By Barb Arland-Fye
Mother’s Day and World Day of Prayer for Vocations coincide on Sunday, May 11, a fitting coincidence since moms seem to have an innate ability to nurture their children’s faith life, and perhaps their vocations. This Sunday also marks the fourth Sunday of Easter, commonly known as Good Shepherd Sunday.
In his message marking this special day, Pope Francis observed that “No vocation is born of itself or lives for itself. A vocation flows from the heart of God and blossoms in the good soil of faithful people, in the experience of fraternal love” (www.usccb.org).
I wondered, “How have the mothers of our bishop, priests and women religious inspired or influenced their children’s decisions to enter the priesthood or religious life?”
“My mother was very influential in my vocation,” Bishop Martin Amos said. “She was the one who taught me prayers, made sure we went to Mass and CCD classes and encouraged me all along the way toward priesthood. The first person to whom I gave Communion as a deacon (lay persons did not give Communion in those days) was to my mother who, of course, was crying.”
Father Stephen Page, pastor of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville, says: “I remember filling out the application to be accepted as a seminarian for the diocese, some decades back. There was a specific question that said words to the effect: ‘What does your mother think about you becoming a priest?’ I believe I responded: ‘My mother is supportive of my decision but she has never asked me if I would consider being a priest. My parents are not Catholic, why would she consider the idea?’
“But both my mother and my father were supportive of me in pursuing this vocation. They were not anti-religious or anti-clerical (in fact as Protestants, they were very, very respectful with priests and religious), they just weren’t regular church-going people. We said our grace prayers and night prayers and there was NO EXCUSE not to go to Sunday school.
“So when I told them that I was seriously considering becoming a Catholic priest they said: “You’re an adult. If that is what you would like to do, we support you.” Obviously, now is a different matter. Mother does remind me every once in a while that she says I look much better in my clerics.”
Father Thom Hennen, the Davenport Diocese’s director of vocations, said: “I was the youngest of 11; my mom was in her late 40s when she had me and there were concerns about health issues — both for her and for me. I wouldn’t be a priest had my parents not been open to that gift of life in the first place. Beyond that, my mom demonstrated for me selfless love, which is an essential priestly quality, too. It was in the way she took care of the family, feeding us, clothing us, taking us to baseball or CCD or dentist appointments.
“I think both my mother and my father gave us an example of prayer, praying before meals, going to church on Sundays, having lots of good books around the house. I never remember my mom asking me to think about a vocation to the priesthood, or my father. They may have and I may have tuned it out. But certainly when I told them about this, they were immediately supportive.
“They were equally supportive when I discerned for a while to leave seminary and then again supported me when I made the decision to come back.
“I think when I’m not around, I’m told she kind of brags about me. She doesn’t do that in public with me, for which I’m grateful!”
Father John Spiegel, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Iowa City, noted that “Both my mother and father had a deep faith and presented it in an active and involved manner within the prayer life and charitable work of their parish.
“Their faith was at the very heart of their identity and in their more formal faith practice as Roman Catholics and the formal pursuit of their professional lives as a nurse and barber and in the informality of their personal and spiritual lives within their vocations as spouses and parents, and in their social life among relatives, friends and neighbors.
“They valued the good that any and every vocation holds and presents. They thought that I should involve myself where my talents and interest and my own relationship with God should direct me. As I came to pursue studies for ordained ministry they were, I know, pleased as they recognized that I, myself was pleased to do so and that it engaged life within a sector of life which they recognized as one of value and one which offered a good contribution to the general order of life.”
Father Tom Stratman, a retired priest of the Diocese of Davenport said, “My mother didn’t mention the priesthood to me. It was by her love for her faith and love for the Mass that she influenced me. She got us to Mass and she made sure that if we were scheduled to serve at Mass (as altar servers) that we got there on time.
“We all got in the car and went to Mass together on Sundays. She insisted on daily prayer. She instilled the faith, but never made it boring. It was a way of life.”
Sister Roberta Brich, CHM, co-coordinator of membership for the Congregation of the Humility of Mary, said: “I grew up in a family that had Sisters of Humility as aunts and cousins; I was taught by the Humility Sisters, my mother was taught by them.
“My mother and dad both were hoping and praying someone in our family would enter religious life or the priesthood. They did not explicitly say it or encourage it, but they never discouraged it. I know it was their silent prayer that one of us would.
Their faith was number one. I think that definitely came through to us. Every night we knelt down at the bed with mom and dad and prayed. When I told them, my mother said, ‘Oh, that’s wonderful. We were hoping for this. Dad was the practical one. He said, if you don’t like it, you can always come home.”
“Mom was kind of the heart of faith at home,” said Sister Mary Ann Phelan, OSF, director of development for the Clinton Franciscans. “We were a family with five boys and two girls. Strangely enough, both of the sisters (Sr. Mary Ann and Sister Anne Martin) entered the Clinton Franciscans.
“We went to church at a little country church at Valeria, which was an out mission of Immaculate Conception in Colfax. It was a strong faith community where everybody knew everybody.
“As far as our vocation, I started talking about being a nun earlier on in life, even during middle school, a little bit. My mother had some cousins who were Maryknoll Sisters. They inspired me. Mom was very pleased that I was even thinking that way.
“Dad was supportive, but he was a quiet, gentle person who didn’t talk much about that. Mom was the most supportive of the entire family. She was the heart of our faith; she guided our faith. We prayed the rosary. We studied our CCD instruction under her direction. She was very faithful to her own personal prayer life. She probably wouldn’t have said that about herself.
If something happened in the family, her first recourse was prayer.”
Not all mothers of priests and nuns wanted their sons and daughters to enter ordained ministry or the religious life, but still set an example of faith that inspired their offspring.
Some moms whose children didn’t discern a call to the priesthood or religious life inspired someone outside the family to do so. My parents became friends with a young man interested in but unsure of his calling to the priesthood. My mom encouraged his vocation and called his pastor to say that she thought the young man would make a good priest. And he is, serving as a pastor in Minnesota.