Human fatherhood can give us an inkling of what God is; but where fatherhood no longer exists, where genuine fatherhood is no longer experienced as a phenomenon that goes beyond the biological dimension to embrace a human and intellectual sphere as well, it becomes meaningless to speak of God the Father. Where human fatherhood disappears, it is no longer possible to speak and think of God. It is not God who is dead; what is dead (at least to a large extent) is the precondition in man that makes it possible for God to live in the world. The crisis of fatherhood that we are experiencing today is a basic aspect of the crisis that threatens mankind as a whole. — Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
Tomorrow is St. Joseph’s feast day. I have a deep devotion to him. Spouse of Mary, foster-father and guardian of the Redeemer, rock of the Holy Family, patron of the universal church. Jesus first addressed Joseph as Abba. Joseph’s face, more than any other, formed for the “little” Jesus an image of the face of His Father — which Jesus spoke of with such tenderness in Matthew 18:10:
Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven
I’ll share a few brief, scattered reflections on fatherhood. What I share I have learned from great fathers, who helped set my goals and aspirations. And what I say is true for all who rightly bear the title father, including biological fathers, grandfathers, adoptive fathers, sacramentally ordained Fathers and spiritual fathers. And though I will not develop this point, fatherhood is wholly defined by motherhood. As St. John Paul II said, a father “learns his own fatherhood from the mother” — in other words, in relationship to a woman’s maternity.
May these thoughts be pleasing to and inspired by the example of good St. Joseph…
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“And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6).
This is, to me, the core of fatherhood — having your heart turned toward your child and receiving back your child’s heart. Terrifying. Guys aren’t often good at heart-matters. The heart takes you beyond the superficial. You look in your child’s bright eyes as they look at you with such intensity. They look with an absolute trust and expectation that you will care deeply about their every word, their every need, their every fear and hope and dream. And then I see how selfish and weak and petty I am, and I beg God: “Make me worthy of them, Father.”
Their natural openness to God finds its first resting place in their father. As the Little Prince said, “The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart.” Small children live out of their heart, are wide open like baby birds in the nest trustingly awaiting from their parents, with gaping mouths, not poison but nourishment. The intimacy I’ve felt with my children, precisely because their hearts allow and request such complete unfiltered access, is unequaled by any other experience of intimacy. It’s singular.
I was putting my son Nicholas to bed one night, when he was 4 or 5 years old, and as I was trying to bless him he pulled his face up to mine — inches away. He said with his lisp, in a hushed tone, “Daddy, my heart burns for you.”
I was stunned and speechless. I blessed him, left the bedroom and went right over to Patti to tell her. I said, “What does that even mean to him? Where did he learn that?” She immediately said, “Isn’t it obvious? What’s on the wall in our prayer room?” I said, “The Sacred Heart image.” Then I said, “Oh my.” She went on, “Don’t you remember the other night when he asked you why Jesus’ heart was on fire? And you said, ‘Because Jesus’ love for you is so intense that it’s like a raging fire!’ So, clearly he felt love for you and thought that was the best way to express it.”
Fatherhood also “turns your heart toward your children” as you become defined by them, by their needs and their welfare. When you think about anything, they are just there, somehow shaping your attitudes, your responses. Children’s fears elicit from their father an instinct to encourage; their questions, a passion to teach; their bad behavior, a demand to correct; their hesitancy, a hope to inspire; their sufferings, a call to pray; their gifts, a wish to cultivate. The hearts and minds of children inhabit and reorient a father’s mind and heart.
In fact, I’d say some of the clearest signs that fatherhood has defined you is when you find joy in realizing your prayer has turned into an exchange with God about your children; when your conversations with co-workers and friends are frequently seasoned by random references to them; when your times away from them are unsettled by the ache of missing them; when you find yourself able to overcome fears that once paralyzed you because they need you to be strong; or when your peaceful sleep is suddenly overtaken by a waking concern for their welfare and you, instead of being angry over losing sleep, spontaneously say, “Thank you God for this noble burden you’ve entrusted me with. Now let’s talk about him, her…”
Fatherhood is not just an extrinsic role assumed for a period of time to achieve a goal — i.e. raising children to adulthood — that can later be abandoned. No! It inscribes itself into your soul as a permanent identity, a permanent internal posture of facing your children. Even if they die, if I die. I am a father forever, even if in the New Creation my fatherhood simply means rejoicing that my children have achieved the fullness of life, as the need to watch over their steps has now passed away.
An old friend of our family said to me when my oldest son Michael was born: “Don’t believe people who tell you you ‘become’ a father. Nope. Children rip fatherhood out of you. When you find out your wife’s pregnant, when the doctor says, ‘It’s a girl’, when you throw that first ball with your son, when you dance with your daughter. With every scream, every tear, every success, every failure — they rip daddy out of you. You just obey the call and step up to the plate.”
Or, in the words of my grandfather, “When they are cut, you bleed.”
Fathers share their life’s wisdom frequently, generously, but they listen even more. They spend copious amounts of time playing with, working with, eating with, tinkering with, fishing with, building with, praying with, biking with. Fathers know, as the saying goes, that children spell love t-i-m-e.
I was going to Confession very recently and was confessing some parenting failures that plague me. The priest, an older Irishman, said very directly to me:
You know Jesus says, “There’s no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends”? There is no more important person on earth, other than your wife, who demands your laying down your life than your child. Each one. Every day. When you’re tired. And the dividends will pay off in the future for them, and for you. This is your one chance. Soon they’ll be gone and your chance to convince them you love them will dwindle away. Love them now, today. Give up anything that’s keeping you from that time, from spending it on them in the way they deserve. No matter how good or important you think it is.
You can save a thousand souls. Yes, very impressive. But if you neglect your children the good you did is to no avail for you; or them. Nothing is worth losing those times you’ve been given to be with them. God will judge you first as husband, then as father, then all the rest. So first things first, son. Get on with it now, will ya? Hug them when you get home. Tell them you love them. But more, show them you love them every day by making them your priority. Making time. Now, before it’s too late.
As I prayed my penance, I thought of my daughters dancing with me at the father-daughter dance back in 2010. During one song, each was standing on a foot, looking up at me.
I have to stop now.