Category Archives: Family

Revealing and Reliving God’s Fatherhood

Each Father’s Day, I begin the day with what has become a personal tradition.  I open my copy of Pope St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation, Famliliaris Consortio, to p.43 and then read the last paragraph of section 25 where the saintly Pontiff says:

“In revealing and in reliving on earth the very fatherhood of God, a man is called upon to ensure the harmonious and united development of all the members of the family: he will perform this task by exercising generous responsibility for the life conceived under the heart of the mother, by a more solicitous commitment to education, a task he shares with his wife, by work which is never a cause of division in the family but promotes its unity and stability, and by means of the witness he gives of an adult Christian life which effectively introduces the children into the living experience of Christ and the Church.”

These words, written by a celibate to his spiritual children, perfectly capture the essence of what it means to be a father.  They form, what has become for me, a mission statement and so, every year, I visit them to ask God the Father how I am doing in living out the calling He has given me.  This practice has always been fruitful for me personally not only because it recharges my paternal batteries, but also because it provides clarity where busyness may be obscuring my mission as a father.

St. Thomas lived by the motto that “our calling is to share the fruits of our meditation.”  It is in this spirit, that is in recognition of the gifts God bestows on each of us in prayer are not just our own, and not because I am some exemplary model of fatherhood, that I share some of the lights that have come to me over the years.

Keeping the End in Mind

First, I will mention a most important principle that animates JPII’s mission statement.  We ought to, in everything we do, live with the end in mind.  The more conscious we are of our goal or our purpose, that is the more we call it to mind, the easier it is to achieve.  The truth is that all too often activity causes us to forget where we want to go.  We get easily distracted and need to be reminded it is not about the journey but about the destination.  To the extent that each of us does this, asking constantly if what we are doing or about do will help us reach our goal, the more successful we will be.

This is true not just in the natural realm but the supernatural as well.  The more we remind ourselves that the goal is heaven, that is, the more we live with a heavenly perspective, the less often we will fall off the path.  So often we fall not so much out of malice, but forgetfulness.  Like Peter walking on water, we take our eyes off Christ and we fall.  Once we refocus on Him, He is there to put us back on our feet.  In short, the more we keep our desire to be with Jesus in the front of our minds, the more docile we are to the impulses of grace.

Fatherhood is not just one means among other means for us to get to heaven, but for those who have been called, it is one of the primary ways.  Just as husbands are to be Christ in the flesh to their wives, they are to “reveal and relive the very fatherhood of God” to their children.  The mission is simple, even if it isn’t easy, to show those children “born under the heart of the mother” what God the Father is like.  For good or for bad, nearly all of us see God the Father as something like our fathers on earth.  If you want to know how you are doing as a father, ask your children what God the Father is like.

Revealing and reliving the Fatherhood of God—a daunting task indeed!  In fact anytime I grow overconfident in my fathering and need a dose of humble pie, I remind myself of this calling and abruptly reality sets in.  But reality is not that I can’t live up to this calling.  That much is obvious.  Reality is that God never calls without equipping and He has given me the graces I need to make this happen.  For my part I only need to keep my eyes on the purpose—to show them God the Father.

There have been so many times when the Holy Spirit has whispered those very words in my ear—“relive and reveal the very Fatherhood of God on earth”—before I was about to lose my cool or before I was tempted to insist on my own way God the Father is gentle and bears all things.  God the Father is generous.    Do I always listen, no, but when I do these simple words always keep me on course.

How it’s Done

How is it that John Paul II proposes we as fathers reveal and relive the Fatherhood of God?  It is through what he calls the “the harmonious and united development of all the members of the family.”  God is a true Father Who is not far away but at work at every moment forming us into His adopted children.  When fathers take an active role in the development of their children, especially their spiritual and moral development, they image God the Father.

Notice the tone of reverence the Pope displays toward wives and mothers when he speaks of “the life conceived under the heart of the mother.”  That is, husbands are called to love their wives first.  It is because he is a husband that he becomes a father.  One of the best ways a man can love his children is to love his wife and to show reverence for her.  To model true complementarity for your children also shows them that men and women, despite the effects of the Fall, are not in competition with each other, but true partners and made to challenge each other to become more fully human.

Fathers also should make a “more solicitous commitment to education” of their children.  This starts by forming them in the Faith.  All too often men will leave this to their wives or think this means dropping them off at CCD or the Catholic School.  But this is not what John Paul II has in mind.  Study after study has shown that when fathers are committed to the faith, their children follow suit.  Children need to learn the truths of the faith from their fathers but they also need to be schooled in prayer.  There is nothing more manly than to be found on your knees in prayer and children naturally imitate this when their fathers model it for them.  Men should always strive, as JPII says, to introduce “the children into the living experience of Christ and the Church.”

John Paul II also has a broader idea of education of which school is only a small part.  This is especially true today as the contributions to overall education by schools, both public and private, are greatly diminished.  This is why many fathers, following the model of St. John Bosco, develop simple formation plans for each of their children that includes their spiritual, intellectual, social, and human—all with the goal of educating the entire person.

The Pope acknowledges that providing for his family by his work, is fundamental to what it means to be a father.  But he also cautions men to make sure that their work “is never a cause of division in the family but promotes its unity and stability.”  So many of us, especially in a consumer-driven culture, overly focus on the material aspects of work.  Certainly, earning money is a key aspect of it, but we also must ask the harder questions.  What kind of person does my work turn me into?  Am I absent from family life more than I should be or even pre-occupied or stressed out when I am there?  Our work should support our vocation as fathers but never at the cost of the unity and stability of our family life.

Father’s Day in the United States is a relatively recent addition to our holidays.  But Father’s Day has been celebrated for centuries in some European countries on March 19th, the Feast of St. Joseph.  St. Joseph, above all the married saints, truly relived and revealed God’s Fatherhood.  He was chosen from all eternity to be the representative of God the Father on earth.  Fathers should regularly turn to him for guidance and strength.  He was also one of the Patron Saints of Pope John Paul II who bore his name as his middle name.  Let us spend this Father’s Day with these two fathers and ask them to guide us as we examine ourselves in light of these challenging words.

A Perfect Marriage?

In a letter to the Italian Cardinal Carlo Caffara, the Fatima visionary Sr. Lucia prophesied that “the final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family.  With marriage and the family under attack from so many fronts, her words are truly prophetic.  But it is her commentary on the prophecy that is worthy of consideration.  She added, “Don’t be afraid because anyone who works for the sanctity of marriage and the family will always be fought and opposed in every way, because this is the decisive issue…however, Our Lady has already crushed its head.”   What she was implying is that it is Mary, specifically in her marriage with Joseph, that crushed the Devil’s head.  To put it more succinctly, it was Christ Who redeemed marriage and the marriage of His parents shared the first-fruits.

In order to see their marriage as the prototype of a redeemed marriage, it is necessary to clear up some misconceptions regarding the Holy Family, most of which have arisen more recently.  The most common misconception is that Mary was an unwed mother, her child somehow being conceived outside of wedlock.

Mary and Joseph were already married at the time of the Incarnation.  Our Lady was not an unwed mother.  For proof of this, we need only look at the words of the angel to Joseph when he tells him not to fear to take his wife into his home (Mt 1:20).  A divorce does not break off an engagement.  Joseph’s consideration of divorce is because they are already married.

If Joseph and Mary share what would be the prototype of marriage, then why would Joseph consider divorcing her in the first place?  When Joseph considers divorcing Mary, the angel appears to him and tells him that the child has been divinely conceived and that he should not fear to take her as his wife.  Some have taken Joseph’s decision to divorce her as a sign that he thought her to have been guilty of adultery, but that he did not want to expose her to the shame publicly.  However, this does not really fit with Joseph being a “righteous man.”  A righteous man would have followed every precept of the law of Moses including the requirement that if a wife was found in the act of infidelity by her husband then he was forced to divorce her and make her crimes known.  Anyone who hid the crime was also guilty (see Lev 5:1).  Therefore, if Joseph did not denounce her then it is because he did not suspect her.

Instead the more compelling explanation is the one that is offered by Aquinas.  He contends that Mary told Joseph what had happened and out of a sense of religious awe he thought himself unworthy to serve as the earthly father of the Son of God and husband of Mary.  Aquinas says “Holy Joseph pondered in his humility not to continue to dwell with so much sanctity.”  This explains the angel’s response to Joseph that he should not “fear to take Mary his wife into his home.”  It is the angel who affirms Joseph’s vocation as head of the Holy Family.

Establishing that they were married at the time of the Annunciation is also important for another reason.  Properly understood we should say that Jesus was given not just to Mary but within the marriage of Joseph and Mary.  God always respects the nature He has created and children are to be given as a fruit of marriage.  Therefore St. Joseph and Our Lady had a true and valid marriage.  There was never any suggestion that Our Lord was illegitimate, despite what some contemporary theologians may say.  The Incarnation was to be brought about through the Holy Family and not just through Mary.  It has been the constant tradition of the Church that prior to their marriage that both Joseph and Mary had taken a vow of perpetual virginity, but in their humility chose to keep it hidden.

This leads one to ask how if the marriage was never consummated that they could have a valid marriage.  Pope St. John Paul II addressed this question in a General Audience in 1996 (21 July) when he said:

“Precisely in view of their contribution to the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word, Joseph and Mary received the grace of living both the charism of virginity and the gift of marriage. Mary and Joseph’s communion of virginal love, although a special case linked with the concrete realization of the mystery of the Incarnation, was nevertheless a true marriage.”

For a marriage to be valid, consummation is not necessary.  All that is necessary in matrimony is mutual consent and fidelity—both of which is found in their marriage.

st-joseph-and-mary-marriage

This non-consummation presents a further obstacle in that it makes it seem like the marriage was a mere façade.  After all some might say, if they were lacking a sex-life, then it was missing something that is a fundamental part of all healthy marriages.  It is this pattern of thought that reveals exactly why our perception of marriage has gone awry.

Sexual love is not the same thing as genital contact.  Sexual love may include that, but it does not exhaust it.  As proof of how narrow our thinking about this has become, Professor David O’Connor points out in his book Plato’s Bedroom that a modern reader would be scandalized to read a 19th century novel in which a man and woman are “making love” in a room full of other people.  The term “making love” would have referred to the couple creating intimacy through conversation and planting the seeds of enduring love.  Modernity however have taken this much broader meaning and reduced it to nothing but a physical act.

To be clear, this is not meant to imply that the marital embrace is just like conversation and all the other ways in which married couples “make love.”  It is most assuredly a part, but it is a foundational part.  That is why, even if it is not strictly necessary, consummation is an important part of marriage.  But, and this is a big but, it is important not in itself but because of its inner meaning.

The marital embrace is a sacrament—a sign of the couple’s total gift of self to each other.  Because we are fallen, we are unable to make a total gift of ourselves to each other in marriage.  All of our efforts at “making love” will always be tainted, even if in diminishing amounts, with self-love.  The marital embrace is an expression of the desire to make this gift by making a complete and total gift of ourselves physically to our spouses.  This is why contraception is so damaging to marriage—it obscures this sign.

Mary and Joseph on the other hand were capable of making this total gift of self.  In other words, they didn’t need the sign because they were already capable of the thing signified.  Certainly they could have expressed their total gift to each other through a marital embrace, but they didn’t need to like the rest of us do.  As if to offer proof of this, they share the fruit of a consummated marriage, a child.  This child comes about without the act itself.  In other words, their unity of hearts which is shown by the sign of consummation in all other marriages is actually given in the sign of Our Lord.  Summarizing, Mary and Joseph share the fruit of consummated marriage without the act itself.

While the sacrament of marriage had yet to be instituted, the marriage of Our Lady and St. Joseph remains a perfect sign or type of the union of Christ with the Church because it is the Church as a virginal bride wedded to the Virginal Christ.  This is why some Church Fathers have referred to Joseph as the “Virginal Father of Christ.”  This is an especially apt title given that God could not deny Joseph the paternal right to the fruit of his wife’s womb.  Joseph was no mere figurehead, but a husband and father in the truest sense, even if not biologically so.

Looking around society today it seems Sr. Lucia is right—Satan has set his sights on marriage and the family.  This is what makes the Feast of the Holy Family such an important celebration within the Church and serves as an opportunity for us to consecrate our family life to the Holy Family.

Mary and St. Joseph, pray for us!