St. John Paul II made it clear in his encyclical Redemptor Hominis, “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.”
It is precisely in the family that most of us learn how to love. “This is love,” says St. John in his Gospel, “Not that we have loved God but that he has first loved us,” and in the family this pattern is repeated as our parents demonstrate their love of us. In a healthy family, marriage and family life become the school of love, with each member of the family coming to honor the others for their own sake. As St. John goes on to say, however, there is no love without sacrifice.
The mentality that honors the woman more for her work outside the home than for her work within the family must be overcome because it denies this reality. It is very clear, however, that a father is also important to the family as an example of responsible masculinity. He is needed to support and encourage his God-given partner, his wife. When a man treats his wife as the number-one person in his life, when he honors and cherishes her, his children are prompted also to treat their mother with love and respect.
Real men – who live as great husbands and fathers – have a unity of life, the welfare of their families, and therefore peace of mind throughout their lives. Their powers, their work accomplishments, their friendships with other men all come together to give their life meaning and profound happiness.
Unfortunately, men in our time are often encouraged by the culture to be little more than peripheral around the house – an older playmate to their children. Although the causes for the confusion of parental and gender roles are many and complex, it is clear that – in this area of life as in so many others – contraception, the weakening of moral values, and cohabitation have colluded to disconnect sex from procreation, thus “liberating” man from fatherhood, marriage, and responsibility.
For a society like ours, preoccupied with preserving Nature, encouraging the consumption of natural foods, and the like, we have become strangely deaf and blind to the God-implanted wisdom of natural sex roles and relationships.
For a family man to devote his powers to protect his wife from anyone who would threaten her seems built in to being fully masculine, however much societies have tried to ignore or even deny it. Men after all are usually larger and stronger than their wives, and usually more aggressive. That the archetypal male role should be one of protection naturally follows.
In fact, part of the father’s job is to defend his wife against their children’s rudeness or disobedience and even aggression. It is also the father’s mission to challenge and bring out the best in his children, helping form the powers that will help them to succeed in life.
A good father strengthens his children’s confidence. He helps his children to form healthy attitudes towards work along with instilling in them serious work habits. If he fails in these tasks, his children may never grow up and remain in permanent adolescence.
He teaches a proper respect for authority. He insists that his children respect him and their mother. By his own example at home he shows how adults respect each other and also assert their own prerogatives while maintaining that respect.
The presence of a father in the family offers something important and different than a mother to both sons and daughters. All of his children need his love and protection of course. But his sons in particular need him to model a manhood that is morally and psychologically healthy so they can eventually undertake their own adult roles: as workers, friends, and (for the majority of men through most of history) husbands and fathers.
His daughters, on the other hand, need him to impart a sense of safety and security. They also learn from his example of protective and respectful love toward their mother what kind of treatment they have a right to expect from men as they grow up. And they will thereby develop the confidence to steer clear of mistreatment or disrespect from men.
A father corrects and encourages his children and helps them learn from their mistakes. In this way, children develop a realistic sense of their strengths and limitations. Eventually, a good father leads his children to mature decision-making and shrewd judgment, so that as adults they will be capable of thinking logically, foreseeing consequences, and assessing people’s character and their values.
We need strong fathers now more than ever. It would be good for us to pray today to St. John Paul II, the pope of the family, requesting him to help all fathers fulfill their mission on earth. As priest, bishop, and pope, St. John Paul was a wonderful model of spiritual fatherhood, who demonstrated in his own calm demeanor, resilient spirit, open heart, and trained mind how much he had benefitted from close association with his own good and holy father. The future Pope John Paul imbibed strength for the great struggles of his own life, as well as a strong and secure faith that he shared with the world when he famously told us, “Be not afraid.”