I will start with the words of the world’s most popular father — our Holy Father Pope Francis:
A father helps the child “to perceive the limits of life, to be open to the challenges of the wider world, and to see the need for hard work and strenuous effort” (Amoris Laetitia, 175).
Pope Francis has a way of grasping the essence of an issue and putting it in terms we can all understand. This quote, written after the two synods on the family, sums up quite nicely some of the best scholarship on the nature of fatherhood, and resonates with commonsense experience. Well, at least my own experience.
Let me explain with a personal anecdote. One summer, when I was 8 or 9, we rented a bicycle that was way too big for me. With the best of intentions, no doubt, my dad plopped me on the seat, held me up as I strained to reach the pedals, gave a push and off I went, down the block, swerving nervously. Good thing there was a fence at the end of the street to break my fall!
My mother, with ears set to the precise frequency of the screams of her three boys, was at the window in a flash, and began yelling at my dad, who stood impervious to any maternal fears or even human reasoning. (This was well before mandatory safety helmets.) Looking back at dad, I saw his proud smile saying, “That’s my boy, he gave it his all,” and knew that I — and the masculine world I was learning to inhabit — would live to see another day.
That was my father. Chances are, with different details, your father was something like that, too. Blame it on hormones, the differences between male and female brains, nature or nurture, Mars and Venus, or a gift from God who made them male and female. The nature of fatherhood is so familiar and universal that Pope Francis inscribes it into a document meant for the faithful, across nations, societies and cultures….
We may ask today whether Pope Francis’ words about fathers are meant to describe more of an ideal — a caricature from the past — than a current reality. Later in his exhortation, he talks about “a society without fathers” and the symbolic absence of the father figure. Indeed, there are many pressures today acting against fatherhood, the most troubling of them being the simple fact that so many children now do not have consistent contact with their dad, due to divorce, separation, incarceration, or child abandonment…. Today, 41 percent of U.S. children are born to a single mother; and upwards of 40 percent of marriages end in divorce…. This is bad for the kids involved, and can’t be good for our society over time, despite the many stories of children from broken homes making a success in the world and heroic moms raising good kids on their own.
Yet despite the huge ache of father absence at the heart of our society, there is very little talk about the problem, and no conscious, sustained effort to find a solution….
There is, I suspect, … a general feeling that fathers are expendable. Sure, a mother and father together raising their children is ideal, but if anything goes wrong in the mix, the father can be cut out….
Yet the benefits of fathers to their families are so obvious … Children who do not have a father in their lives have much higher rates of:
•Dropping out of school and delinquency
•Running afoul of the law
•Early sexual activity and teen pregnancy
There is a problem, and dad is at the center of the solution….
To conclude, I will focus on what I know best, my experience as editor of Fathers for Good, an initiative for fathers and their families by the Knights of Columbus … to provide guidance to men as they seek to live out their vocation to fatherhood in a culture that is not always open to the unique attributes of masculine virtue.
The mission of the Fathers for Good is summed up well in the name: First, once a man becomes a father, once he generates new life, he is a father for good; there is no giving back that gift. [And secondly] most men — and I think deep down, all men — when they do become a father, want to be a good father. There is an innate desire, given by God the Father, for all men to be a good father….
We welcome wives as equal partners on this path, taking for our own the quote attributed to the late Father Hesburgh, longtime president of Notre Dame: “The greatest gift a father can give his children is to love their mother.”
Indeed, in this beautiful mess of life and love called the family, we highlight the positive, while never downplaying the many problems and pitfalls inherent in the human condition. We teach what the Catholic Church teaches, not so much as dogma, but as the common sense of the ages that will make us happy. We hold up love — self-giving, self-sacrificing love that is the greatest gift of one person to another — as the very attainable human goal for all marriages and families.
As St. John Paul II said, “The future of the world and of the Church passes through the family.” With these words in mind, it is worth our best efforts to form the next generation of good fathers.
• Brian Caulfield, who is married and the father of two sons, is editor of FathersforGood.org, sponsored by the Knights of Columbus Supreme Council. He edited the 2013 book, “Man to Man, Dad to Dad: Catholic Faith and Fatherhood.”
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