A Christian family is a “domestic church,” according to Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. In these small cells of the universal church, the council asks parents to do two things: witness to the faith, and help children discern the vocation “proper to each of them.” I find it striking that of all the things the council might have asked parents to do, helping children discern their vocation is prioritized.

As I understand it, to think of one’s life in vocational terms means to live under a summons, to be listening, to be in the habit of showing God the details of your life and remaining open to whatever God may have in store for you. Deep understanding of our own desires and longings is part of discernment, but, ultimately, a vocational disposition is able to say, “Yes, let it be according to thy will...thy will, not mine.”

[Editor's note: Go here to see all of the stories we've posted as part of the Raising Catholic Kids symposium.]

My wife and I have been married for sixteen years, and we have tried to live this way. During those years, we lost one parent to breast cancer, another to suicide. We have made three transatlantic moves, each one representing a career change, each one an attempt to follow a call, none of them wholly chosen. Our marriage could easily have run aground any number of times. But we had our eyes on the Cross. Jesus was teaching us how to die to self, to save our life by losing it, to lay aside plans and refashion ambitions. We enjoy blessings and love today because we were taught the language of faith, a theological perspective that enabled us to face each moment in trust that Jesus was deepening us, taking us somewhere good.

Life is often unpredictable, but ordinary middle-class life normally allows us to make many key decisions for ourselves, such as whether and whom to marry, where to live, what kind of education or job to seek. My wife and I have a goal as Catholic parents: to prepare our children to put their lives at God’s disposal when those decisive moments come, whether they are making choices or dealing with surprises. To put it in Vatican II terms, our vocation is to help them discern their vocation.

That will require certain spiritual skills: to be capable of discernment means to possess interiority, to be able to regard one’s life, as well as nature and culture, with a certain loving attention and detachment. To be capable of discernment means to hunger for truth, no matter where it takes you. To embrace a vocation implies being capable of suffering, even when the world tempts you to dodge that suffering because there’s an easier way out. To live a vocation implies being in the habit of gratitude and hopefulness.

At this stage, with three daughters under seven, we are laying foundations for these skills. We stock the house and family life with Catholic words, stories, images, music, and objects. We give thanks at every meal, with songs and ceremonies adjusted to follow the liturgical seasons. We chose the house where we live partly because it’s close to a parish with a school. We attend Mass as a family, and we talk about Mass at home (how to behave, what was said or read, what happens and why). We also take regular inventory of the health of our own adult faith, to make sure we’re living what we’re trying to communicate. The girls see us going to confession monthly, and volunteering in our parish and with the poor. We seek kid-friendly opportunities in the parish and diocese, and we join the committees that create these things. We learn, and practice, understanding our own identity in terms of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Jesus, Peter, and Paul, and church history from the apostolic era to the present. As my children mature, I want them to understand themselves as guarded by, and accountable to, this great covenant. I want them to know that God has a name and a particular history, a church, of which our domestic church is a member.

There is a bit more to it than this—for example, we try to simplify our material possessions, as well as our schedules. We think carefully about what the children read. Beauty matters, for we’re trying to cultivate our children’s hearts and minds. I know living in a bubble is not an option. But I also don’t want to be too casual about the children’s innocence. We have the ability to resist the invasion of electronic devices into our homes. And as for the birds and the bees, the girls have noticed the chart tracking my wife’s cycle, so we’ve already answered a question or two about Natural Family Planning, and I reckon this conversation will gradually continue.

No doubt adolescent challenges are coming soon enough on a number of fronts. No doubt we are making mistakes. But the gist of it all is simple: Let tangibly Catholic love shape and leaven all of life.

There are many obstacles to embracing this Catholic outlook. In my nook of middle-class America, the catalog of obstacles includes busy schedules and scattered lives, which sap the leisure necessary for prayer and parish community. In places like the Catholic college where I used to teach, or the affluent neighborhood where I still live, the longing for prestige and upper-middle-class gentility is a distracting enchanter; it’s not wrong to want to be acknowledged or to live in a nice place, but these desires can metastasize. Curating a certain lifestyle, performing for an imaginary jury, can warp decisions with respect to schooling, extracurricular activities, career, money, and housing. You can only hold so many priorities in your heart at any one time.

Paying attention to the wider culture, it’s also worth keeping an eye on what Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism—his name for contemporary American spiritual mush. After more than a decade spent interviewing thousands of American adolescents, Smith and his colleagues report that “MTD” is the regnant faith of assimilated American youth, whether their confessional heritage is Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, or something else.

The MTD God is the God of whatever, the God who wants you to be a “good person,” making “healthy choices,” happy and nice. The MTD rhetoric has a grain of truth to it, but its emphasis on getting along and smiling can make spiritual life banal. The MTD faith emphasizes inclusiveness at the expense of reverence and quiet awe. MTD catechesis is so cozy that it skates lightly over awkward subjects like sin or chastity. You might pray to this God in a crisis, but this is not the God we’re talking about if we really mean what we say in the Eucharistic prayers. The MTD faith, by definition, cannot yield a vocation. A God without a name in a community without a history will not speak your name or ask you to do anything challenging. He certainly will not love you with the flaming passion of the Song of Songs. He has no Old Testament prophets who might question your affluence and gentility. He has no sacraments to enchant the created order, no Ephesians 5 to shape a marriage into a covenant of self-gift. If you happen to have the inner resources to suffer for the truth—perhaps when a disabled family member needs your care, or perhaps when something at work requires you to take a courageous stand—then it’s despite, not because of,  the MTD God. Spiritual mush has no horizon, no forge for forming a character.

So as Catholic parents, we play offense, and promote the faith. We also play defense, trying to be savvy about the culture. I expect it to get harder as the girls get older. We are praying that a good community of peers will be in place when they become teens. And we are trying, gently for now, to prepare our girls for being different from the surrounding culture in sometimes uncomfortable ways. I hope for the moment that we’re laying in the spiritual and psychological resources to see us through whatever’s coming.

Christian Smith says parental presence is the number one factor in the background of youth who resist MTD, the ones who develop a hunger for Truth and a thick religious identity. I find that encouraging, because although there are profound limits on what we can control, showing up and being present is something we can do. We can’t control outcomes, but we’re hoping our domestic church tilts the odds.

[Editor's note: Go here to see all of the stories we've posted as part of the Raising Catholic Kids symposium.]

Christopher C. Roberts is studying for the permanent diaconate in Philadelphia. He is the author of Creation and Covenant (Continuum, 2008), a book about the theology of marriage.

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Published in the December 6, 2013 issue: View Contents
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