The following 10 paradoxes illustrate the dynamic quality of fatherhood, a quality that invests it with both vitality and depth.
"If God took the name Father, it was to inspire us with a greater confidence in him." This remark that St. John Vianney delivered to his audience of farmers in the village of Ars, during his "Sermon of Hope," must have seemed to the good Curé one that was entirely free of controversy. Yet the postmodern world, as we know all too well, is bent on dissolving this relationship. Fatherhood, whether one is referring to God, priests, or laymen, is no longer easily and agreeably associated with confidence.
Pope John Paul II, taking a broad view of fatherhood, makes the startling point in his international best-seller, Crossing the Threshold of Hope that Original Sin is "above all" an attempt "to abolish fatherhood". The disobedience of our primal parents was a rejection of God's legitimate authority. But God's authority is inseparable from his fatherly love. Hence, a rejection of his authority was also a rejection of his Fatherhood. John Paul offers a most important insight when he identifies Original Sin with the attempt to abolish fatherhood. The Serpent offers Adam and Eve a caricature of fatherhood – an authoritarian posture that is incompatible with human freedom.
The first step, then, in restoring the good name and the fullness of fatherhood, is to re-establish the original connection between fatherhood and an identity that inspires confidence. The dissolution of this connection and the resulting state of "fatherlessness" is truly calamitous. David Blankenhorn, for example, provides evidence in his book, Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Problem, that fatherlessness is the leading cause of the declining well-being of children and the engine that drives our most urgent social problems from crime to adolescent pregnancy to child sexual abuse to domestic violence against women. Despite the massive social problems that fatherlessness has created, he informs us, the concerted effort continues to "deconstruct" and "deculture" paternity.
In his elegant and insightful memoir, Blessings in Disguise, Alec Guinness recounts an unintentional experience of fatherhood he had while he was in France for the filming of Father Brown. Sir Alec, dressed in priestly black, was traversing a winding road that led to the village where he had a room for the night. He had not gone far before he heard scampering footsteps and a piping voice calling, "Mon pere". A young boy of about seven or eight seized the actor's hand, swung it back and forth and kept up a non-stop prattle. Guinness dared not say a word to him for fear that his "excruciating" French would scare him away. Suddenly, with a "Bonsoir, mon pere," and an awkward bow, the boy released his grip and disappeared through a hole in a hedge.
Reflecting on the incident, Guinness began to think more positively about "a Church which could inspire such confidence in a child, making its priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable". Sir Alec's journey home that night was part of a longer journey that ultimately led him into the Catholic Church. Even the portrayal of fatherhood can inspire genuine trust.
Pope John Paul II, taking a broad view of fatherhood, makes the startling point in his international best-seller, Crossing the Threshold of Hope that Original Sin is "above all" an attempt "to abolish fatherhood".
Nathaniel Hawthorne had the well-deserved reputation of being a good father and devoted husband. His daughter, Rose, who later came into the Church and, as a Dominican nun, took the name Mother Alphonsa, offers a splendid testimony of her love for her father: "To play a simple game of stones on one of the grey benches in the late afternoon sunshine, with him for courteous opponent, was to feel my eyes, lips, hands, all my being, glow with the fullest human happiness". This is the kind of love for dad that the eminently quotable Adabella Radici captures when she writes: "I love father as the stars he's a bright shining example and a happy twinkling in my heart".
"I could not point to any need in childhood so strong," wrote Sigmund Freud, "as that for a father's protection." How much do children need a father? As author Maggie Gallagher tells us, "children not only need a father, they long for one, irrationally, with all the undiluted strength of a child's hopeful heart".
The Nobel-Prize-winning novelist, Albert Camus, was killed at the age of 46 in a car crash near Paris in 1960. Near the wreckage, investigators found a black briefcase that contained 144 pages of an autobiographical novel he had been preparing. When it was finally published, 43 years later, it contained these poignant words reflecting how much he lost when his father was killed in the First World War in 1914: "I tried to discover as a child what was right and wrong since no one around could tell me. And now I recognize that everything had abandoned me, that I need someone to show me the way, to blame and praise me . . . I need a father."
Re-establishing the natural connection between fatherhood and confidence is needed in order to do justice to God, priests, and laymen who have children (either biologically or by adoption). Fatherhood is multi-faceted and organic. It is not simply one thing, such as authority, strength, reproductive achievement, being a breadwinner, or having the legal privilege of passing on one's name. Perhaps worst of all, from the arena of reproductive technology, fatherhood is not merely a "donor" or a "seed". Fatherhood is a paradox, a dynamic blend of opposites, as it were, a fact of life that makes it both indefinable and elusive, on the one hand, but rich and magisterial, on the other.
The following 10 paradoxes illustrate the dynamic quality of fatherhood, a quality that invests it with both vitality and depth.
Fatherhood means being:
- An authority without being authoritarian.
The father, like God, shares in the authorship of life. He is an authority and therefore someone to learn from and be guided by. But his authority does not restrict the liberty of others. In fact, the purpose of fatherly authority is to cultivate and enhance liberty. St. Thomas Aquinas wisely pointed out that "the respect that one has for the rule flows naturally from the respect one has for the person who gave it" (Ex reverentia praecipientis procedere debet ex reverentia praecepti). A person best understands fatherhood by knowing someone who is a good father. One must begin with the real experience and not a cultural caricature.
- A leader without being a frontrunner.
Our prevailing notion of leader comes from the worlds of sports and from politics. In relation to the "leader board" in golf, the leader is the one who is ahead of the rest of the field. In the world of politics he is the one who is leading in the political polls by getting more votes than his rivals. But a father is not a leader in this way. He does not try to remove himself from his family. Nor does he regard the members of his family as rivals. On the contrary, he leads in a manner that fulfills each member. His leadership is inseparable from those he leads. What he leads and "fathers" into being is the good of those whom he loves. In other words, fatherhood requires that a father leads by being there, rather than being "ahead of the pack."
- A visionary without being arrogant.
Every home must have a hearth and a horizon, as Hans Urs Von Balthasar has stated. The father is a visionary in the sense that he has an eye on the future. He has a keen sense of the importance of time. But he has this without presumption or arrogance. He is providential in his fathering. He knows instinctively that his children will grow up and lead independent lives. He provides for them a future vision of themselves and works hard to make that future a reality.
The father serves all the members of his family without being in any sense subservient or inferior. One might say, in this respect, that fathers, like tennis players, enjoy an advantage when they serve.
- A servant without being servile.
The expression "servus servorum Dei," adopted by John Paul II, comes from Pope Gregory the Great. Paradoxically, this servant of the servants of God earned the appellation "Great." "He who humbles himself shall be exalted". The father serves all the members of his family without being in any sense subservient or inferior. One might say, in this respect, that fathers, like tennis players, enjoy an advantage when they serve.
- A lover without being sentimental.
The love of a father is strong and unwavering. His love is not bound by a feeling, and hence prone to sentimentality. It is strengthened by principles that always focus on the good of others. Love means doing what is in the best interest of others. In this regard, authentic love can be "tough love". Sentimentality means always being nice because one is fearful of criticism. The real father has a spine and is not afraid of whatever opinions others may have.
- A supporter without being subordinate.
A father is supportive. He holds people up, keeps them going when they are inclined to be discouraged. But his encouraging role does not imply subordination, but the kind of reliability and trustworthiness that one can expect from someone who is strong. He is not supportive in the Hollywood sense of being a "supporting actor." His supportive role is played out, as a matter of fact, as the leading man.
- A disciplinarian without being punitive.
A good father knows the value of rules and the consequences of disregarding them. He wants his children to be strong in virtue. Therefore, he knows the importance of discipline, restraint, and self-possession. He is not punitive, nor is he overbearing. He makes it clear to his children that there is not true freedom without discipline, the discipleship requires training. He is wary of punishment as such, since it can strike fear in the heart of a child.
- Merciful without being spineless.
Mercy must be grounded in justice. Otherwise it is dissipation and weakness. In fact, mercy that disregards justice is unjust. A father, because he recognizes the uncompromisable importance of justice is anything but heartless. He is merciful, but his mercy perfects his justice. Mercy without justice is mere capitulation to the desires of others. Justice without mercy is cold legalism.
The love of a father is strong and unwavering. His love is not bound by a feeling, and hence prone to sentimentality. It is strengthened by principles that always focus on the good of others. Love means doing what is in the best interest of others.
- Humble without being self-deprecating.
Humility is based on the honest recognition of who one is and the nature of one's role. It takes into account one's limitations and weaknesses. The humble father, when he encounters difficulties, has enough humility to ask for help, even at times, from his own children. Yet, he never gets down on himself. He knows that remaining self-deprecating at a time of crisis is utterly futile. He has the heart to help and the humility to enlist the help of others.
- Courageous without being foolhardy.
Courage is not fearlessness, but the ability to rise above fear so that one can do what needs to be done in a time of danger or difficulty. A father does not fall apart when he begins to feel the pressure. Foolhardiness is not courage but an unfocussed and unhelpful recklessness. Moreover, courage, as its etymology suggests, requires heart. The father, above all, is a man of heart.
Fatherhood, on all three levels, should inspire us with confidence. The child takes the hand of his father, the communicant receives the Eucharist from the priest, the believer prays to "Our Father who art in heaven". The rupture between fatherhood and confidence can he healed and restored to its original wholeness. St. John Vianney has reminded us that fatherhood and confidence go together. His simple and wise words, spoken almost in obscurity, have more truth in them than what can be found among all the postmodern thinkers who are vainly trying to deconstruct fatherhood on every level. God the Father will not be mocked; the Serpent will not be triumphant.
"Think of the love that the Father has lavished on us by letting us be called God's children and that is what we are" (1 Jn 3:1). "We are children of God by adoption. By the gift of the Holy Spirit we are able to cry 'Abba, Father" (Ga 4: 6).
Donald DeMarco. "Restoring the Fullness of Fatherhood." Homiletic & Pastoral Review (December, 2011).
Reprinted with permission of the author and Homiletic & Pastoral Review.
Founded over one hundred years ago, Homiletic & Pastoral Review is one of the most well-respected pastoral magazines in the world. HPR features solid articles on every aspect of pastoral life and eloquent weekly sermons that illuminate through exposition of Scripture. Subscribe to HPR here.
Donald DeMarco is a Senior Fellow of HLI America, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary, and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo Ontario. Donald DeMarco continues to work as a corresponding member of the Pontifical Acadmy for Life. DeMarco is the author of twenty books, including The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, Virtue's Alphabet: From Amiability to Zeal and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2011 Homiletic & Pastoral Review
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