Our society is increasingly confronted with destructive cultural philosophies and principles (or lack thereof). We could go through the litany of vices popular culture espouses but most of them stem from the simple fact that our culture encourages people to lead a purposeless or shallow life. If one asked the average American what the purpose of life is, likely they will reply “to be happy”. Of course being happy is a great thing but saying happiness is your life’s purpose is basically answering “I dunno, I never really thought about it”.
The pervading culture is a destructive force and it loves purposeless people because they are easy targets to suck money and effort out of. As with any destructive force, people, especially children, need a safe haven where they can be healthy and recharge themselves before going back into the world every day. Children need a place safe where virtues are taught and talents are nurtured. The natural safe haven is the home, not just for children but for everyone in the family. But for a home to be a safe haven for the minds, bodies, and souls of family members, it has to be set up that way by the parents. It doesn’t just magically happen.
Unfortunately many of today’s parents are still children themselves. This is a problem especially in the upcoming parents of the Millennial generation (my generation). Lacking purpose in their routines, lifestyles, and goals, they are unable to create a home culture that contrasts popular culture.
‘Modern’ men are either too deflated, obtuse, or bashful to step into their natural position as a leader. Our culture tells us that any sort of “roles” in the context of marriage are offensive and archaic. We are told that masculinity is inherently oppressive. So what do most unprincipled men with little defined purpose do? They simply exist. Many are active in their family but only insofar that’s acceptable to popular culture. They let the culture change them instead of seeking to change the culture within their home.
I know many good guys who are husbands and fathers but hold no opinions on married life or parenthood. Many men can talk for hours about sports, hobbies, TV shows, and other extracurriculars but cannot coherently explain why they celebrate Christmas. Many of these men are punctual for things like dinner reservations, sports events, or movies, but cannot imagine committing to making it to Mass on Sunday. There are many good men that have been duped into believing they serve little beyond seeking personal happiness and, when convenient, helping their family be ‘happy’. In turn, the children find it very hard to break this pathetic cycle when they grow up. So what can be done?
As we see in the marriage between Jesus and his Bride–the Church–there are indeed ideal roles for the two leaders of a family. The mother is called to be the ‘heart’ of the household. She embodies the subjective tenderness and love of the Holy Spirit. She, like the Church, gives to each of her children as according to their very specific needs. So what is the father? Well, he is the head of the household. Politically incorrect, right? But a heart needs a head just as much as the head needs a heart. There needs to be an objective beacon to help navigate love and tenderness in the proper direction. Tenderness without objectiveness is corrosive sentimentalism but objectiveness without tender love is overbearing.
I submit that we need a renaissance of purposeful and strong husbands/fathers to be spurred by the awesome and manly example Christ set for marriage/family. If it’s true that the family unit is the “domestic church” as Saint John Paul II often stated, there must be a pastor of this church. There is, the father. It is up to them to guide their family’s spiritual life as a pastor would. The family is where a man can most appropriately and efficiently exercise the duties assigned to him at baptism, that of a prophet, priest, and king. It is urgent that men fight the spiritual apathy that resides within them and, in turn, their families. It is urgent that men find their purpose in the vocations of marriage and fatherhood and navigate their spouses and children to heaven.
If, as society still seems to agree, men are well suited as the protector of their family, they mustn’t only protect their family from physical threats. They must step up as and protect their loved ones from the far more pervasive spiritual encroachments. There’s countless hazards that seek to devour the family and it is the father’s primary job to keep them safe.
The Household Pastor: Prophet, Priest, King
Of course, the first step for men is to get themselves spiritually healthy(er). If a man cannot walk what he talks, his family will know. How can he encourage the spiritual life of others if he has none himself? It’s hard to help people on an airplane until your own oxygen mask is first secured–don’t you pay attention on vacation? Only once men understand the importance of the interior life and the Church in their own routines are they able to help their family grow.
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Be a prophet. A prophet is somebody who simply helps reveal the truth of God. They seek to educate others. Fathers can combat popular culture by explaining to their children the Christian roots behind nearly everything around us. They can teach their children about Christmas and the other secularized holidays. Scripture can be read in the household and applied to real-life situations. Early on, fathers can teach their family how to pray. It’s important fathers learn about their faith so questions can be answered as they arise and if they don’t know the answer they should educate themselves immediately so they can provide one (I can’t stand ‘not knowing’, myself). They should strive to understand their family’s needs through a commitment to listen thoroughly to them.
Be a priest. A priest, by definition, is a person who makes sacrifices. Priests connect people to God through prayer, sacrifice, and witness. Men need to pray and fast for their families. Men sacrifice for their family by giving up many of the things that appeal to them so that the people around them can be more comfortable and healthy. Providing witness is also essential. Men can lead by example by being the first in line for confession, they should offer a glimpse of their own prayer life by not being bashful, they should show their children how to behave at Mass and how to receive Christ with reverence. Men should strive to carry their crosses with grace and joy–a reminder I need often!
Be a king. A king is someone who leads. A good king is someone who leads with humility and love as Jesus taught. Jesus, the King of Kings, calls us to be gentle, loving, assertive, and virtuous leaders. A father should be at the service of his family rather than the other way around. The Catholic Gentleman summed it up very well:
“It is not chest thumping domination. It is not forcing others to submit to your needs and wants. It is the exact opposite—it is washing your family’s feet.
Put another way, kingship means embracing the lowliest and most thankless tasks. It means changing diapers, taking out the trash, listening to your wife and understanding her feelings and concerns. It means patiently teaching your children virtue through example and loving discipline. It means washing the dishes and rocking a screaming baby. It means leading by example, never asking of your family something you are not willing to do or have not done already. In short, it means laying down your life for those entrusted by God to your care.”
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Finding purpose is the key to living fruitful and truly happy lives. Men must stand up and fight against the attempts to demoralize and desensitize fathers. Chances are that if you’re reading this, you need none of these reminders, so reach out to your buddies that might need some help being the best husband and father they can be in their own families. Ask them what the purpose of their marriage and family is. It’s said that we cannot keep our faith unless we give it away, we can start with our friends.
Saints Joseph and Michael the Archangel, please pray for the strength of Christian men, that we may have the grace to be virtuous, loving, and strong pastors to our families. Amen.
I can’t be certain of where, but at some point over the last month I came across Rembrandt’s depiction of the Prodigal Son parable (pictured below). While I am sure I have seen this famous 1660’s painting before in my life, I have never actually seen it for what it is because I haven’t come across it since understanding the story that inspired it.
A couple years ago, as I was in the process of finding the Faith again, I got the news that I would soon be a father. During this time I read something that catalyzed my formation as a Catholic man and father, it said that if there’s only one thing a Catholic father must read about fatherhood, it’s the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son. It pointed out the importance of understanding that a real father forgives unforgivable acts and is virtuous even when common sense begs him not to be. Not aware of this apparently famous parable, I turned to scripture to read just what this was all about.
After reading the short Gospel story, I sat in silence longer than the time it took to read. It was as if Jesus told this parable with me in mind. This story–depicted beautifully in both paintings pictured above–was the key to understanding my own past. True, many young people leave their parents in search of a selfish and “wild” lifestyle, squandering not only money entrusted to them but also the goodwill and trust of their parents; but not all children return to the open arms of unconditional forgiveness and redemption. I did. After reading the story a couple more times, I knew what kind of father I was to be.
So coming across the Rembrandt recently, the story moved me once again by being able to visualize this monumental moment in both the son’s and father’s lives in this story. This painting shows the story’s message: a real father doesn’t care about his son’s past because a real father doesn’t know how to stop loving his son. I picture the Prodigal Son making his journey back home after losing his father’s money and living gluttonously, selfishly, and sickly; he must have been terrified to face his father and tell him that he has lost everything, including his dignity. His stomach must have been in knots as his imagination probably raced with how his father would react once seeing what has become of him. And then I picture his father making eye contact while “still a long way off” in the distance after years of not knowing if he would ever see his son again, dropping whatever he was in the middle of and “running to him”. I picture the son embracing his father and not understanding how his father could be so happy with his return. I picture this being the beginning of the son’s much brighter future…all because he experienced the forgiveness and redemption of his father. Unfettered forgiveness, to me, is the most beautiful virtue a father can embrace because of its transformative power on their child’s life. True forgiveness changes lives. True redemption breathes new life into someone.
Just like our Father in heaven, fathers on earth are called to forgive and redeem. Without fathers (either heavenly or earthly), what hope do sons and daughters have in this world and beyond?
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The Parable of the Prodigal Son
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons.The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild and dissolute living.After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on.‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
As I celebrate my first Father’s Day as a father myself, I am better able to reflect on the blessings in my life. Much can be said on the paramount importance of a good father in the formation of a boy, but this post isn’t to address that important issue. This is a letter highlighting the paramount importance of you in my formation.
Growing up I had assumed all fathers were similar. I thought, aside from a few exceptions, every boy had to deal with a dad who always wanted to know what they were up to, how they were doing, made them sit down to family meals, corrected them when they were wrong, or embarrassingly told them “I love you”. I saw your seeming obsession of beingthere as a perpetual nuisance. I rolled my eyes when you were there for me doing something good and I scowled when you were there for me doing something not-so-good (which was much more common). For a while I viewed you as my archenemy. You too often stood in the way of me doing the things I wanted to do. You were the face of the stubborn facts of life. And despite the cliché, I had no problem taking it out on the messenger: You. I argued with you, I rebelled against you, and I disowned you. There were times you must have thought I was hopeless, but you never gave up. Thank God.