The innate difference between parents is evident in how we celebrate Father’s Day and Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day typically brings together the extended family for some quality time over a meal. By contrast, Father’s Day sets aside at least some time for dad to be alone so he can pursue a hobby or activity – golf, fishing, even just a nap – by himself. For at least some portion of the day, dad tries to cease being dad so he can engage in “single” pursuits.
This is not to say that men do not want to be, or enjoy being, fathers. Nearly all do. Nor is there anything wrong with fathers pursuing healthy activities apart from the family. But Father’s Day practice exhibits the selfish tendency that lies at the core of fallen human nature. In the case of fathers, there is tension between fulfilling our individual desires and the need to sacrifice some, many, or all of them for the sake of the family.
Whether we forego sleep to soothe a crying child, pass on the ball game to help with homework, work overtime to afford school, or skip the vacation to pay for a daughter’s wedding, the demands of fatherhood daily require that, despite fallen nature and ego, we make sacrifices.
Fatherhood – the state of actively educating, protecting, and providing for one’s children – is a choice. You can become a biological father yet never choose fatherhood. Like the Deist God who sets the world into motion but cares nothing for it, a man can physically generate life but never see to its rearing. In our own time far too many fathers are refusing fatherhood: Census Bureau statistics indicate that one-fourth of children are growing up without a father in the home, and in the inner city this number leaps to over 70 percent.
Since fathers have an indispensible role in the mental and social development of children, psychologist Dr. Paul Vitz has called the absence of fathers in the family “the center of our cultural malaise.” It’s no mystery why some complain that young adults today do not know what sacrifice is: too many never had a father to show them.
Catholics are not immune to the effects of original sin and cultural trends. But we find divine aid for the task of fatherhood that the world cannot offer. The Church offers countless examples of men who chose fatherhood and have become saints in doing so. And more than this, the Church offers the means that makes fatherhood possible: grace. Though invisible and often overlooked, grace is the sine qua non of Catholic fatherhood.
Saint Joseph with the Infant Jesus (Guido Reni, 1635)
Marriage is given by God for the rearing of children and for the sanctification of the spouses. Elevated to a sacrament by Christ, marriage provides the grace a man needs to become a worthy and selfless husband and father. But as the depressing statistics on fathers illustrate, the grace received in the sacrament is not a magic ticket to perfect family life. It’s rather the heavenly weapon in a life long struggle against concupiscence that requires our constant cooperation to be effective. Grace provides our wills and intellects with power to tame self-centered desires for the good of our wives and children, day after day, year after year.
Catholics need look no further than to the patron saint of fathers, St. Joseph, for the ultimate model of grace perfecting rebellious nature. According to the ancient Church Fathers, St. Joseph decided to divorce Mary not because she was guilty of scandal, but because he thought himself unworthy of his appointment as guardian of the Savior. On a human level all the hopes that St. Joseph previously had for his marriage were changed in an instant.
But with a superabundance of grace he sacrificed whatever self-centered inclinations he might have had for the greater good of his foster son – and not just once at the news of the Incarnation, but repeatedly in protecting and rearing the Son of God into adulthood. By turning away from himself, Joseph was raised to heights to which all men aspire, yet few reach.
As an icon of fatherhood, of nature transformed by grace, St. Joseph is best portrayed in statues and paintings as a young, strong father, not as an old man. The latter type subtly suggests a man incapable of the chastity to which Joseph was called and denies the power of grace to help combat our lower natures. The robust Joseph reminds all fathers in our struggles that grace can direct our wills to the good, provided that we make a sincere effort, asking for God’s help all the while.
As a high school student I heard a presentation from an elderly priest who was asked if he was glad that he chose the path of spiritual paternity. He replied forcefully, “Every morning when I put on this collar, I have to make a decision.” The same is true for natural fathers: each day the choice for fatherhood presents itself in new ways and unexpected challenges that are not easy, and sometimes contrary to our inclinations. But with the aid of grace, they are the way to true paternal love.