In June, we take time to honor and appreciate fathers in a special way; it is fitting that we take a moment to consider the real significance of fatherhood. For many, the notion of fatherhood has become an increasingly outdated and uncomfortable historical vestige of a bygone era. Since the so-called sexual revolution, the intellectual and cultural trend of the West has been to shame men for their contribution to an oppressive patriarchy and to convince us that men and women are free to determine their natures and purposes quite independently of any given reality or standard (even that of their biology).
In this context, we have turned fatherhood into an anachronistic concept, and dads might welcome a Father’s Day celebration with as much excitement as one would have in receiving a “participation trophy.” If we believe that fatherhood doesn’t have a true purpose or dignity, then it’s impossible to understand why celebration is merited.
For me, the popular images that come to mind in association with Father’s Day are a man grilling, drinking beer, and watching some extra television. These images are apt for revealing how fatherhood is popularly understood today—it shows a man who is distant from the “inner life” of the home and community. Is the essence of fatherhood justly measured by how well one can prepare meats over a flame? Are the passive activities of drinking or watching sports all that fathers aspire to do?
Certainly, society’s disenchantment of fatherhood seems justified in light of the modern “crisis of fatherhood,” or rather what could be understood as the crisis of absent fathers. This problem exists not merely outside in the “secular world,” but as the clerical scandals have reminded us, is also tragically experienced within our Church.
In light of these dismal reflections, it is tempting to align ourselves with the modern world’s disillusionment and to join in its eulogy that proclaims the death of fatherhood. But as Christians, we must ask ourselves if this is genuinely the right response.
The answer to this should jump out to us when we recall the greatest prayer within our tradition of Faith, the prayer that Christ Himself taught to us. It is, of course, the Our Father. What does it mean that we call God “Father,” and does this shape our understanding and appreciation for earthly fathers?
This is an enormous question, and one could (and should) spend a lifetime reflecting on what it means to call God, “Our Father.” As such, I don’t pretend that this small blog post will provide any comprehensive answer. However, I do think that St. John Paul II’s teachings within the theology of the body can be a helpful entry point for us in understanding the significance of fatherhood.
In his writings, this saint leads us to understand our human nature as embodied persons reflecting something of God’s own inner life—the communal trinitarian life of the three divine persons who share a perfect unity as one divine essence. Put more simply, this means that if we want to understand the significance of fatherhood (or of any personal reality), we must ultimately seek to know the source of perfect fatherhood—God.
What has God revealed to us? We know that God the Father gave us the Son (cf. John 3:16). We know that that the Father and Son are one (John 10:30; John 17:20-21), and that the Son perfectly receives and imitates the love of the Father. But let’s pause here for a moment. The Son acknowledges the Father as the source:
“Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.” (John 17:6-8)
Notice how Christ attributes all that He has from the Father. In other words, he receives all that the Father gives to Him, and it is then, that He, in turn, imitates the love of the Father. The “fruit” of this love is the uncreated third Person of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit.
Thus, when we circle back to our initial desire to understand better the significance of fatherhood, we do well to remember first this trinitarian relationship. Earthly fathers are not merely begetters of children. Rather, as persons created in the image of God, fathers are called then to imitate God’s Fatherhood in the total gift of self (or complete love) by giving themselves fully to their wives and children as well as extending this life-giving love to the broader community.
Since our knowledge of God the Father comes to us through the Son (the perfect imitator of the Father’s love), earthly fathers can and ought to look to Christ as their exemplar. This means that fathers are called to imitate Christ the High Priest by offering their own lives in service to their families, church, and community through their physical and spiritual presence and activities.
Concretely, this can be seen in fathers who take an active role in leading their families spiritually by praying and participating in the sacraments together, or similarly, in the fathers who pass down their knowledge, skills, and wisdom to their children.
Likewise, just as the Son received the Father’s love, we are called to receive the gift of true earthly fathers. This can be done by encouraging and honoring our fathers by reminding them that they provide a unique and irreplaceable role in the life of the family and society. And most importantly, we ought to find ways to express our gratitude to the men who have offered their gift of self to us as fathers.
It may be easy to reject the above as fluffy romanticized spiritualizing, and certainly, the crisis of fatherhood still exists today. It is also true that as fallen persons, earthly fathers will inevitably fall short of perfectly exemplifying God’s Fatherhood.
Nevertheless, it is vital that we remember that fatherhood holds an incredible dignity connected to God’s providential purpose. Earthly fathers are given the special vocation to provide the first model for understanding how God offers His absolute gift of love. In this way, we can recognize that fatherhood entails so much more than BBQs or bad “dad-jokes.”
This month, I encourage you to remind fathers of their special dignity and to offer genuine thanksgiving to the men who have embodied God’s own total gift of self through their vocations as fathers.
Patrick Gordon writes for TOBET from Irving, Texas.