Considering the growing body of sociological evidence, we shouldn’t view Father’s Day in the United States as just another syrupy Hallmark remembrance; it should serve as a clarion call to shore up a vital societal role that increasingly has grown weak, and with disastrous consequences.
Almost a quarter of American children under 18 do not live with their biological father, according to the 2006 census, and that number is growing. At the same time, study after study shows that fathers make an irreplaceable difference in the lives of their children in terms of education, income, abuse, mental and physical health, drug use, sexual activity, pregnancy and other social indicators.
The rise in divorce has had a devastating impact on families and society. In many cases, it entails a severing of a father’s consistent contact with his children, further coloring and confusing our social expectation of what fatherhood means.
But even fathers who live with their children are challenged these days. It is no secret that fathers take a beating as self-centered buffoons and disengaged know-nothings in popular television and movie representations. Without a conscious effort to resist pervasive cultural influences, it is too easy for fathers to slip into the same mold.
Dads also need to work harder in our commuter society today to overcome the daily distance his children experience from him and his professional life.
Calling for fathers to play a stronger role in their families and society does not mean a return to some sort of tyrannical patriarchal model that was all too common in homes half a century ago. Fatherhood is not about domination of wife and children; it is about humble self-sacrifice and servant leadership.
“To be a father means above all to be at the service of life and growth,” Pope Benedict XVI said a year ago to mark the feast of St. Joseph, the model of fatherhood. “For the sake of Christ, [St. Joseph] experienced persecution, exile and the poverty which this entails. He had to settle far from his native town. His only reward was to be with Christ.”
The pope also noted that St. Joseph’s deep respect and care for Mary serves as a model for all husbands. The saint welcomed “the mystery that was in Mary and the mystery that was Mary herself. He loved her with great respect, which is the mark of all authentic love. Joseph teaches us that it is possible to love without possessing.”
Sociologists and saints have long said that the love, respect and affection a man shows his wife is among the most valuable conditions a father can create not just for a happy family but also for the formation of loving, emotionally adjusted children.
The formation of children is what fatherhood is all about. That sounds obvious, but it is a duty far too many fathers have drifted away from, whether consciously or through simple inertia and other demands and distractions. Many fathers simply may not reflect on how their example is educating their children: For example, do they model the sarcasm and anger of blogs and cable news, or the dogged but respectful pursuit of truth our Faith demands?
The consequences are wide-ranging, not least for the Church. A powerful influence on a child’s religious growth is the example of a father who is animated by faith; who faithfully carries out his responsibilities and lives open to the mystery of God’s action in his life and in the lives of those close to him.
In a word, as the pope says, “at the service of life and growth.” On this Father’s Day, we pray that all dads receive the wisdom and strength to fulfill their mission, for the good of their families, the Church and society as a whole.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.
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