Editor’s Note: The following address was delivered by Archbishop Chaput on May 1, 1999, to the pastoral workers of the Diocese of Cheyenne. Catholic Lane offers the address to our readers in three parts this week, presenting the final installment today.
There’s an old saying that the greatest gift a father can give his children is to love their mother.
That’s the importance of a father: the witness he gives through his love. I have many memories of my own father. But above all, I remember and cherish his love for my mother. I always believed in it, because it was always there. My father taught me that fidelity was not just possible, but a source of joy and freedom, satisfaction and friendship. I might have learned that without him, but not in the same way, and not with the same intimacy. He also taught me how to choose to love. Fathers choose to love and choose to remain with their children in a way mothers do not, because mother-love is frankly just more intense, more natural, more organic. Nothing in fatherhood is as automatic, or as biologically directed, as motherhood. Real father-love is entirely a free-will act of self-sacrifice. Lived well, it gives us a window on God’s own fatherhood.
Of course, it’s misleading to draw too many parallels between the fatherhood of God and human fathers. God is wholly other, and neither male nor female. But Scripture says, “I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:14,15). And Jesus Himself told us to call God “Father.” It’s the language God chooses to reveal Himself, and it’s through a human father that the child best learns how to integrate justice and mercy; how to engage with the world; our purpose beyond the family; the nobility of strength when it’s ruled by love; and the creative fruitfulness of work. A father’s love completes the family — and in that communion of persons, the child gets the first inkling of who God is, a Trinity of persons in a community of love . . . like the family.
Looking out from within the love of a family, we can see the poverty of so much of today’s culture. If men are simply predators and inseminators looking to spread their seed, and if women really need men only as a way of getting children, well . . . then marriage is just a contract of mutual utility, with the sexes using each other as a means to an end. But people are better than that. Our motives and yearnings are higher than that.
So we come to a final question: What do we do to restore fathers to their place in the family and in the culture, and through that, to renew our language of God?
This is where a speaker usually offers a program. We certainly need a tax code that really favors families. We also need social welfare policies that deliver help where it’s needed, without encouraging families to breakup in the process. But those are political issues, and they’re always debatable. The real work is on the personal level, and it’s both simpler and tougher.
We live in a curious time. We lionize books like Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation. We revere the values which the generation of the 1940s embodied — especially the fathers and brothers and sons who fought in World War II. But how much of it, I wonder, is just our nostalgia for a life we have no intention of choosing . . . because it would demand the hard work of conversion. You see, that’s the heart of the matter. The revolution starts in the individual soul. When men and women decide to live scriptural lives, sacramental lives, then and only then, will the world begin to change.
It sounds pious and impractical, but it was impractical for the first Christians to oppose the Roman Empire. It was impractical to abolish slavery. Societies change when families change. Families change when individuals change. Turn off the television. Buy less. It sounds easy — but try it. Spend time with your kids. Keep Sunday holy. Pray together. Choose to be faithful. Spouses, choose to subordinate yourselves to each other. Husbands and fathers: Be the leaders you were meant to be. Claim it, and it will be yours. Goodness is magnetic.
Preparing these remarks, I noticed that I’d be speaking with you on the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. This is one of my favorite feast days, because Joseph was a man’s man — a man accustomed to labor, sweat and the burden of supporting a family. Scripture says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps 127:1). It’s always struck me that God the Father put His only Son into the care of a carpenter, a builder. And Joseph, in his faith and obedience, allowed God to use his own human talents to build the Living Tabernacle. Joseph protected and taught, formed and provided for, the Redeemer of the world.
Joseph was a living witness of the meaning of manliness; the nobility of human labor; and the dignity of married love. Surely, Jesus must have admired and loved him with all his heart. So if we hope to restore the identity of fathers in our families and in our culture, if we hope to rebuild the integrity of family life in our communities . . . we should look first to Joseph.
We have no better model.