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.