The Family, A Seedbed of Vocations

The Catholic Church in the United States is enduring a protracted vocation crisis. Numbers of priests dwindle even as the Catholic population increases. Many clergy as well as lay apostolates such as the SERRA Club and parish vocations committees have done much to stem the tide in an effort to encourage young men to discern the priesthood. As a result many men have heard and responded to God’s call. Vocation ministry is a necessary and beautiful work (and it’s one in which I am personally involved), but it will inevitably be a classic case of “too little, too late” if we fail to do more for and within the most important institution responsible for fostering vocations to the priesthood—the family.

Above all else, it is the family that must manifest a fervent commitment to creating and fostering a culture of vocation. This commitment begins in the home and extends and radiates outward impacting the various small communities in which families are involved—parishes, clubs, and schools, for example. The family, Saint John Paul II taught, is “the primary and most excellent seedbed of vocations to a life of consecration to the Kingdom of God.” It is the Christian family that strives to live the faith fervently, that is open to a life of service, and that fulfills its duties to God and neighbor that becomes the rich soil that gives rise to children open to priesthood and religious life.

Since the priesthood is a life of service, the primary effort of the family that becomes a seedbed of vocations is that it ardently embraces the first vocation of each person—the sincere gift of self, an ardent love that makes of oneself an oblation to God and neighbor. Above all else, and in everything, the family must be a school of love where love is learned through word and deed. Further, the faith must be lived with great vigor. If the Gospel is not taught and lived in the home, if the members of the family do not embrace the truth that freedom is for a life of virtue, it will be difficult for our children to grow up with a sense of mission, of being called to a vocation. These are necessary conditions if the family is to be the primary seedbed of vocations.

Yet this is no easy task especially in light of the various struggles faced by the family today not least of which was recently noted by Pope Francis who said that the devil, “attacks the family so much. The demon does not love it and seeks to destroy it.”

The solution to the vocations crisis is the renewal of the family in a generic sense. But, especially vital is the renewal of my family, of your family. Our families must embrace the call to create a culture of vocation. One of the best ways to do this in the home is by praying specifically for vocations in the daily prayers of a family. However, how we do this can be more or less effective. We tend to pray prayers for an increase in vocations to the priesthood as if the vocation crisis is to be solved by others without a full embrace of personal or familial responsibility: “God please give us more vocations to the priesthood … but let it be someone else’s son.” It ought not be so. We must each ask God to make our family a vocation powerhouse. We need to pray that our families become that seedbed of vocations in words that embrace our familial duty: “God choose from our home those who are needed for Your work, whatever that work may be. May our home and the homes of our children, truly be a most excellent seedbed of vocations, to a life of consecration to the Kingdom of God.”

As Saint John Paul II noted in his autobiography, it was his father’s witness to the faith in the midst of much hardship and societal strife that created “my first seminary, a kind of domestic seminary” that gave rise to his priesthood. Good priests, it seems to me, are most likely to come from good families and especially those that prioritize creating a culture of vocation in the home.

God plants the seed, but in order for the vocation to flourish and the harvest to be plenty the seedbed itself must be of rich, fine soil. The family is that seedbed and as with all seedbeds, the harvest will be poor if the soil is poor and the harvest will be plentiful if the soil is excellent. The vocations crisis is a symptom of a prior crisis of the family. The domestic Church, therefore, is called to recover and live its innate vocation to recognize God’s guiding hand in family life and to foster the ability to perceive and respond to God’s call in freedom. Each family must faithfully foster a culture in which young people can hear and respond to the unique mission to which He calls each member.

The family, each family, with its innate mission to be a seedbed of vocations, is the solution to the vocations crisis.

Editor’s note: Pictured above are members of the Bergoglio family with Jorge Mario in his clerical dress.

Arland K. Nichols


Arland K. Nichols is the founding President of the John Paul II Foundation for Life and Family.

  • Fred

    Great subject to discuss. It’s becoming more and more obvious with the increase in the number of pastoral districts that our beloved priests are aging and being spread thin covering the needs of many parishes. I read that the enrollment in some seminaries is expanding relative to recent years past, but still far from what it used to be. Maybe some things go in cycles for a reason, I don’t know. Families and individuals who feel the calling should receive our utmost support as a community for this important vocation.

  • Beth

    I think we could say that most of the ills of the church as well as society in general can be solved by strong families. And strong families start with strong marriages. Strong marriages come from truthfulness and understanding of what marriage is and is not. Every parish needs good examples of life-long marriages, high expectations of dating/engaged couples (i.e. NO cohabitation and/or premarital sex), and the full church teaching on contraception.

    Curious to see what the Synod will advance in these areas.

  • Vinnie

    What’s a family? Today, a fluid living arrangement, in other words, however you define it.

    • DE-173

      LIke everything else it is what you want it to be.

  • fides

    Mr. Nichols: You clear presentation of the family as a foundation stone is very helpful in advocating one aspect of need to constantly be mindful of the elements necessary to bring the sacraments to man.
    I have a couple observations. One, the sacraments are the the creation of Our Lord, outward signs instituted to give grace, and as such will be with till the end of time. Not that obtaining them won’t be difficult. This gives rise to the whole fabric of how a priest receives the sacrament of Holy Orders. That’s a function of a Bishop. As you well know, we the people have little to say about that — clearly in Gods hands, but also clear they have had a terrible time with their efforts at properly running seminaries and guiding vocations.
    Second, what to do about the vocational management of the priesthood — pray, and be precise in your analysis as to what the problems are and be willing to speak out or lend a hand when proper to help the bishop.
    Third, the vocation of the priesthood, the bishops proper management and the unidentified breakdown that has lead to the public display of priest misconduct — also has revealed that the bishops have not imposed a solution that they wish to share with their flock. Too many priest have been removed from active service because of allegations, unsubstantiated and no due process is applied to clear them.
    You see Mr. Nichols, just sending young men into the seminary without regard to the difficulties is to send them into the cannon fire as so many pawns. They are ravaged as much by their own mentors and teachers as they are Church enemies.
    I think it would be shameful to send or encourage a young man to enter the seminary without vetting same. An example of a cleanup, clean-out and regeneration of effort would be the Legionnaires.
    The starting point for a father supporting a son’s vocation begins with the assistance in examining the seminary and making sure the young man knows that his family will support him in his effort — even if he has to stand up to teachings within the seminary that are morally suspect. I have had to do this too many times — but am always pleasantly surprised when the call to vocation is rerouted. These young men are strong, they are listening to the call — they are willing to stand up — we now need to encourage the Bishops to remain faithful to their duties and cooperate with the grace that God promises.

  • Ladasha Smithson

    The real vocation crisis is marriage. With half of all American adults single, and nearly half of all marriages failing it’s no longer the norm. For to long have bishops, priests, and lay people though that marriage of the youth would just happen. So they gave single Catholics no support. Many, if not most of these Catholics, without the guidance of their elders, made horrible marital choices. The only marriage support the church gives is to those who are already married. But by then it may be too late.

    If the church wants to help marriage it needs to focus on Catholic singles. It’s much harder to support a doomed marriage than it is to create new Godly marriages. As they say it does no good to close the barn door after the cows have left.

    Unfortunately the Church has been spewing things like “keep to your own” and “the best way to live save marriage is to live out your own”. So now most of my fellow Catholics stopped caring about other peoples marriages, which has in turn created a divided between the singles (whether they be never married, divorced or abandoned) and marrieds.

    To all the married Catholics worried about the state of marriage: If you want your child to have a catholic marriage, YOU need to be the one to share your experiences and help these singles. If we want good Catholic marriages, we need to start when they are single.

    • Episteme

      What few talk about is that this is the first generation of Catholics to really live primarily outside of ethno-religious communities (the affectionately-named “Catholic ghettos”), which — especially when nuclear families (an Anglo-Protestant concept anyway, not built for large Catholic families) cut off from extended kin are moving about for work or otherwise cut off from parish life — leads to just the problem you speak of. The danger of being isolated from the community is, first, that broken marriages (not abusive ones, God forbid, but ones that need intervention and therapy but trod along or combust into divorce) don’t get triage by caring friends, and second, the children of those marriages have no exposure to actual caring relationships during their formative years. How does one expect to either marry properly or else become a properly-pastoral cleric or religious if they’ve grown up in a climate devoid of real love and filled instead with resignation and often hiding brokenness from the community? From inside and outside the family, you have a recipe for a generation taught that they’ve been basically abandoned by their natural family and Christian family alike, regardless of how active or practical they remain within the Church. As is said here, vocation formation starts with the family, but family and marriage formation starts with the young — and in today’s far-flung parishes, that becomes all the more important, not only to preserve those who are more-easily lost to secular life, but to preserve the hope of those who remain isolated in situations that the parish community should really be the ones to be there for them for.

  • John Loeffler

    Interesting article which reflects the usual aloof detached-from-reality almost always found in such articles. It’s become a source of constant “amusement” (distress?) to me to see how Catholics tend to monologue about the lack of vocations, its causes and what might be done to fix it. The same can also be said for why people actually leave the church itself and go to other denominations or just dump out of Christianity.

    Almost never discussed is that a considerable number of people have been beaten up badly both within religious life and the church itself, causing spiritual and psychological damage. This plays an extremely large part in the exodus.

    The church and or the religious orders rarely go after these people or find out what went wrong, but instead continue the self-centered monologue. I’ve witnessed all this first-hand multiple times.

    If one wishes to repair this breach, mumbling platitudes about the “one true church” or how great Pope Francis is (just had a priest do this) won’t do. It must start with a heartfelt “mea culpa,” and a request for forgiveness from these people and see if the breach can be repaired.

    Fortunately it seems Pope Francis understands this principle, given the virtual hemmorhage of Catholics to Evangelicalism in Latin America. Recognition has been a long time in coming.

    • bob

      Your very right. Seminaries often kick out numerous young men for being too traditional and lacking the “spirit of vatican two”.

  • wc4mitt

    Can anyone tell me why many, many saints come from improbable family situations – and still respond to God’s calling. Oh I know – its GOD Choice not the family’s. The family often pushes someone into a vocation – marriage, priesthood, religious life which later proves to be disastrous. Family IS important for all the reasons you say – however, even dysfunctional families do produce saints and great holy persons. It’s an individual choice to follow God’s call whatever your family situation has been or is.

  • There is a certain type of family that needs to be encouraged. Heterosexual monogamous marriage until death, as open to life as possible. Large families make for vocations like nothing else does.

    I think to achieve that, we need a sea change in thinking- perhaps we need to start valuing families as much as we value real estate. We need to start with teenagers fighting the presumption against life. We need to encourage people to get married while they are still fertile- even if it means older people in the church supporting the young couple materially for the first few years. We need to start living up to the rhetoric for a living wage, in both our dealings in capitalism and for staff at church. And we must never, ever, let “I can’t feed another child” be a reason for an abortion.

  • 1crappie2

    One of the barriers to numbers of young men entering the priesthood, is the American Church’s association with secular liberalism. Why give up one’s life just to join yet another social agency?

  • Cathy

    “If the church wants to help marriage it needs to focus on Catholic singles.” I couldn’t have said it better, Ladasha. Vocations to the priesthood come from families. Families begin with 2 single people. I once heard a priest at a conference state that it is not a coincidence that the number of priestly vocations began to fall at the same time that the marriage rate began to drop. Single adults now outnumber married people for the first time in US history. With devout Catholics having so much trouble finding a suitable spouse, some in the Church are starting to predict that there may be even fewer priests in the future. Bottom line, if the Church in this country wants more priestly/religious vocations, then it needs to start paying attention to its single (and usually forgotten) members.

  • Paul

    The Family, A Seedbed of Vocations = The Family, The Domestic Church = The Family, The Path the Savior Chose To Enter The World

    Thank you Mr. Nichols.