faith in speech and action … but subconsciously we want a limit to all this devotion as well. We don’t want it to go “too far” or to inconvenience our lifestyle or our dreams for their future. When it comes down to it, if God offered to appear to our children and personally invite them to the religious life, most of us would quail in fear … while many of us would forgo the invitation, opting instead to spare our kids that fate. The problem is that God recognizes none of these limits we would like to impose. There is no “too far” or “too much” when it comes to loving and serving God.

The Wrong Fears
Indeed, we are a fearful people in fearful times; however, we fear the wrong things. We fear financial insecurity and we fear our children’s foolhardy decisions. We fear for our children’s failure, which will prevent them from rising above others. Meanwhile, we should instead pray that they learn to serve others. We live in fear of our world and its inhabitants when we should only fear God. We forsake God’s eternal kingdom nearly every day for fear of what that would demand of us today. We fear God’s calling that might strip us of our worldly goods and pleasures far more than we fear the consequences of ignoring the call—and thus we cling with every fiber of our being to the very life and things that put our soul in danger.

Picture those occasions when the homily addresses the religious vocations: see all those parents shifting about uncomfortably, or sitting unnaturally still and erect, willing the priest’s words to bounce off them and their family, hoping this cup may pass them by … that these words won’t nag them into some kind of action. They mentally cross their fingers that the priest’s impassioned pleas won’t work their prayerful magic upon their own children—all while sincerely agreeing that it should be someone’s children.

It’s time to calm down for a moment and put this fear aside. After all, granting that we want our children to live a Christ-centered life, whether a religious calling or not, we owe it to ourselves, our God, and our Faith Community to examine the logic of our fears. To find clarity, we must compare the religious life we would “save” our children from, to the one we would otherwise choose for them: Does the religious life entail more tumult and torment than the lay person’s life? You be the judge after considering the following points.

Exposing the Fallacies in Our Fears
Let’s look at some assumptions or implied arguments fueling our fears of the religious calling:

Argument one: the biggie for parents—that the religious vocation insures a life of loneliness.

No parent wants his or her child to be lonely. Arguably, clerics once enjoyed much more fraternity and companionship when their numbers were greater, and there is no replacement for the intimacy of family. However, while the religious life may be lonely, there are ways to minimize the loneliness; besides, few of us interact with as many people as priests do on a regular basis. Or consider this: who has not witnessed lonely mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, teachers and doctors? The truth is that loneliness is a product of much more than simply one’s calling and lifestyle.

Argument two: the religious vocation calls one to celibacy—and thus demands too much.

This may seem to reiterate argument one, but the two are not necessarily intertwined: one may be lonely whether celibate or not; and one may be celibate, lonely or not.

The commitment to celibacy is difficult for most people and virtually impossible for many. Moreover, we want our children to experience this amazing gift from God as we have. On the other hand, relationships freed from the undercurrent of sexual tension engender sincere friendships. We all know the chaos and destruction wrought by unhealthy sexual relationships—fraught with confusion, emotional torment, and psychological wear and tear—not to mention spiritual corruption. Then consider the odds against long-term relationships and marriages, with Catholics divorcing 20-25% of the time, and those not practicing a religion significantly higher.

Further, it may come as a surprise to some that we are ALL called to a life of celibacy and chastity rivaling that of the clerical vocations: if single, we are called to refrain from extra-marital relations; if married, we are called to chastity in thought, word, and deed that preserves us inviolate for our sacramental spouse. In fact, to limit our conception of celibacy and chastity to the Holy Orders is to ignore the teachings of the Church. (See Vat. II doc Lumen Gentium, especially chapter 4, sections 31 and 33 for elaboration)

Argument three: we don’t want our children to miss out on “life” and “success.”

This concern points back to the loneliness issue, but also highlights our desire for our children to experience their “true potential” and pursue “success.” What we choose not to acknowledge, however, is that we often view our children’s outward success as a measure and reflection of us, and our success as parents. But more dangerous still, any quantifying or qualifying of success inevitably involves society’s notions of what that means, and quickly we see the inherent ambiguities and contradictions in that pursuit.

Argument four: the religious life involves too much hardship.

We fear how hard life might be for our children if they become “too religious”—though this, too, we are ashamed to admit. We imagine the rigorously austere religious life, and we want to spare our children this “extreme” sacrifice and service. But strangely, we don’t stop to wonder: why aren’t we equally alarmed if they pursue a life of rigorous scholarship, a demanding and consuming medical or legal career? Surely, these pursuits take a toll emotionally, socially, physically, and even spiritually. And why aren’t we equally anxious about their almost inevitable suffering through the trials of love? So it would seem ignorant at best, hypocritical at worst, to discourage the religious life in order to protect our kids from hardship.

What this Means for Lay People
I’ll admit it: on some very basic level, I want my son to be one who drops the towels in the middle of the floor. I fear what could happen if he were to pay attention to God’s gentle (or not-so-gentle) nudgings. Do I want him to be that responsive? It’s an uncomfortable question that calls for an even less comfortable answer.

A woman I am honored to call a friend has five children, one of whom seems passionately drawn to the priestly calling. I truly envy her and pray that her son finds great joy in his journey, whether it ultimately leads to religious orders or not. At the same time, I harbor this patently shameful thought: if I had more than one son, as she does, wouldn’t I be delighted as well? Wouldn’t that change the “equation” for me significantly?

Am I really that egocentric and shallow? More uncomfortable questions arise.

Like many, I am drawn to that lazy interpretation of openness to God’s call that allows for “plausible deniability.” It’s that willingness to live the Catholic faith while stopping short of entrapping one’s self in commitment; after all, once you cross that Rubicon of openness, you relinquish deniability (if you ever had it in the first place), exposing that greatest fear of all—being called to a life of service and sacrifice, a life we didn’t plan, a life our ego simply doesn’t want.

It’s an issue we must all confront, especially we parents, and we can’t avoid it by merely serving as lectors, Eucharistic ministers, catechists, or by involving ourselves in any number of ministries. We are instead called to be open—a simple though certainly not easy concept, for this openness means embracing God’s call rather than merely resigning ourselves to it. And what’s more, we must share this openness with our children—those very ones we fear for most.

A longer version of this essay originally appeared March 10. 2013 on The Devout Life blog and is reprinted with permission of the author.

Mike Filce


Mike Filce lives in South Lake Tahoe, attends St. Theresa Church and teaches English at South Tahoe High School. He and his wife Anne are parents to two teenagers, a son and daughter.

  • patrick

    Well written Mike. I enjoyed and passed on to other parents.

    • mike

      and I thank you for doing so!

  • Deacon GAJ

    Mike, You have captured the adolescent thinking and explained it to us adults in an excellent and most understanding way. Thank you for your enthusiasm and your commitment to the art of teaching.
    George Johnston

  • I was one of those pre-adolescents who at age 7 perceived very clearly the Call to the priesthood. This was the ’60’s and Vatican II and following. Everyone told me to look elsewhere to serve God and His Church as things were “too crazy” at the seminaries. I ended up with a very fulfilled career as a Paramedic and college professor, teaching human anatomy & physiology. I also ended up a Lutheran, and at age 30 or so, God placed me in the position to answer that Call. Long story short, I entered a path to the diaconate and eventually the Pastoral ministry, retired from teaching while having been a worker/priest for my last 15 years of academia. Now retired, with a pension, I am serving my 3rd urban parish that cannot afford the salary and benefits of a full-time Pastor. This is my gift back to the Church that nourished me throughout my life, though just a few degrees separated.

  • holly

    The only parents who fear the calling of religous, are those with only a few children. Those of us who have remained open to life and have not contracepted our future away are not afraid of having children who are religious but joyfully pray for it.

    • honor

      I have few because that is what God gave me & I have no fear. Quantity does not equal quality, sorry.

    • WSquared

      Mr. and Mrs. Ratzinger only ever had three children. They never stood in any of their kids’ ways when it came to the path God chose for them, and they weren’t afraid, either. Both of their sons were called to the priesthood; their daughter never married, but served others, in particular by looking after her younger brother. A friend who is a priest is one of two children. Both he and his brother were called.

      Families, whatever the size, are a gift and an abundant blessing from God. They are not anyone’s statement to beat other people over the head with. The only way in which anyone truly does not fear regarding what God wants of them and their children is when they are aware that the children they are given first belong to God, and not to them. That isn’t contingent upon how big or small a family is.

      Please pray for the holiness of all families, including more vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and pray that these young men and women and their families will not be afraid. And where do you get off speculating how “open to life” or not you presume anyone else to be based on their family size? Sorry, but how is that even any of your business?

  • patricia m.

    In your reasons you say parents fear the calling of religious, you forgot the main one, which in my humble opinion is the main one for a lot of people (and not success, careers, etc because your son may not have a life of success and so on, who are we to tell): if your son/daughter becomes a priest/sister, then s/he will not bear you GRANDCHILDREN. THIS IS THE MAIN REASON, and this is kind of encoded in our DNA.
    That being sad, right now I have a son and a daughter and I pray everyday that God calls at least one of them for the religious life. I would be SO, BUT SO honored! If both decide to become religious, so much the better.

    • patricia m.

      That being “said”, I meant.

    • WSquared

      I’ve yet to have children, and I hope and pray that God gifts me with some.

      It was actually thinking about the priesthood and religious life in conjunction with marriage, and the possibility that any or all of my children might have a vocation, that helped me to let go, or to begin to ask God for the grace to let go: if “My grace is sufficient for you” (and we get told this in Pre-Cana), who are we to think that God will give any less to those whom He calls to be His priests? These are not “our” children; they are God’s children. And they are not “our” priests; they are His priests.

      I’m not sure I felt strongly either way, but a young Polish seminarian at our parish once told us that when he told his parents that he might have a vocation, they responded, “then have the courage to say ‘yes.'” That made a very real impression on me.

      And I will admit: long years of grouchiness from trying to figure out who I was when enough people did their best to tell me that I ought to be something and someone I wasn’t has long disposed me to thinking about this sort of thing, too. So that young man’s example was what made things really start to fall into place before they clicked.

  • I don’t know that the celibate priesthood can survive the twenty first century. I’ve often thought the Church should increase the roll of Deacons to equal that of Priest, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Here in the USA we have begun importing African priests but I don’t see that working too well either. Immigrant priests in the past were usually of the same or similar ethnicity of the congregation, Italian, Irish, Polish, etc., as there a few African Catholics in the US, these priests don’t really fit into the diocese well. Accusations of “racism” can rain down on me, but it is my impression that people like to have religious leaders of their own race or ethnicity. Where this leads, I don’t know, but I don’t foresee the large Catholic families of my childhood coming back nor do I see parents encouraging their children to enter the priesthood as it exists today.

    • WSquared

      A priest is a priest. He can either give you the Sacraments or he can’t. His ethnicity is immaterial to his being in Persona Christi, and the Universal Church is global.

      Think of how much any priest who is transplanted here has to adjust. And If I’m laying there dying, you can bet that I’m not going to care where he comes from.

      I’m of Asian descent. And I’ve grown up with priests from Poland, Ireland, Italy, Africa, etc. Perhaps not having “religious leaders of my own race or ethnicity” and never having any ethnic parish to go to has shown me how much I belong in the Catholic Church because of Jesus, and not primarily because other people in the parish “look like me.”

  • Deacon Ed

    I like what you said about the “monsters” created by our parents. My sweet, late grandmother had a strange outlook on life. To her, nothing happened by chance, it was caused; and she saw the proverbial “snake” behind every rock. To that end, when I was little, if I happened to be outside in the yard and someone walked passed and said “hi” to me, she would run outside and grabe me up and bring me in the house and then call my grandfather at work saying that someone tried to kidnap me.

  • hombre111

    Good article, and all the fears that he mentions are used as reasons to reject a call to the priesthood or a religious life. But the Church has really created a dilemma for herself, by putting such hope in young people discerning and responding to a vocation. The decision has to be made quick, before the girlfriend shows up.

    As a pastor and the only priest in town, I was part of a prayer group with seven other pastors, who became some of the best friends I ever had. One thing was striking about the group: with the exception of me and a young youth minister, they had discerned their vocations when they were in their thirties, already married, with children. In the Catholic view of things, no such men need apply.

    So, the Catholic search for vocations is a desperate quest in a very limited demographic: the young, the small minority who never married, a few married men who were later divorced, and men whose spouses have died.

    Four of those men had fathers who were also ministers. Here again is an linteresting thing. Research shows a genetic inclination to be deeply religiious. The Church, in her infinite wisdom, labors hard to get that gene out of the Catholic gene pool, and then wonders where the vocations went.

    • Vishal Mehra

      I would rather believe in 2000 years of tested wisdom rather than in ever-shifting research.

      There are already many explanations of where the vocations went. Secularism, decline in the birth rate etc seem adequate. No need for this missing gene from the Catholic gene pool.

      • hombre111

        The missing gene really is interesting. Oh, and mandatory celibacy did not begin until the middle of the 1000’s, and for purely secular reasons: In a culture where there was little money, priests would try to find ways to get some of the parish’s property into the hands of their children. Mandatory celibacy was a way of protecting Church property.

        This was accompanied by a similar shift all over Europe. Before, property was divided between the sons. But after that, property was given only to the oldest son. The other sons were forbidden to marry. They either went to the Church (without real vocations, and the consequences of that), or they simply remained bachelors. A few found ways to get their own wealth, and so they were able to marry.

        This custom lasted for a surprising amount of time. I live in a state with a lot of logging in the forests. In the 1800’s, many of the loggers were Norwegian or Swedish bachelors who had been forbidden by their fathers to marry. Many married when they got here, others remained bachelors.

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  • the Commentator

    These are all straw man arguments. Mr. Filce does not list any substantial reasons for men who dread the religion calling, i.e., most bishops and dioceses are not faithful to Church teaching on the liturgy; disobedience to Rome is the norm; many dioceses and communities are teeming with lovey dovey radical environmentalist priests; the abandonment of sacred music in 99% of parish Masses; division and lack of priestly fraternity amongst diocesan clergy; lack of leadership; homosexualist idealogues amonst the clergy. These are reasons why some men do not wish to pursue priestly vocations.

  • Mike

    re. Patricia M’s comment, you are right, of course: I neglected a fairly large reason. Although it is not one that enters my personal equation, and I doubt it ever will, the desire for grandchildren is certainly a factor influencing many people.

  • Facile1

    STOP IT!!!

    One cannot be fearful and happy at the same time.
    One has to make choices.
    You’ll get nowhere being afraid.

    St. Teresa of Avila said “Heaven is not for cowards.”

    I say “Our fears tell us what is important to us and if it is NOT God, turn it away.”

    And Jesus says “Perfect LOVE casts out fear.”

    if you want to think clearly,
    love generously,
    and live courageously,
    REJOICE in God’s LOVE always and go in PEACE.

    BE NOT AFRAID and teach your children the same!

  • Nanci Keatley

    Our family came into The Church two years ago- including four young adult children (ages at the time 21, 20, 18 & 17). Both of our sons have been discerning priesthood even during the RCIA process while our girls are open to whatever God has planned for them. I had someone ask if the boys had wanted to be pastors growing up (we converted from Evangelical Protestantism) to which the answer was no. While I am excited about the aspect of the boys being priests,my husband still is struggling with a lot of what Mike wrote about. We all need to pray for all the young people who are discerning God’s call and their parents!

  • Gabbi Browne

    I can only speak for myself, obviously, but my husband and I welcome the faith questions, practices, and excitement our young Catholic school son brings home. I feel most other families are similar since parents generally get excited with and involved in what their children are interested in.