When I was pregnant for the first time, my husband and I lived on the edge of the world in Big Sur, California. We spent hours hiking the beaches, cliffs, and canyons between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Lucia Mountains. “One foot in front of the other,” he would whisper when the path got steep or I grew tired. We couldn’t wait to have a little one on the trail with us.
Strapped tightly to my chest or perched on my husband’s back, our daughter logged many miles before she was a year old. I was sure hiking would be her thing. She is 10 now and will tell you hiking is not her thing. I’ll admit it bums me out that a Saturday morning hike is no longer met with a squeal, so I’ve come to label it a little differently: “What about a Saturday morning adventure?” An adventure, even the kind that follows a winding path around a lake or up a hill, is suddenly much more fun.
Pope Francis, in his 2019 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Christus Vivit (Christ is Alive), describes the journey of discovering one’s vocation as being invited on an adventure. Vocations are not just a part of life; they are how we live out love throughout life. The adventure begins the moment we are born. As parents, teachers, lay ministers, and clergy, we must help our children and those in our care find their path, but the map isn’t marked and the route is never the same. Just as trails can be easy, moderate, or rugged, the way children hear, understand, and discern their vocations is different throughout their development. Although each person’s journey is unique, the various methods used to discover the path have many commonalities.
Life is your vocation
What are vocations anyway? Careers—not exactly. Life choices—kind of. Marriage or priesthood—maybe. The word vocation has a broad meaning and is often misunderstood, but at its core it’s a call. The Second Vatican Council defines vocation as the “universal call to holiness” that is in the heart of every human being. This call is an invitation from God to love others and to love God. The distinct way you live out that love is your vocation.
Beyond the universal vocation, Catholicism recognizes primary and secondary vocations. Primary vocations are calls to a particular lifestyle in order to intentionally live out the universal call to holiness. They include dedicated single life, married life, consecrated life, and the priesthood. Secondary vocations are calls to action—what you do on your path, at home, with your career, and in your community and how you use your gifts and talents to live out love and service.
Vocations aren’t things magically bestowed on you when you turn 18 or graduate from high school. From the moment you are born, life is your vocation. God formed you and knows you personally. Therefore, the tailor-made vocation God calls you to “will be a perfect fit,” explains Pope Francis in Christus Vivit.
Discernment is the ability to comprehend the twists and turns along the path laid before us, which evolves as children grow. As adults, we must be there to assist our children when needed, but we also must trust the work of the Lord.
Find joy in the first steps
God walks with us from the very beginning, amid the ups and downs, and wants us to find joy on the journey. Cristi moved to the United States from Ecuador as a child. She lives in Virginia, near Washington, D.C., and is raising a soon-to-be 2-year-old son with her husband. “In Ecuadorian culture, children are cherished,” she says. She believes one’s calling comes from where they find joy, and she wants to nurture her son’s interests as he grows. “I want to encourage him to follow what gives him joy, even when he is small,” she says.
From the moment you are born, life is your vocation.
Imagination is a surprising facet of vocation that should be nurtured from a very young age, as it is important for developing interests and finding joy. Father Guillermo Hernández, director of vocations for the Diocese of Sacramento in California, explains that children need to imagine that they are useful to humanity so they will want to develop the talents and capacities to be of service in life.
In his role, Father Mémo, as he is known, ministers to seminarians and often visits schools and parishes to promote vocations, but he finds certain value in working directly with families. “Families always have an important role in the faith of humanity because that is where we all come from,” he says.
Introducing prayer and committing to service as a family are important ways to begin nurturing vocations, but they must be done meaningfully and based on the needs of each child. Hernández says, “We need to respect the ages and maturity of our young people.” For small children, he suggests short Bible passages, picture books, and even cartoons or videos as fun ways to begin understanding God’s call to holiness.
Create encounters with Christ
In their book Raising Catholic Kids for Their Vocations (TAN Books), John and Claire Grabowski write, “Parents are entrusted with a unique mission from God—continuing his work of creation in order to make visible and share his love in the world.” Together the Grabowskis have served on the Pontifical Council for the Family, authored several books, and raised five children. John has taught moral theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. for 30 years and has been an advisor for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. They highlight the importance of face-to-face encounters with God and Jesus. John says, “For our children to receive a call, we have to make it possible for them to encounter God and speak with God. As parents we have to find ways to foster that encounter.”
The Grabowskis echo Hernández on the value of creating space for prayer and service as a family, and Claire explains that as Catholics we are given an advantage in the sacraments. We are all called to holiness in baptism, but attending Mass as a family, celebrating the Eucharist, and seeking reconciliation are all ways to meet God face-to-face and to grow in faith.
Imagination is a surprising facet of vocation that should be nurtured from a very young age.
As children reach milestones and are able to receive the sacraments of Eucharist and reconciliation, it is important for parents to provide them with access to the sacraments. Claire says, “Building those habits as a family is a way to create opportunities to encounter the Lord on an ongoing basis.”
In Winter Park, Florida, Nikki and her husband are raising three boys. She says the pandemic has brought challenges in accessing the sacraments. Mass is virtual, but it has made them more aware of the role church plays in their lives. They have had to get creative at times. For example, earlier this year, in preparation for Lent and a confirmation, they asked their priest to visit their home for reconciliation. “We met on the front porch with masks, and it was great,” Nikki says. The pandemic is one of those rough stretches on the road to a vocation, but seizing opportunities to help our children see God amid the struggle is an important milestone.
Two ears, one mouth
Listening is not the only way to hear God’s call, but it is an important way to experience God. The Grabowskis describe listening to God as “training spiritual ears.” Nicholas, Nikki’s youngest son, explains it as “two ears, one mouth.” He is 12 years old, and we’ve never met in person, but he admits how excited he is to talk with someone new, even if it’s just over the phone. Our conversation comes almost a year into the pandemic, so the feeling is mutual.
During our chat, I ask Nicholas about vocations, specifically if he thinks kids can have them. He answers, “I feel like God will always have a vocation for me, and God is trying to tell me, but it takes all of us a little while to know what our call is. You have to think and feel and pray and listen. Two ears, one mouth.” What? “That’s what our priest said this morning,” he says. “We need to listen more and talk less. That’s why we have two ears and one mouth.”
“Our world doesn’t see any value in silence,” says Father Timothy Sahd, parochial vicar at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. “It is vital for kids to become comfortable with silence, because it’s in that silence that we connect with God.” Sahd is involved with the elementary school at his parish and also serves as chaplain at Trinity High School. He maintains that the earlier children become comfortable listening to God, the better.
“We need to listen more and talk less. That’s why we have two ears and one mouth.”
“We could save ourselves trouble and heartache if we would just listen to God more,” he says, noting that a lot of times this isn’t a noise or a voice but a feeling. He encourages children to notice how they feel after making decisions: “Are you at peace or unsettled? This is how we begin to discern. Ultimately, God wants to lead us to that light and peace.”
On passion, service, and discernment
One of Sahd’s parishioners, 13-year-old Saoirse, says she has been taught to listen to God but also connects with her faith through her talents. “I don’t know why God has put me on Earth, but if I use my talents it’ll help me understand,” she says. “I think when God was figuring out what I’d be like, God already knew what I’d use my talents for. God gave me talents for interior design, so when I grow up I can help people be happy in their homes. Using a skill God gave me to help other people is God’s plan.” Even at a young age, Saoirse is already connecting her talents to the service of others and beginning to understand how it all fits into discerning her vocation.
Where deep desires meet the world’s great need is where Michael Libunao-Macalintal finds meaning in vocation, likening his definition of the word to the Frederick Buechner quote: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” A year ago, Libunao-Macalintal received his master of divinity degree from Yale Divinity School and has since been working at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C. as assistant director of campus ministry. He says, “I want to be able to walk alongside my students and see what they’re passionate about and how it lines up with what their communities need, what their neighbors need, and what their families need.”
“I think any opportunity for service learning is crucial for students forming a sense of vocation,” Libunao-Macalintal says, explaining that committing to serve others can help broaden our own understanding of vocations and see more clearly the path God is calling us on. Furthermore, he says that vocations are tied not only to our own stories but also to the stories of others. “When I get the chance to serve others, the stories of those I am helping get wrapped up in my own and become a guidepost for me to where to take my talents,” he says.
Vocations are tied not only to our own stories but also to the stories of others.
Vocation, according to Pope Francis in Christus Vivit, “has nothing to do with inventing ourselves or creating ourselves out of nothing. It has to do with finding our true selves in the light of God and letting our lives flourish and bear fruit.” In order to do so, we must cultivate the talents and gifts we are given. The pope asks young people to look into their hearts and examine the joys and strengths they find there, then contemplate through prayer and solitude, along with discussion and action, to better understand how they could use those joys and strengths in service of the world and the church. By high school, many children are ready for this level of discernment.
Trust their potential
By helping children find joy, create encounters with Christ, listen intently, discover passions, and use talents for service, you help them discern and live out their vocations in the present. By providing a proper foundation, you ensure they have a good footing along the journey to answer primary and secondary calls of vocation.
“Our task as parents is to do our best to form our children into men and women who are capable of discerning God’s call and responding to it generously,” the Grabowskis say. “We are called to surrender our children to God, but not abandon them.” They see the role of parents as stewards on a child’s journey, working to support and encourage them to trust God’s will.
I know when my daughter complains about a hike it’s because of the struggle. Hiking is hard work. It’s easy to see vocations through that same lens—something we must suffer for. But in fact it is the opposite. Hernández wants young people to know that God does not disappoint. He says many are under the misconception that if they follow God, God will take away their deepest desires. “Not true,” says Hernández. “God has put your deepest desires in your heart. God knows them because God put them there. When we embrace God, we find the full potential of those deepest desires.”
Psalm 37:23 reads, “Our steps are made firm by the Lord, when he delights in our way.” This adventure, this vocation, this life is a beautiful one. And when it becomes difficult, you can trust that Jesus is there every step of the way.
This article also appears in the June 2021 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 6, pages 10-15). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Pexels/Leah Kelley