PETER’S MOTHER-IN-LAW: A LESSON IN VOCATION MINISTRY? by Rev. Jay E O’Connor

Last October Msgr. John J. Strynkowski of Brooklyn told the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors that the whole church exists for the domestic church--"Vocations exist for the church and for families." When we think of vocations, he noted, we have to ask: "What are the church’s ministers doing for families in an age of family crisis?" He suggested that the church might reflect upon the model of Jesus as one who preached to families. His interactions with families as healer, nurturer, consoler, teacher, and life-giver called people to follow and join in his ministry. If the church expects families to provide sons and daughters for priestly and religious vocations, it must care for families in the way of Jesus.

Strynkowski asked diocesan vocation directors a thought-provoking question: "Can Peter’s mother-in-law help us in vocation ministry?" Is this woman healed by Jesus, and perhaps challenged to convince her daughter to let her husband make a life-transforming career change, a witness to the family as an unspoken grace that calls men and women to priestly and religious life and ministry? The National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ national strategy for vocations, A Future Full of Hope, calls for the development of a feeder system for vocations. In the past, the parish school, involvement in parish activities, the presence of priests and religious in the parish, the encouragement of parents, and overall positive images of priesthood and religious life were parts of a system, albeit an informal one, that fostered vocations and provided remote preparation for priestly and religious life and ministry. The current national strategy encourages dioceses to identify similar components of diocesan and parish life and develop them into a system that will encourage vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

The national strategy identifies the importance of parental encouragement to the church’s vocation ministry. If parents are to create a home environment that is conducive to vocational development, they have a right to expect support and help from the church. There are many ways the church can help parents encourage their children to consider a priestly or religious vocation: catholic schools, high quality religious education programs, youth ministry programs, a vibrant parish life, excellent liturgies, as well as priests and reliPP gious who are healthy and positive role models. The commitment to the family as a domestic church is more demanding and more essential than all of these. When we help families see themselves as faith communities in union with other families in Christ through the church, we empower and encourage them to call forth priests and religious from their midst. When we help families pray, read scripture, explore and teach church tradition, celebrate faith and life, support family members, and commit themselves to evangelization and community service around the dining room table and family hearth, we help them encourage their sons and daughters to consider a life of service to the church as priests, brothers, and sisters. This is the ministry of Jesus to families.

Helping married couples see themselves as a presence of Christ in the world and their home as a holy place, a dwelling place of God, is teaching them that the vocation and sacrament of marriage calls and empowers them to be a domestic church. Our ministries of marriage preparation and enrichment help married couples create loving, life-giving, and forgiving homes. This work of the domestic church empowers family members to enter into healthy relationships that bring life and reconciliation to our world. Our partnership with parents to fulfill the baptismal promise "to teach their children the practice of the faith" is a commitment to the domestic church.

Our parish ministries of religious education and sacramental preparation help parents teach their children to pray and develop a spiritual life. This work challenges all family members to be attentive to God’s presence and call in their lives. Our parish ministries of worship and parish life gather families together as a communion in the Lord. The domestic church’s awareness of this communion develops a sense of community responsibility and stewardship among family members. Our parish ministries of charity and service provide opportunities for families to reach beyond themselves and fulfill Jesus’ command "to proclaim the Good News". These ministries help the domestic church instill a sense of mission in family members. Our care for families in the way of Jesus strengthens the domestic church and develops qualities that enable family members to recognize and accept the Lord’s call to serve the church as a sister, brother, or priest.

If we listen, Peter’s mother-in-law can teach us about vocation ministry and feeder systems. The awareness of Jesus’ presence in our families creates and empowers a domestic church that serves and strengthens the mission and life of the universal church. When it comes to vocations, the family is often an unspoken grace. Vocation ministry is not an appendage to parish ministry; it is at the heart of a parish’s ministry to its families. Strong and healthy domestic churches provide good candidates for church service. Our ministry to help families flourish is a way to build a successful feeder system for priestly and religious vocations.

Rev. Jay E O’Connor is the Editor of Touchstone Magazine, published by the National Federation of Priests’ Councils and the pastor of St. Andrew by-the-Bay parish in Annapolis, Maryland. The article first appeared in Touchstone. Used by permission.