By: Gregory Popcak
Thomas called and became a client of mine because he wanted to be a better father to his three young children than his dad was to him. As we talked on the phone, Thomas said, “It isn’t as if my dad was cruel to us. It’s just that he was a shadow. He worked long hours, was active in the community–everybody thought he was a great guy–but he was never home. And now I find myself struggling to make a connection with my own kids. I want to have the kind of relationship my wife has with them, but I’m not sure how to make that happen.”
The ministry of fatherhood is unique and powerful. I believe that fathers are primarily responsible to God for building the “communities of love” the Church tells us our families are supposed to be. But this can be a tall order, especially when so many of us, like Thomas, have no blueprint. I offer you the following tips as a starting point for becoming the kind of father God is to us; the kind of father God is calling us to be to the children he has entrusted to our care.
1. Be the Pastor of Your Family Parish.
Catholics consider the family to be “the domestic church.” This means several things, but perhaps one of the most important ideals conveyed by this phrase is that each family must be centered around a deep love of Christ. Fathers play a central role in making this happen. Ancient Hebrew tradition made it the father’s responsibility to teach his children the Law of God, the Torah. Further, as we pointed out in the introduction, psychological research supports this tradition, having found that children who grow up to exhibit the highest levels of moral virtue as well as a healthy spirituality learned to do so at their father’s knee. These same studies suggest that even when the mother is active in teaching the Faith to her children, her efforts are severely hampered–even nullified–if the father is not leading the way. Sacred Tradition and solid research agree. Catholic fathers must be the pastors of their family parishes. This begins when we pursue a close, personal relationship with Jesus Christ both in personal prayer and in the Eucharist. And it continues when we take the lead in encouraging family prayer, and function as the primary teachers of the Faith in our homes.
2. Love Your Wife.
Father Theodore Hessburg, past president of Notre Dame, is credited with the following, famous quote. “The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” Of course love involves giving tokens like the traditional flowers, cards, and candy, but it is so much more. The Christian definition of real love is “willing and working for the good of another.” Every day, we must ask ourselves, “What can I do to make my wife’s life a little easier, more enjoyable, more grace-filled” and then we must do it. Not only because she deserves it, but because our Christian dignity demands it. Doing this serves the “Prime Directive” of Christian discipline: teaching our children how to have healthy adult relationships with others and the God who made them. Jesus said, “Anyone who says he loves God but hates his neighbor is a liar.” We cannot legitimately consider ourselves Catholic, Christian men unless we give every drop of energy we have to loving–that is, daily working for the good of–our closest neighbors, our wives and children. What can you do for yours–today?
3. Foster Family Identity.
Part of being the pastor of your family parish is making sure that your family has a vision; a plan for where it is going and who each of you–parents included–wants to be when you grow up. Sit down with your wife and children today and identify the qualities and virtues that you most want your family to be identified with. Patience? Love? Generosity? Respect? Next, starting with yourself, ask each family member to give one specific thing they would do to be a better example of that quality. Post your family identity statement in a prominent place in your home so that all can see what your family stands for, and take primary responsibility for helping your family, yourself included, stay on-task.
4. Love and Serve Your Children
We all want obedience from our children. But as you learned in the introduction, true, Christian obedience (as opposed to fear-based, blind obedience) is best understood as a loving response to having been loved first. As St. Therese wrote in her Story of a Soul, she never wanted to do anything to offend her parents because the love and service they showered upon her compelled her to offer nothing less than her best behavior. Of course, God “commands” our obedience in the same way. He is constantly reaching out to us, showering us with love so that one day we might wake up from our sin-induced trances and say, “God really does love me. I can trust him. I will follow him.” As the children’s bible school song says, “O, How I love Jesus, because he first loved me.” Mirroring God our Father, we earthly fathers must work to expand our capacity for love, affection, and service for our children. We must take the time to play our children’s games. We must kiss them, cuddle them, gently correct them, and say that we love them at least a thousand times a day. We must be demonstrative with the pride and joy with feel when we look at our little ones. To paraphrase the great Catholic apologist and child psychologist Fr. Leo Trese, “It is not enough to have love for a child, we must show that love, or it will be as if the child was never loved at all.”
Boys especially need a father’s demonstrative love. Even now, there is a cultural bias against boys with regard to displays of fatherly affection, but God created every human being to need love more than anything else. Babies–including boy babies–will refuse food and drink to the point of death if they are not kissed and cuddled enough, and even older boys show the effects of a lack of affection. It is my professional opinion that the reason so many parents experience boys as more troublesome than girls is because in many homes, boys are typically shown less affection than girls, “since they need it less.” I am convinced of this because I have seen boys who have grown up in homes where they, with their sisters, experienced generous physical and verbal affection from their fathers. The fact is, boys who are raised in affectionate homes are no more troublesome than their sisters, and they display just as much emotional and communicative ability as their sisters. At the same time, these young men are in no way effeminate. They are “all boy” with regard to their interests and games, but they are capable of more love and sensitivity than boys from less affectionate homes, they are better with younger brothers and sisters than boys from less affectionate homes, and they are better behaved to boot. In short, the generous affection of their mothers and fathers is helping these boys not only become men, but Christian gentlemen.
5. Heed God’s Call to Growth.
Peter DeVries once said, “The value of marriage is not that adults produce children, but that children produce adults.” Through the grace of marriage and family life, God calls each Christian father to grow up–to be perfected in love. But growing up can be hard work for us fathers. Sometimes, rather than facing and challenging our weaknesses; our lack of patience, our limited capacities for affection, our feelings of incompetence, our dislike of the chaos and noise of childhood, we retreat into work, friends, community involvements, or “important” ministries. (“I’m sorry, Hon’. Gonna be home late again, that client/meeting/friend in need/committee called today. They really need me!”) Yet God continuously brings us back home at the end of the day to remind us that there is nothing more important than learning to love our closest neighbors; nothing more important than being perfected by the work of love, without which we will be poorly prepared to join in the feast of love at the Heavenly Banquet. Embrace the weakness, incompetence, vulnerability you feel in the presence of your wife and children. Experience these feelings as the voice of God calling you to grow up–to be perfected in his love. Doing this can be a fearsome task, but it is a task worthy of a true Christian man compelled by the love of Christ to “Take up your cross and follow me.”
If you need help in cultivating the skills you need to be the best father you can be, don’t be ashamed. Call your PaxCare Tele-Coach today and let us help you get the skills you need to succeed.