THE URGENT NEED FOR FATHERHOOD
As we all know, there is a crisis of fatherhood today. Fatherhood is often invalidated, all paternity or authority being suspected of abuse or of being overbearing. The image of the father in modern culture is often pale and oblivious, even to the point of being made a caricature, whereas the mother is seen as capable and strong. Men who present a positive image of paternity are lacking in modern society. Fathers of families don’t always play the role that they should assume, and they no longer know very well how to act. Paternity is in crisis in the Church; it is also suffering in the world of education and schools. Not to mention politics, where politicians more often give the impression of being argumentative children than people who may be given the chance one day to be recognized as the “father of the nation,” like some of their predecessors. There is also a crisis of masculinity, which is inevitable, really, given that true virility, in the end, can’t be accomplished without a certain form of paternity.
In spite of this context—or rather because of this context—the need for true paternity has never been greater than it is today. We are in a world of orphans, and so many people are disoriented and suffering because they haven’t had the chance of meeting someone in their lives who was a true father.
I notice it particularly in my own ministry. I encounter a great number of people, and I must say that I am hit by the realization of how desperate is the need for paternity. Whether it be children, young adults, couples, adults, or old grandmothers, all have this need for a father figure. It’s not always expressed outright because of fear or pride, which discourages acknowledging it, but it exists in all without exception. In my ministry, I’ve had important businessmen in front of me, people at the head of big enterprises, who nevertheless come up after a conference to ask for a big hug, at the point of tears when I embrace them.
Every man and woman needs to find a father on whom they can rely and by whom they are recognized, loved, and encouraged. This father is, of course, above all, the Father in Heaven; but each time that a man or woman finds him- or herself faced with someone who, by their manner of being, represents an authentic image of God’s paternity, it’s a great gift.
SUFFERING CAUSED BY THE ABSENCE OF A FATHER
The absence of a father figure (that of God himself, but also those who, in one way or another, are human versions of divine paternity) causes painful consequences in people’s lives. I don’t want to give an exhaustive list here, but will only mention four points.
The role of a father is to inscribe a child into a lineage, giving access to a heritage, a heritage that the child must later transmit to others. It’s a question of transmission, and we know how difficult it is already today to transmit from one generation to the next everything that makes up the richness and beauty of existence: the human and spiritual virtues, the culture, the traditions belonging to a country, and more. The lack of a paternal role makes this transmission more difficult, of course. We notice that this shortcoming produces a certain type of personality: the individual who has no awareness of what is owed to those who came before, who has no sense of responsibility toward those who will come after. Without gratitude for the past, and without responsibility to others for the future, that person will be content to profit from life to the maximum in a selfish and individualistic manner. This type of attitude is not rare today.
The modern world believed it was good to proclaim the death of God. It acceded to the great lie of atheism: by his laws and commandments, God prevents man from being free; we must, therefore, get rid of him, and then the human person will finally be free and happy, set free from constraints and guilt! Even though this lie has led to millions of deaths, the temptation both to make God (and all forms of paternity) the enemy of human freedom, and to consider all verticality as oppression, still persists.
But things aren’t as simple as atheism supposes. If there is no God, there is no forgiveness or mercy.
We all like the parable of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel of St. Luke (see Lk 15), which gives us a marvelous view of divine paternity. We recognize the story of the younger of the two brothers, who claimed his inheritance and went off to a foreign land. After everything was spent in a life of disorder, he found himself watching over pigs (not particularly a success story for a young man from a Jewish family!), dying of hunger, and envying the food given to the swine. The situation led him to self-reflection and he resolved to return to his father’s house, where even the servants were fed abundantly. He prepared his little arrival speech: “Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”
We all know the unexpected ending of this story: the father sees his son arriving from afar and, seized with pity for him, runs to cover him with kisses! And without giving him time for the prepared speech, the father gives orders to his servants: Quickly bring him suitable clothing (not just any clothing, but the most beautiful ), put a ring on his finger (a sign of regained dignity), put sandals on his feet, and prepare for him a big party, complete with fat veal, music, and dancing.
Let’s take up the same story again, but this time let’s eliminate the father figure. When the son comes back to the house, there is nobody . . . the house is empty, hopelessly empty, abandoned. Only the wind beats against the doors and windows.
There is nobody to welcome him, no one to pardon him, no one to love him. No one to tell him, “In spite of what you’ve done, in spite of your errors and your sin, you remain my well-loved son, you can regain your full dignity, you have a place here, and you can be free and happy in the house of your father, the house which is also your house! Everything I have is yours! ” I think that we cannot forgive ourselves for the sins we’ve committed (and we’ve all committed sin!). We cannot absolve ourselves of our errors, even with an army of psychologists trying to take away our guilt. I have nothing against psychologists—quite the contrary, they often do excellent work—but they cannot forgive sins. We need to receive the absolution of someone bigger than ourselves. We need the words of Another, words of authority, the words of the Heavenly Father, in order to be truly set free from faults and reconciled with ourselves. These considerations make us measure the immense grace that is given to the priest in being able to pronounce the words of absolution, even though they are said in passing, to those who come to confess to him. He knows that, in spite of his personal limits, when he tells someone, “I absolve you from your sins,” the words he pronounces are not simply human words, but rather, that they have the very authority of Holy Scripture. They have the power to free the sinner from the evil of which he is culpable, restore his dignity, and give him freedom and peace. What a joy to be able to be such an instrument of God’s mercy! Giving priestly forgiveness is perhaps the closest participation in God’s fatherhood.
We know that in the Old Testament, the use of the word “Father” when referring to God is rather infrequent, in order to avoid confusing God’s paternity with the male pagan gods who participated in sexual procreation. In other words, the term “Father” is used less in the context of creation than in the context of redemption, an invocation of God’s mercy in saving his people. One of the most beautiful passages from the Old Testament evoking God as father is found in chapters 63 and 64 of the prophet Isaiah, the following passage, in particular:
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on thy name, that bestirs himself to take hold of thee; for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities. Yet, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; we are all the work of thy hand. Be not exceedingly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, consider, we are all thy people. (Is 64:6–9)
Without the presence of the merciful Father, we are delivered up to our faults, without any possible remedy. There would be no forgiveness of error or sin. No place for weakness, frailty, or failure, all of which are nonetheless a part of our lives.
We would be, in a way, condemned to succeed at life, something that really would be terrible. It would mean putting a terrible weight on our shoulders, an obligation to be superhuman, going from success to success without any possibility of failure. Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit in saying this, but this is the sense that our society has tended towards, lacking more and more pity for human faults.
Today we’re living through the paradox of a society that, on one hand, is very lax and permissive, and on the other hand, without mercy for those who make mistakes! In the Kingdom of God, it is exactly the reverse: there are both strong requirements that show us the correct path for life, as well as great mercy that offers the continuous possibility of renewal in case of error.1
Another consequence of putting God aside and of rejecting all forms of paternity is that the question of freedom, which is joined to responsibility, becomes very problematic.
Without reference to God, we run the strong risk of becoming irresponsible. “If God does not exist, everything is permitted!” Ivan Karamazov affirms in Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov. A society without fathers runs the risk of becoming a world of irresponsible people; we must take note that our culture is creating greater and greater narcissists, that is to say, people who follow no other law than pleasure, no other rules than satisfying their desires.
But there is also the opposite problem in society: not an absence, but a sort of excess of responsibility. I think that there is a real question here: our society is becoming more and more free, social norms are imposed less and less, there is an increasing amount of poor conduct considered acceptable, and the array of possible unrestricted human choices is ever larger. Let’s take the example of sexuality. Because of evolving viewpoints on the matter, and because of technical advancements regarding sexuality, all leading to the diffusion of theories on gender, the possible choices in this domain have expanded greatly, in terms of sexual conduct, family composition, procreation, and the like. We have arrived at the point where a little boy or girl risks being led one day to the question: do I remain as I am or shall I change my sex? A couple I know was sadly confronted with this exact situation: their 17-year-old daughter adamantly demanded to change her sex!
We have here the paradox of immense freedom on one side, but on the other side the refusal of God, a refusal of any objective truth. Faced with the latter the person is ultimately alone in deciding, each person being charged with constructing his or her own truth and with being the judge of the value of his or her decisions.2 An enormous freedom weighs on the shoulders of the individual, without anyone to help discern what would be good among possible decisions both for the individual and for others. This is one of the roles of the father figure, not to alienate or crush human freedom, but to support it and orient it in discerning choices. In the absence of this support and orientation, freedom risks becoming folly because it has no compass, and it becomes too heavy a load for human shoulders.
When we leave the Father’s house, there can be a kind of intoxication of freedom. “Finally, I can do whatever I want!” But there is a strong risk of going from this to disillusion, and even anguish, under the weight of a freedom that becomes too heavy to carry
I am persuaded that a kind of anxiety is present in our world, particularly for youth at the cusp of adult life, whose principle cause is that they dispose of great latitude, of so many possible choices, but without having anyone near them, a father figure, to help them exercise this freedom. The absence or the abdication of true fathers, and their replacement with false prophets of the libertarian revolution, risks leading young adults to an insufferable anguish.
The French Republic adopted the slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” as its motto. A Christian must subscribe to this motto too, only he or she would be wise to remark that it is very difficult to establish a true brotherhood among all without recognition of the ineffable fatherhood of God. (Just as without reference to God, it’s hard to see what remains of freedom and equality!)
When we realize that we have a common Father, it’s easier to welcome one another as siblings, recognizing our equality and deep dignity, assuming the duties and responsibilities that we have toward each other.
In the absence of a father, how do we recognize our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of the same family, people of the same origin and the same dignity? What foundation is there to brotherhood?
Holy Scripture does not have an idealistic or romantic vision of brotherhood. If Psalm 133 proclaims “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (verse 1), the Bible shows at the same time the realization that true brotherhood is very difficult. Look at the relationships between Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. Such rivalries and conflicts! But there is always the possibility of resolving these. Joseph forgives and his brothers are reconciled.
The reality of the unique divine paternity, the acceptance of the Father’s grace and mercy in the Son, always opens a path of reconciliation and pardon. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” according to Paul’s beautiful words (Gal 3:27–28).
When God and the mystery of his paternity are refused, the unity of the human family becomes much more difficult. We can clearly see, through the evolution of today’s society, how the rejection of God— of all fatherhood, of a truth that is authoritative for all—consequently makes relationships between persons more and more filled with conflict. What reigns in the place of unity is rivalry, a permanent competition that prevails everywhere. Man and woman become enemies of one another, social fabric breaks down, mistrust and violence are increasingly introduced into the relationships between people and different social groups.
We have just taken a look at the difficulties and suffering that an absence of fatherhood brings forth. All of that shouldn’t discourage us, though. We must see it as a strong invitation to return to God, “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15).
Where human fatherhood is absent or lacking, as in the lives of many people, divine fatherhood can provide a source of renewal and healing. It is urgent to proclaim the gospel, letting every person discover the gentle and powerful fatherhood of God, discover Christ as the image and instrument of the Father’s mercy, receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that makes us cry out “Abba! Father!” that witnesses “with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rm 8:15–16). Each and every person must hear the voice of the Father saying, as he did to Jesus, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11).
We must also insistently beg God that he bring up people in society and in the Church, especially priests, who are authentic reflections of God’s fatherhood.
1.) A beautiful mediation on the parable of the Prodigal Son (as well as on the famous Rembrandt painting), which is also a profound reflection on fatherhood, is Henri Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son
2.) This is one of the paradoxes of the current world. In the political or public sphere, we are attentive in carefully distinguishing the executive, legislative, and judicial powers necessary for the healthy functioning of society. On the other hand, in the private sphere, because of individualism and relativism, we are more and more led to be our own legislator (each of us creating our own moral code) and our own judge. It’s a situation that is highly unhealthy and untenable in the long run.
Fr. Jacques Philippe is a member of the community of the Beatitudes, founded in France in 1983. After studying in Nazareth, Jerusalem, and Rome, he was ordained a priest in 1985. He primarily devotes himself to spiritual direction and preaching retreats internationally. His published books on spirituality are the consolidated result of such work. He is the author of Fire & Light, Interior Freedom, Time for God, and The Eight Doors of the Kingdom, among others. You can find out more about Fr. Jacques and his preaching schedule at FrJacquesPhilippe.com.