The Malucha family (top) and Lawinger family (bottom) at the ordination to the transitional diaconate this spring at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary. (Submitted photo)
When she dropped her son Michael off at the John Paul II House of Discernment in the summer of 2013, Julie Malucha was, understandably, feeling a bit anxious.
At that time, Michael, now a transitional deacon preparing to be ordained to the priesthood next spring, had just graduated high school. It was the first time he would be living away from Julie and her husband Joe.
“I just said to Fr. Luke (Strand, Director of Vocations), ‘Okay, Fr. Luke, into your hands I commend my son,’” she said. “And he turned around and said, ‘No, Julie, it’s not my hands — it’s God’s. Into God’s hands you commend your son.’”
That was a good lesson, said Malucha, and one that she has been learning over and over again these past seven years. “This is bigger than me,” she said. “Into the Lord’s hands I commend my children.”
Malucha describes her journey as the mother of a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee as a study in divine surrender. Ultimately, all mothers must let their children go, to some extent — to adulthood and to whatever life God has planned for them. But for the mother of a man who is discerning a vocation to the priesthood of Jesus Christ, that “fiat” has to be more pronounced.
“The overall seminary experience is an exercise in detachment,” said Maulcha. “It’s detaching from your will and attaching to the will of Christ. But parenting is all about detaching — about surrender and trust in the will of God. That’s what this whole faith journey keeps teaching me.”
It can be a challenge for parents of seminarians to grasp their own role in their son’s journey of discernment, said Anne Lawinger, the mother of Dcn. Michael Malucha’s classmate, Dcn. Michael Lawinger.
“When my older children got married, I had friends whose kids had been married. There were friends you could talk to about all the other things my kids had gone through,” she said. “But when it came to having a son who wanted to go to seminary — I didn’t have any other friends who were in that situation.”
To help her support her son, a priest recommended that Lawinger read “Pastores dabo vobis,” St. John Paul II’s 1992 apostolic exhortation on the formation of priests. Lawinger reached out to a few other mothers she had met at discernment events and formed a small group of “seminary moms” to read the exhortation together. They eventually moved on to other spiritual books and papal encyclicals, and gather informally on a regular basis for discussion, moral support and socialization.
“What we learned along the way is that we just support (our sons),” said Lawinger. “We really embrace the idea that when they enter the seminary, they don’t know if they’re going to be ordained a priest or not and you have to keep a very open mind about it. The other mothers and I help each other to remember that it’s whatever God wants. We want whatever God wants, and we don’t know what that is while they are in seminary until they are ordained.”
Some parents have struggled with a sense of loss when their son enters the seminary, said Malucha.
“It’s hard for some — perhaps they think they’re losing their son, or losing the potential for future grandchildren,” she said. The discernment process can be a source of great consolation for parents as they, too, learn to embrace their sons’ seminary experience — what Malucha calls “a beautiful journey into the Heart of the Father and the Church.”
“Whether you’re excited or fearful, you have to just trust God and get out of the way, and don’t we have to do that with all of our kids?” said Malucha. “We have to just get out of the way.”
And the fear of “lost grandchildren” is an unfounded one, said Malucha. If her son is ordained a priest, she will have thousands of spiritual grandchildren to pray for throughout his life.
“When I think about the people he will impact — that’s a beautiful gift,” she said. “It’s bigger than your family. You realize, this is my son, but he is the Lord’s first and foremost. He is going to be the Lord’s instrument to bring his mercy to other people.”
Both Lawinger and Malucha agreed their sons’ time in seminary formation has enriched their own spiritual lives.
“It’s just amazing to see how God works in someone who is open to giving himself like that,” said Lawinger. “It’s been a beautiful thing to watch him grow up and see him trying to do what God wants him to do.”
Lawinger said that advice she would offer to other mothers of young men discerning a call to the priesthood would be simple: prayer, encouragement and normalcy.
“Pray for him. Encourage him to seek God’s will,” she said. “And I think you also have to treat him like anybody else. Don’t ordain him right away. Other people will do that as soon as they find out your son goes to the seminary. But you need to let him be himself and not necessarily be ‘the future priest.’”
While it is an honor to have a son who may be called to share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, Malucha said that pride isn’t an adequate description of what she feels.
“It’s more this feeling of unworthiness,” she said. “But God is so reckless in his love; he’s just saying, ‘Just trust me.’ It’s a reminder to trust God, to trust his plan.”