As we conclude this series on fatherhood, in response to the initiative of Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix, AZ (found here) we must wrap the truth of fatherhood into the larger marvel of the Incarnate Lord, for whose birth we are preparing. In the well-worn tale of the Nativity of Jesus, perhaps this year we could examine the threads related to Joseph, and wonder anew at how pivotal his paternal care was to salvation history. Truly, Mary’s trust in the plan of God was intricately related to her trust in Joseph’s dedication to her safety and that of her divine Son, for her husband provided essential support, security, and shelter when she and the Word Made Flesh were most vulnerable.
In contrasting the capable strength of Joseph and the vulnerability of his family, we find the heart of fatherhood, which Pope Saint John Paul II outlines in Familiaris Consortio:
A man is called upon to ensure the harmonious and united development of all the members of the family … by exercising generous responsibility for the life conceived under the heart of the mother, by a more solicitous commitment to education, a task he shares with his wife, by work which is never a cause of division in the family but promotes its unity and stability, and by means of the witness he gives of an adult Christian life which effectively introduces the children into the living experience of Christ and the Church (25).
From this we can can draw two conclusions: first, the family has enemies who sow seeds of anxiety, instability, and division (surely all of us—since childhood—can attest to that!); and second, the faith is ordered to combat each of those things.
Faith has two levels. We can embrace the tenets of our creed, attesting to the fact that God is a Trinity of love, and that the Son was sent for our salvation; but there’s another kind of faith: the trust that following the contours of that creed, its sacramental economy, its prayer life, and the guidance of the Church will bring about the stability of life that allows families to thrive. While Jesus as Redeemer is irreplaceable, he is also the Way in a practical sense. That means that not only does his blood ransom us, but his life provides a model for living—and to that end, we look not only to the lessons of his public ministry, but to the hidden years within the Holy Family. If Jesus and Mary—both sinless—were vulnerable, how much more are we?
We can best understand the security and peace attached to the family by taking stock of the dangers and snares that undermine it. Too often, cynicism sets in and the family is seen as a pious ideal, or a sentimental construct from the distant past. Women have been taught that motherhood is an oppressive institution that squanders their true gifts, and men have been taught that their chivalric instincts are brutish anachronisms. Both are lies meant to weaken the family, and the degree to which they’re considered true is the degree to which the family as God designed it is made unstable.
Bishop Olmsted writes: “in original sin, we find a primordial rebellion against God’s fatherhood, a desire to remove fatherhood itself. This is our enemy’s underlying plan: to remove our reliance on God, the benevolent Father.” We must reject this primordial tendency, and work to strengthen fatherhood, so that “life conceived under the heart of the mother” is safeguarded and treasured by the man responsible. Just as the inconstancy of parents is reflected in the angst of their children, the renewal of the sacred mission of the family will lead to peace and security for all its members. Meditating on the vocation of fatherhood is key to that mission—providing the straightest path to understanding the fatherhood of God, and his own gift of unsurpassing love.