Pope Francis’ advice for fathers: be present, practice mercy
Daddy!” This call can mean so many things. It could be a delighted greeting at the end of a workday: “You’re home!” Or a proud, “Watch me do this!” On the other hand, “Dad!” could also express indignation at a boundary set — an important but less popular duty of fatherhood. “Dad!” could mean, “I’m scared — hold me!” or “Your turn, catch!” “Dad?” could mean, “Can you explain this/fix this/give me my allowance?”
What does it take to be a good father, to respond well to all those calls for Daddy? In two recent talks, Pope Francis (whose title, papa, means “daddy”) reflected on this. He said it takes presence and forgiveness.
Fatherhood flows from a man’s married vocation to be present to his wife. The problems caused by a father’s absence from the family can cause children great suffering on many levels. Pope Francis recalled that “Even St. Joseph was tempted to leave Mary,” but through the intervention of the angel of the Lord, he “‘took his wife’ and became the father of the family of Nazareth.” (Matthew 1:24)
That same temptation to flee fatherhood is strong today, too. There are different types of absence, from leaving the mother and child, to long hours away at work, or checking out of family life to hang out in the “man cave” all weekend. It could be a lack of warm emotional involvement. In any case, kids learn what is important in life from what their fathers do. If their fathers do not spend time with them, they learn that they are not important.
Recent research measures the deep impact a dad’s presence has. By marrying the mothers of their children, for example, fathers in America reduce their children’s risk of poverty by 82 percent. They dramatically reduce suicide, depression and anxiety, accidents and illness, behavior problems and delinquency, academic problems, sexual activity and drug use.
Kids with involved dads exhibit more self-regulated behavior, are happier, healthier and more successful in life. Studies show that Dad’s religious commitment affects children much more than Mom’s. Dad’s example of going to Mass regularly profoundly impacts the likelihood that his sons and daughters will keep going to Mass as adults.
What does “involvement” look like? Francis said that it is important for a father “that he be close to his wife, to share everything, joy and sorrow, hope and hardship. And that he be close to his children as they grow: when they play and when they strive, when they are carefree and when they are distressed, when they are talkative and when they are silent, when they are daring and when they are afraid, when they take a wrong step and when they find their path again; a father who is always present.” So, no matter how the word “Dad!” is said, an involved father will answer.
Pope Francis spoke about the moral guidance fathers offer. He quoted Proverbs 23:15–16: “My son, if your heart is wise, my heart also will rejoice; And my inmost being will exult, when your lips speak what is right.” In Francis’ words, a mature father will say to his sons and daughters, “This is what I wanted to leave to you, that this one thing become yours: the attitude to feel and act, to speak and judge with wisdom and rectitude.” He reflected that passing on this gift of wisdom requires strength, courage, discretion and God’s help.
Mercy and forgiveness have been constant themes for Pope Francis. So it’s no surprise that for him, the other important part of being a good father is knowing how to be merciful and forgiving. He noted the dignity and tenderness of the merciful father of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11–32, saying “Fathers must be patient. Often there is nothing else to do but wait; pray and wait with patience, gentleness, magnanimity and mercy.” How many fathers of wandering adult children know this all too well! And, of course, this is what God does with us.
These closing words of il papa’s reflection can serve as an affirming “Father’s Day card” from the church to fathers everywhere: “The church … is committed to supporting with all her strength the good and generous presence of fathers in families, for they are the irreplaceable guardians and mediators of faith in goodness, of faith in justice and in God’s protection, like St. Joseph.” May every father’s answer to the call of “Daddy” help their children know the goodness of our Father in heaven!
Sarah Bartel, a member of St. Andrew Parish in Sumner, holds a doctorate in moral theology and ethics from The Catholic University of America, where she specialized in marriage, family, sexual ethics and bioethics. Her website is www.drsarahbartel.com.
Northwest Catholic - June 2015