In Economic Justice for All, the U.S. Catholic Bishops tell us that “the long-range future of this nation is intimately linked with the well-being of families, for the family is the most basic form of human community.” Furthermore, St. John Paul II mentioned in Centesimus Annus that the family is the “first and fundamental structure for a human ecology… founded on marriage, in which the mutual gift of self as husband and wife creates an environment in which children can be born and develop their potentialities, become aware of their dignity and prepare to face their unique and individual destiny.”
Given this most important role of the family not only in our Catholic tradition, but also for society as a whole, we have asked some of our very talented contributors to focus on the Catholic family. We begin with Father Jonathan Raia, who shares with us the impact his family had on choosing his vocation as a priest.
For almost two years now, I have been serving in a special ministry for a diocesan priest, that of Vocation Director. It’s a strange title—a kind of shorthand, really. Because “vocation” means “call”—specifically, God’s call to the baptized to give themselves away in love either in marriage, in priesthood or consecrated life, or sometimes in a single life dedicated to service. So of course, I’m not “directing” God’s call, but rather seeking to help those whom the Lord is calling to priesthood or consecrated life to hear and answer that call. That work, more broadly, involves helping to create a culture of vocations—an environment in the Church and in each parish where it is natural for people to seek the Lord’s will for their life, and where priesthood or consecrated life is one of the options on the table.
That work of creating a culture of vocations, so dear to the heart of Fr. Troy here at St. John Vianney, really begins in families. After the choice to become a disciple of Jesus Christ, discerning one’s life vocation is the most important decision a Christian can make. And parents have an irreplaceable role in both decisions.
I always begin the story of my own vocation to the priesthood with my parents, Joe and Earline. Their love and fidelity through 42 years of marriage have given a powerful witness to my brother Michael and me. The greatest gift that they gave to me was introducing me to Jesus Christ. Indeed, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a relationship with Jesus as Lord, Savior and Friend. That relationship, so central in each of my parents’ lives and in their marriage, was nurtured in our hearts and in the life of our family by prayer together as a family. We would say our traditional prayers (the Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, Act of Contrition, and a few others we picked up along the way), then each of us would pray from our heart in our own words. This relationship with God, expressed through regular conversation in prayer, proved to be central in my discernment, years later, of the Lord’s call.
In addition to family prayer, my parents gave witness of a relationship with the Lord that bore fruit in service. They, and then my brother and me, were involved in various parish organizations, from altar serving to prayer group to sponsoring a needy family at Christmas. We learned through experience the joy of serving. Equally important to that witness of service was the fact that we got to know our priests. Both through altar serving and through dinners at our home, the priests of St. John Vianney were real people to me growing up. I was impressed not only by their holiness, but by their sense of humor, the stories of rectory life, and so on. This contact “up close” with the priests was a key factor in making priesthood seem like a real possibility for my own life.
As I began to think about what God wanted me to do with my life, my parents made it clear that what they wanted most was for me to follow God’s will. People often tell me, “Your parents must be so proud to have a priest as a son!” And I always respond, “Yes, they are very proud of me and are my two biggest supporters, but they are most happy that I am following God’s will.” Throughout my seminary journey, and into my priestly ministry, my parents have taken an active interest in meeting my classmates, even having them over for dinner, and getting to know the other priests I have served with.
On the day of my priestly ordination, my parents presented me with a chalice. Along with my name and ordination date, they had it engraved with this inscription: “Our “Gift from God” [the meaning of the name “Jonathan”] – Our Gift to God.” That, I think, is the most important thing that parents can do—offer their children back to God as a gift by helping them to desire His will above all, discern it carefully, and follow it with courage.
All of the things my parents did for me are important, I think, in creating a “vocation culture” within one’s own family. Nothing is more important for parents than to introduce their children to a friendship with Jesus Christ. Kids need to see prayer and service modeled, and they need to witness the love of their own parents for each other in the Sacrament of Marriage. Contact with priests (and sisters) is really helpful in making those vocations seem like a real possibility. But most of all, parents have to trust God. As I often say when I preach in parishes around our Diocese: Remember that God knows your kids better than you do, He loves them more than you do, and so He knows better than you do what will make them happy! So, if you love your kids and want the best for them (as all parents do!), then pray for God’s will for them, show them by your own life what following God’s will looks like, and teach them to seek God’s will above all else. Trust me, they will be eternally grateful.
Fr. Jonathan Raia is a native of Houston and St. John Vianney. After hearing the call to priesthood around the time of First Holy Communion, he discerned his vocation most seriously while in college at the University of Texas at Austin. Through his involvement at the University Catholic Center and his work at the Diocese of Austin, he felt the Lord calling him to serve in Central Texas. He was ordained a priest in 2009 and is currently in his second year as Vocation Director for the Diocese of Austin. He is also the son of SJV’s parishioners, Earline and Joe Raia.
Reflecting, reading, or simple prayer is a bit tough for me these days; I am living the chaos that is a family in bloom. I stare at a monitor as it flips between two sleeping boys, ages three and one-and-a-half. My wife holds the two-week-old in the other room, trying to get her to sleep. I fight to keep my eyes open as I read the clock: eight o’clock at night. I’m looking forward to being well rested in fifteen years, but until then, coffee is my best friend. My wife and I will be celebrating four years of marriage in a few months as well. In the blink of an eye, I was a bachelor, and not long before that a seminarian praying and discerning God’s will for my life.
In those not-so-distant days, I spent a good amount of time in prayer. Each morning and evening was devoted to the liturgy of the hours. Adoration was a common practice and walking with the Lord at any given moment a frequent endeavor. It was easy for me to constantly practice my faith and identify as a Catholic. From my point of view, I was a pretty holy guy, trying to become holier every day. Flash forward to today and I laugh: man, oh man was my train about to be derailed. I was about to be blindsided unaware of what was about to hit me.
I know I am not alone in this. Countless people have made the joke about sleep, or the chaos, or the circus that is the early years of a family. Some are about to experience it, some are in the middle of it as I am, and some remember those days – grateful for them and grateful to be done with them. Many of us in the midst of family life find it a struggle to pay much attention to God’s workings in our lives. We have grocery runs and bed time, nap time and chores. Sometimes getting the family to Mass on Sunday itself is the only direct encounter with God, and even that is a struggle. How is there time to really work at living as a good Catholic when we are just trying to survive living as a family? I was at a moment of crisis when all that I did to identify as a ‘good’ Catholic was suddenly gone from my practice and impossible to regularly do again. Family life had dissolved my Catholic identity and I was lost as to how I would ever gain it back…or so I thought.
This however is not the case. I would like to propose that a faithful, Catholic family does not weaken or destroy your Catholic identity, but instead strengthens it. There are many characteristics of our identity that can be strengthened in the family, but I would like to focus on three in particular: Trinitarian, Paschal, and Sacramental.
God is love (1 John 4:8). One of the greatest lines of all Scripture. It is God’s very being. Love cannot be isolated, solitary, individualized or contained. As we understand God, we more deeply understand love. God is a community of persons. God is three in one. We describe the love of the Father and Son to be so infinite, so giving, that the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is the outpouring of the love between them. When reflecting on love, we see it is a giving of all one has to another. Love necessarily is self-giving to the infinite extreme. It is also life-giving. Love (Himself) is what created the world! Love is what saved us from our sins. Love is for the other. Our marriages are called to emulate God himself. Our marriages are a reflection of that giving love of God’s very being. Husband and wife are called to give ourselves to each other, as the Father and Son show us. In our marriages, self-love is called to give way to selfless love. Our love is also called to be life giving. That gift of love has the potential to bring about a new life nine months later. The love we promise to give in matrimony overflows to create a family, just as God’s superabundant love compelled the Trinity to make man in His own image in the creation story. So in the midst of the family life, the waking up early for our children, or patiently waiting for a spouse to get ready for a date, we strengthen our Catholic identity. As we ourselves disappear into service of our children and spouses, we disappear into the life of the Trinity. With every passing moment in which we die to ourselves, our own wills and desires, we reflect our God who is love.
This leads the way to our second means of strengthening our Catholic identity through the family: sacrifice. Many Christian communities have a cross someplace prevalent. Catholics have a crucifix. We have crosses sure, but why the crucifix? Why hold onto Jesus dead on the cross when we can simply have a cross and focus on Christ risen? As Catholics, we recognize that the greatest moment of our salvation is right there, as God himself pours forth his unending love through the pain and suffering. Sacrifice is an essential element of Catholicism. Not sacrifice without cause but suffering and sacrifice that is redemptive. It brings about salvation. The cross has no meaning without the Resurrection, but there is also no Resurrection without the cross. We look to the cross and see Christ, freely offering all. He suffered in the garden, knew what He was going to take on. It would be no walk in the park, but it was worth it. We don’t skip past or gloss over the passion. We partake in the Stations of the Cross during Lent. We kiss the cross on Good Friday and reflect on the scourging at the pillar. Why do we do these things? Why can’t we just focus on the Resurrection? As Catholics, we recognize the reality of sin and the reality of pain. We know that it is there, but we are able to carry our crosses with Christ. We can suffer with Christ, knowing that this is an offering that brings about new life. How many of us as fathers and mothers wouldn’t easily take on all the suffering of our sick child so they could be healthy again? As a family, we encounter crosses, pain, and suffering all the time. In the midst of life, we may sometimes feel the weight of our crosses. As a husband trying to provide financially for his family. As a stay-at-home mom trying to corral three young children who are tired and hungry. As a couple trying to comfort a child who has a cold or a toddler with an injured hand. Without Christ and his example through his passion and death, we may simply see darkness and dread in these moments. With Christ, we are able to encounter him, walk with him, suffer with him, and offer up our suffering for those we love more easily. Christ’s words echo clearly here, ‘my yoke is easy, my burden light’. (Mt 11:20) How light the burden is when there is meaning, when we get rid of self and take it on for others! We recognize that even Christ had to walk through the trials for the sake of love, so we too, with every cross we encounter in the family are able to be more Christ-like. These sacrifices and pains we encounter enable us to strengthen our Catholic identity and be a light of love in the midst of darkness.
When I think of what sets Catholics apart from other faithful Christians, our sacramental view of life stands out. We are a sacramental people. It penetrates down to the deepest parts of our being. We may not even realize how the sacramental nature of Catholicism affects us. Christ is the sacrament of God, the face of the Father. We encounter Christ in the Eucharist. We encounter grace in the Church. Baptism brings about the invisible grace of salvation. We encounter the invisible God through these visible means. Often times we think about grace and sacrament in only these seven encounters. We can learn from Blessed Mother Teresa, who for years spoke of encountering Christ in the dying on the streets of Calcutta. As husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, we too encounter Christ in a similar way. We encounter him in our children, and in our spouses. We come into contact with grace when we come into contact with them. We are called to see Christ through them, in them, and with them. There is temptation to sometimes see our children as a burden, our wives or husbands as simply an obligation. These are lies in as much as God sees us, his children, as a waste or worthless. Quite the opposite, we, the lowly sinners as we were, were seen by the Father as his prodigal children. We were worthy to give it all up for, to become man, suffer and die for. We encounter grace through the sacraments. We also encounter God through our family. As we strive to see God in our families in the same way God views us, we will become people more fully alive, for we will become the people God created us to be, given to grace and imitating Christ, who is God made man. Then, as we view the Church as a beacon of salvation, communion, love, and sanctification, we can view our families, the domestic church in the same way. We will not only encounter grace within our own members, but we will be an encounter with God to the families, friends, and strangers who come into contact with us.
As my sons and daughter grow, and the chaos of family life becomes calmer, I look forward to picking up those religious practices again. We are not defined, however, by how many rosaries we say or how often we pray the liturgy of the hours. Our Catholic identity reaches beyond acts we perform or prayers we pray. We are formed by God, and we live out a Catholic identity through that formation. Some of the most core values of Catholicism are strengthened within the confines of the family. We are a community of persons, given in love, reflecting the triune God. We are a people of the paschal mystery, celebrating the Resurrection and participating in Christ’s passion and death through our family struggles. Finally, we are a people who encounter God and his grace through the visible world around us, most especially through the members of our family. The Church, the body of Christ, is the sacrament of communion and salvation, for through it we become one in Him and receive sanctification poured out to us from Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The family is often called the ‘domestic church’ and we can see those same sacramental elements within its walls. Truly we are the domestic Church. Our families are a great means of growing in our Catholic identity and holiness. I look forward to teaching my children the wonderful cultural practices, devotional prayers, and liturgical celebrations that make Catholicism so rich and beautiful. At the same time, I know that I can be strengthened as a Catholic through my own domestic Church in each and every encounter I have.
Christopher Cole is a native of Houston and was a parishioner of St. John Vianney in his childhood years. He currently is in his sixth year teaching theology at Strake Jesuit. He combines those duties with coordinating educational technology at the school. Chris attended Texas A&M University before transferring to Franciscan University in Steubenville Ohio to pursue a double major in Theology and Catechetics. He subsequently earned a Master’s degree in Theological Studies from the University of St. Thomas. Prior to his work at Strake Jesuit, he worked for the transformative family ministry Paradisus Dei, That Man is You, before spending two years discerning God’s vocation at St. Mary’s seminary here in Houston. Chris is a father of three living out the vocation of matrimony. Chris is also the son of SJV’s parishioners Paula and David Cole.