When They Grow Up

The year 2011 brought great changes to my family. Beginning that year, our contact with one of my brothers radically altered. He was no longer allowed a cell phone or access to computers. His room contained a simple bed, desk, and sink. We were limited to one phone call with him per month and visiting days were two Saturdays a month. His personal possessions were no longer his own. He was told when to rise and had a bedtime. While this sounds like an involuntary life of punishment, a prison sentence perhaps, it was not. My brother had entered religious life at St. Michael’s Norbertine Abbey.

These Five Years

In these last five years we have certainly adjusted to these changes. My brother is now halfway through his ten-year formation process and has greater freedoms, for example, an email address. (The first year is unique, as they want new seminarians to focus on detachment). While our first adjustments were focused on loss—of communication, visits, holidays together—the adjustments quickly became focused on a future of great blessings. One blessing has been the transformation of our relationship with him. Once the seminarians receive their religious name, they are known as ‘frater,’ meaning ‘brother’ in Latin, until they become ‘Father’ at ordination. My brother, frater Frederick, is now someone we turn to for spiritual advice, guidance, and wisdom. As my natural brother we played, fought, competed, and matured alongside one another. Now he is my brother in a whole new way. He is my spiritual brother in addition to my natural brother. I look forward to the day, God-willing, we will call him Father. I cannot wait for him to be able to hear my confessions and say Mass for us. It is a unique joy to see my parents humbly listen to and learn from my brother—their son. It is fun to think back to, say, when teenage frater Frederick (then Tyler) insisted on growing his hair out for dreadlocks, much to the exasperation of my parents. Now they listen to him as he talks about following God’s promptings or the great hope we have in the midst of a sin-filled world. The fruits of grace are sweet indeed!

Another blessing has come from spending time with my brother’s circle of seminarians and priests. My family has been able to visit the Abbey three or four times, and my brother has been able to bring home with him a couple of fellow seminarians for summer visits. They are encouraged to accompany one another on home visits, enabling them to continue their community life by praying the Divine Office together, going to daily Mass together, etc. In these visits I have gained new brothers. We have vacationed with them, cooked together, flown kites, jumped on the trampoline, sat around the fire pit, watched Star Wars, washed dishes, played Monopoly, gone out to restaurants, talked late into the night, prayed together, and laughed together. The joy we have experienced in spending time with these men is nothing short of heavenly. These ordinary men have chosen to dedicate their lives to God through poverty, chastity, and obedience, and it shows. They are joyful, humble, wise, and very fun.

Another blessing that has come with my brother’s vocation is the experience my family now has of seeing religious from the inside. As a cradle Catholic, I have seen and myself experienced two common views of who religous are, or what type of people become religious and consecrated. The first view sees those who choose lives of poverty, chastity, and obedience as possessing a level of holiness and wisdom unattainable to the rest of us. Priests and nuns certainly only come from a pool of strong, faithful, and supportive families and have always lived upstanding and holy lives, or so the thinking goes. The other view may see those who go into religious life as simply strange, out-of-touch with culture, or even perhaps hiding a dark life or past. The horrendous abuses and cover-ups perpetrated by those veiling themselves within the walls of Catholic institutions have soured the reputation of religious life and tragically the minds and hearts of even the most faithful among us.  Personally getting to know and love many who have chosen religious life has allowed me to now say with great confidence - religious life is for the very normal and typical among us. We cannot let the vile sins and corruption of the few push us away from the calling God may have for us or our children. We cannot let fear that we are not holy enough keep us away from God’s plan. Religious life is an option for those who have imperfect parents, have failed University courses, have been engaged, have been formerly immersed in secular culture, have been angry with God, have made really stupid and terrible choices, have sinned greatly, have had cavities, break-ups, and are elite athletes, are beautiful, not beautiful, short, tall, artists, night-owls, early-birds, extroverts, introverts, and everything in between. Religious life is an option for all of us. Allow me to share a few words from a recent homily by Norbertine priest, Fr. Maximillian:

“God’s invitation to the monastic life as a religious brother is not merely some private, special thing for a select few. It’s a public invitation, written in the Gospel: “Come, follow me. Let anyone accept this who can.”

And a bit further in his homily he says:

"If you can and you want to, just apply to enter a monastery. You don’t need any special excuse or fireworks, for God has revealed in the Gospel that it’s a good thing to do.”

Some people have extraordinary experiences that lead them to their vocations. Most do not. All have been called by Christ. Full text of the homily found here: Choose Your Own Vocation.

The Greatest Gift

Perhaps the greatest of all these blessings is the fact that the children in our family know with certitude that when they grow up, a religious vocation is an option. They see their uncle, my brother, as the incredible, intelligent, hilarious, talented, holy, fun person that he is. Our children are able to experience priestly and consecrated life from a personal and intimate level. It is familiar, reasonable, normal, and because of these, possible. They will certainly be directly reminded often of all the possibilities open to them in choosing their path to follow Christ. While we are all sinners and greatly imperfect, I know our children are surrounded by good marriages and faithful religious vocations. I trust God that in addition to the direct messages, all the indirect messages they receive from being surrounded by these will give them grace and confidence to choose Him always.

We hear a lot about the vocation crisis. I am convinced that normalizing religious life for children is one of the most important ways to solve this crisis. I also believe that emphasizing to children how important their life is this very day is important. It is just as important being a baby learning to crawl, a three-year-old learning the alphabet, a nine-year-old preparing for First Holy Eucharist, or sixteen-year-old receiving a driver's license as it is to be an adult already living out their vocation. They will have to make big decisions some day, but their small decisions now are just as important to God and strengthen them for the bigger ones ahead. We love telling our children all they can possibly do and be when they grow up. At the forefront of those possibilities, may following Christ be number one, and may they know that being a brother, sister, missionary, nun, or priest is just as possible as anything else, and perhaps even the best choice of all.

Here are some very simple ways to increase the support for and familiarization of religious and vocations in our lives:

  • Give Father’s Day cards to your priests
  • Include saint costumes and nun doll clothes in your childrens’ toy box
  • Invite priests and religious over for dinner and board games. Laughing with a priest or seminarian is so much fun!
  • Support those with new vocations by financially helping them erase their education loan debts, which is often a requirement to enter religious communities
  • Know those in your parish currently pursuing religious vocations, as well as fellow parishioners who have family members pursuing religious vocations
  • Have a canonization party for Blessed Mother Teresa on September 4th
  • Support vocations that may even send that person out of the diocese or country
  • Thank priests for their homilies and share specific words of theirs that have moved you, and encourage your children to do the same
  • Visit monasteries and abbeys

I know there are so many more ideas out there! So tell us, how do you support vocations, familiarize yourself with religious, and let your children know that religious life may just be for them when they grow up?


Stephanie Gilfillan