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The gift of a father: How love leads to vocations

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The love of a father grounds us in reality, helping us to know that our lives are good and we belong within a community greater than ourselves.

In the beginning is the Father. He is the source and goal of all life. From him flows communion through the gift of his entire life to the Son, his perfect image, and from them proceeds the love of the Spirit. Likewise, within creation, life itself is a gift, and therefore it is love. This is the secret to life, without which we cannot be happy. God made us not only to receive his life but also to give our lives back to him and to others.

This is what fathers must model to their children. The father provides security in body and mind by being "there for them," to care for and protect them, helping them to come to the maturity needed to grow to the "full stature of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13). Both parents serve essential and complementary roles. Mothers, among many other things, provide the nurturing that younger children need, while the influence of fathers increases in adolescence as children venture into the world. He provides confidence through his stable presence that guides his children to discover their own vocation. His presence must do more than model the right thing to do. He must offer fatherly love, affirming the goodness of his children and investing time in them.

It bears repeating that fathers are by far the number one influence on their children's faith. Another recent study, this time from the non-profit Communio, confirms this: "The decline of married fatherhood created a shock to our culture leading to increases in the number of bad outcomes for children, and it has caused the rapid decline in Christianity over the last 40 years. Marriage rates have dropped 31 percent since 2000 and 61 percent since 1970. This study concludes the religious nones are likely to continue their growth for two to three decades after the number of married resident fathers stabilizes. Therefore, churches must immediately adopt new strategies and approaches to restore marriage and improve fatherhood."

We find the crisis of fatherhood at the base of a vocational crisis both for religious vocations and marriage. Too often, young people do not imagine life to be a gift they have been entrusted and which, in turn, is meant to be given for others. They are not experiencing the reality of this gift from a father. Self-sufficiency plagues the fatherless, creating an illusion of autonomy that masks deeper needs of communion and dependence. Unmoored youth try to find happiness by focusing on the self, which only leads to misery. Fatherlessness essentially constitutes societal suicide, stemming from an identity crisis and lack of purpose. The love of a father grounds us in reality, helping us to know that our lives are good and we belong within a community greater than ourselves.

Gil Bailie makes the connection between fathers and culture in his new book, The Apocalypse of the Sovereign Self (Angelico, 2023): "It is the fatherly responsibility . . . To provide the child with a cultural, moral, and historical patrimony -- an inheritance: an appreciation for the transgenerational drama in which the child's life is situated. The father prepares the child to perform whatever might be his unique role as a bridge connecting his ancestors and descendants. His message is 'You belong, and this gift of belonging will require something from you, and I am here to help you learn how to meet your responsibilities'" (249). Without a father, one is cut off from the past and, therefore, cannot stake out a clear future. Belonging brings spiritual and psychological security, which in turn inspires the freedom and joy needed to pass on this blessing.

Our culture rages against patriarchy, the rule of the father, although we are finding that without it, we are also losing hierarchy, the holy rule of Christ in his Church. In the end, the hierarchy exists for patriarchy because the Father has gifted life to us and wants us to use it to express his love. This is what patriarchy means -- not domination but an order that flows from the source of life and guides toward the goal. We do not name the heavenly Father after earthly fathers. Rather, they take their name from him because they are meant to provide a glimpse of his love in giving life and guiding his children to happiness.

Although the role of a strong biological father can never be replaced, the love of the heavenly Father can still come to us through the mentorship and friendship of father figures. Often, God works through a spiritual father or pastor to draw us to greater faith, love, and maturity. Fatherhood entails relationship, dependence, trust and love, all of which are crucial to the psychological and spiritual development needed to embrace a vocation. If fatherhood plays a central role in faith, family and our culture, manifesting the love of the heavenly Father, then we must raise up new generations of fathers in the Church. Only this will restore a proper patriarchy, a manifestation of the Father's love in our lives and culture.

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