The altercation took place outside after Mass one bright Sunday morning just before Christmas. “These are my people,” insisted one young priest. “No, they’re mine!” retorted the other, light-heartedly, but in earnest.
Guarding Their “Territory”
One was the assistant pastor of the parish, ordained less than two years. The other was the chaplain of a nearby Catholic high school where many in the town sent their sons. He was also vocations director of the diocese and keenly interested in uncovering the priestly vocations God was calling to serve these New England Catholics in the coming decades. Thus both had a claim on being shepherds to this particular parish, whose pastor had departed for a short respite before the demands of the holidays intensified.
Being fond of both, I enjoyed the exchange, but there was a deeper meaning, which only became evident upon reflection later in the day. What were they fighting over? To what reality were they laying claim in view of “whose people” these were? It was none other than the loving concern of a “father,” which both men felt strongly as more than just an age-old title or word mumbled by generations of parochial school children. By the very reality of their ordinations to the priesthood, these two men — young as they were — sincerely embraced a spiritual fatherhood that indicated a call to protect and provide for a given “family” in a territorial way.
What crystallized the essence of their playful joust was an article in the local diocesan paper that week concerning a single mother whom the local church was trying to help. As the article opened, we were introduced to this “43-year-old mother of four sons [who] remembers growing up on a rural farm in El Salvador. Her father harvested just enough food to feed his large family.” This hard-working woman moved to the United States over two decades ago, where she undertook numerous difficult jobs, married, had her children. Then her husband left.
What the diocese is offering to this woman and countless others in like need is help through access to a local food pantry, classes to transition her from welfare to work, and various gift cards. Her landlord is kind enough to keep her rent at a manageable level, and many contribute to her boys’ clothing and school needs. She notes, “In school, I am preparing myself to find a job and go to work. I want to be able to support my family.” One has to be impressed with her diligence and integrity to meet her obligations in her difficult situation.
But one has to also read between the lines. This lengthy front-page article only devotes two words to the underlying cause of all her distress. “Now divorced…” Just a passing reference to the unraveling of a family unit, a domestic church, the heartache of four boys who were abandoned by the man who should watch over them and provide all the elements that numerous agencies and generous hearts struggled to replace. The distress of reading the article was the way the crux of the matter was overlooked in order to emphasize how the brokenness was under repair. Of all corners in the world, the Church should see how one man’s neglect of duty can only be marginally covered by well-meaning strangers. No doubt, this article was not the place to hash out the personal saga that led to this tragedy, but the essential point is that we have to work harder to define tragedies for what they are and to prevent them happening whenever possible.
Thus, the contrast between the suffering caused by one man’s neglect and the friendly battle over the duties of spiritual fatherhood is important. We read of the pain inflicted on five people by this one husband who walked away from his responsibilities. On the other hand, I have seen both of these priests quoted above (and countless others) cringe over their little mistakes, deeply lament lost children, and forego their own comforts to tend to the needs of others. They pray over souls entrusted to them, serve them in every way imaginable, and cling to the sacraments as a lifeline in their ferociously difficult work. These men — and so many sharing Holy Orders with them — are fathers in every sense of the word and I have every reason to believe they would lay down their lives for their children.
The Essential Vocation of Fathers
John Paul II wrote about fatherhood early in his pontificate. Looking at the vocation of each father as being of “unique and irreplaceable importance,” he warned that, “[a]s experience teaches, the absence of a father causes psychological and moral imbalance and notable difficulties in family relationships” (Familiaris Consortio, 25). Or, in the simple words of the woman being profiled, “It’s not easy for a single woman to take care of children alone. It’s very hard.”
To extrapolate on this one story on families, we can look at the staggering statistics on divorce, child abandonment, and poverty. To consider the spiritual dimension, we would look at the hardships of the faithful who have suffered from priests who have strayed — from their own moral integrity, from diligence to their responsibilities to form and protect their parish families, or from the demands of Holy Orders completely — leaving their brides, the local parish communities in myriad places, to a life that is “very hard.”
Let us pray for fathers everywhere. We can thank the fathers of families and faithful priests who have worked quietly and diligently for the good of their flocks. We can speak out when fatherhood is disparaged or mocked. We can forgive those who have not responded to God’s graces and still encourage them to fulfill their “irreplaceable” responsibilities. We can celebrate the Fatherhood of God from Whom all fathers take their name. We can honor their legitimate authority through cheerful obedience and loving support.
As families and parish communities struggle, we have to recognize that there is a dark force working to marginalize the very protection that would shield souls from it. Men struggle to meet their commitments, but need supernatural help — as does everyone. Prayer and sacrifice for the vocation of fatherhood would be an excellent intention for this Lenten season, and one that would give back to the entire Body of Christ in immeasurable ways. Let’s do it together — for the family.