I have been thinking a lot about fatherhood lately. Having put in quite a few years as a dad with three beautiful children, you would think that by now I would be an expert on the subject. Sadly, such is not the case. I find myself still questioning why I am not the “perfect” father I dreamed I would be when I first began my marriage. And, having been brought up by a Catholic father, I wonder too what exactly I have been able to pass on to my own children about what it means to be a dad.
About twenty years ago, my father died. We did not have the perfect father-son relationship, though we both tried as best we could. For most of my childhood, my father lived away from us because of his job. When he was able to come home on the weekends, he was tired and distant. This was difficult for a young boy who longed for a deeper relationship with the man who meant the most to him.
I remember evenings sitting on the floor at his feet as he watched television and had a drink or two. I was desperate for any sort of meaningful conversation. My father was an intellectual giant and so I brought up the deepest subjects my young mind could consider. Many of our talks were about our Catholic faith. My father had studied under the Jesuits and was able to speak with authority on many topics, but much of what he said was above my understanding and level of spiritual maturity. Still, I wanted to please my father and so I tried to learn all I could. In some ways, my desire to understand my father’s teachings and win his love had a lot to do with my decision to pursue a degree in Theology. While this had some good results, there were still many struggles that came out of that time.
Shaping the Image of my Heavenly Father
Looking back on those days I can see how my relationship with my earthly father helped to shape my image of God. I realize that I saw my heavenly Father through that cloudy lens. To me, God was a great intellectual giant who loved me in His own way but remained distant most of the time. I felt I was able to approach Him so long as what I brought before His throne was intellectually pure. My longing for His love drove me to become the most knowledgeable Catholic scholar I could become.
It wasn’t until I had a reawakening of my faith in adulthood that I began to discover that God was the One I could call Abba — “Daddy” — a Father who loved me as I was, with a love that had allowed Him to sacrifice His Son for my sins.
That slow, spiritual renewal began when I started teaching in a Catholic school and working with teens. The young people did not care about the sum of my knowledge. All they wanted was someone who was there for them, a faithful friend who was ready to walk with them through their struggles — just like a father. As I began to engage the young people in a faith dialogue, I began also to relate more deeply with the God who loved me in the very same way.
A Child Arrived Just the Other Day …
When my children were born, fatherhood took on an every greater meaning. Now I had to take what I was teaching the teens in my ministry and all that was awakening within me and apply it to how I would bring these precious little lives from infancy into adulthood.
Looking back on those years I find I did more stumbling than standing, but perhaps that is the beauty of fatherhood. It is a series of tests rather than tasks, an experience in the classroom of life that teaches us even as we teach our children. The arrival of each of my children has actually been ongoing — a series of arrivals that unfold day to day. As I live out my Catholic call to be the father they need, the father who leads them into the Kingdom day by day, we experience new discoveries and continually renew our relationship in Christ’s name.
Fatherhood is about beginnings and endings, births and rebirths over and over again. There are many firsts and finishes in fatherhood, many new commencements, and miracles that take place through the years. My eyes well up with tears whenever I watch old videos of my children taking their first steps, learning the joys of imaginative play, working out problems, and celebrating milestones in their lives. All along the way, there are recurring commemorations of the holy times that occur throughout the sacred year — Christmases and Easters, Sunday dinners with extended family after Church, and the weekly renewal of what it means to belong to the Body of Christ.
The Silent Stoicism of the Fatherless
While my time with my children has had its trials and triumphs, it has been an inexpressible joy and an incredible privilege. Still, there are so many who have not had the same kind of experience with their own fathers. Having worked with teens over the years, I was often greatly saddened with the number of young people who did not have strong relationships with their fathers.
So many teens shared with me how much they longed to have a father who believed in them, loved them, and simply spent time with them. As I offered comfort to them I saw in their eyes a sorrowful resolve and felt in their hearts a somber stoicism as they accepted the harsh reality of their lives. I marveled at their beauty and the sacredness of their broken hearts, even as I grieved for their loss, having in some small way shared a similar pain from my own childhood.
The saddest part of sitting with the fatherless is in how their deep longing for a father’s love manifested itself in their self-image and their self-harming behaviors. These beautiful young men and women saw themselves as ugly and unlovable. They engaged in cutting, suicidal ideation, eating disorders, and sexual promiscuity, all in a desperate search to touch the love they had not received from their absent fathers. As I ministered to them I knew that I needed to point them to the One Father who would never let them down, who would forever walk with them and affirm their worth in His eyes.
Reshaping Images, Embracing Truth
Our heavenly Father has always been that kind of father — the One who loves us with a perfect love, provides for our needs, and protects us. He is always carrying us through our trials, disciplining us, refining us, and encouraging us in the way of Truth. 2000 years ago, our Father showed the incredible limitlessness of His love in sending His Son to die for our sins.
In the darkness of man’s childish and fallen nature, God broke through to our hearts with the hope of salvation in Jesus. When we needed Him most, He provided the Way. When we had fallen too far, He lifted us once again to His side. He made us a new creation and brought us into a new relationship with Himself. We became His adopted children, guaranteed a place in heaven and offered the promise of the constant care of a perfect Father’s love.
Looking back on a childhood with an absent father, I remember Christmases when there were no presents under the tree because money was tight and nights when I missed my father so much I thought my heart would break. But I also remember happy and funny times around the family dinner table, sharing stories and annoying one another, attending Catholic school despite the cost, and knowing I had a father who, while not being perfect, loved me as best he could.
Through the years with my own children I have tried to build joyful memories, walk through the trials with humility and grace, and continually point the way to the Father who loves my children far more perfectly than I. I realize how much the good times and the struggles have served to shape the kind of father I am today. I also know that I have so far to go and that the job does not end when my children move away.
Through my Catholic faith and the journey I have walked with my heavenly Father, I have learned to reshape my image of what fatherhood is all about. It has been God’s gentle, perfect, and holy love and my surrender to that powerful reality — that He truly loved me and accepted me like no other father ever could — that has taught me what being a dad to my kids is all about.
Questions for Fathers
Fathers, where are you in your relationship with your kids? What kind of father are you? Do you accept your role as the primary educator and spiritual provider for your children? And in case you doubt your role and its importance to your children, take a good long look at Deuteronomy 4:9-10, 6:7 and 8:5, as well as Ephesians 6:4.
Do you spend time with your children? Do you protect them from the dangers and disasters of this life? Do they know they have nothing to fear because you are always there for them, guarding them through every little hurt or challenge and making sure their hearts are focused on the One who truly protects? Do you discipline them, knowing that discipline is often a painful but necessary step for their growth?
And fathers, do you encourage your children? Do you let them know you are proud of them? Are you there when they succeed to cheer them on and there when they fail to lift them up? Are you helping your sons to know that being a man isn’t about being macho or perfect but in living a godly life and taking responsibility for his actions? Do you give your daughters the kind of love that lets them know they are valued for their inner beauty and not their outward appearance?
As hard as these questions are, it is imperative that we ask ourselves how we measure up to the standards God has set before us. It is a sobering thought indeed!
The Journey of Fatherhood
Each year, as I celebrate Father’s Day, I set aside time to reflect on all my journey of fatherhood. I remember the love I received from my fathers, human and divine, and I continue to seek the grace to be the kind of father that only God can manifest in me. I think about my children, and the great gift and incredible responsibility they are to me. And I pray as they live out their adoption by our heavenly Father as well.
Though I know it is hard for many of us to let go the hurts we have suffered at the hands of imperfect fathers, it is my most fervent prayer that such pain will never get in the way of bringing up our children in the Lord, as strong and loving fathers. I take joy in the knowledge that I have been caught up in the greatest love a father ever gave and the grace bestowed on all mankind because of that love. As I look for the coming of the Father’s Son once again, I pray we all will come to cherish and hold dear what fatherhood is all about! God bless!