Fatherhood and Sainthood: An Apparent Paradox
Several years ago, a friend of mine shared with me his frustration that among the saints canonized by the Catholic Church, there are very few who are proclaimed saints and blessed precisely because of their fatherhood, or because of their heroic virtue in faithfully loving a spouse. He expressed that he felt as though the Church’s neglect in canonizing married men or fathers is in its own way an admission that married fathers aren’t actually disposed to greatness, to sainthood or to sanctity. Often, when we ponder the lives of the saints, those heroes and heroines who defended and proclaimed the faith of Christ and His Church, we envision a virgin martyr, a priest, a sister, perhaps a hermit, a brother, an apostle or one of the apostles successors. With the exception of the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph, infrequently does a saint who was betrothed in marriage come to mind. Although there have existed saints who were also fathers, there are few in comparison to those who live a celibate life; and of those fatherly saints, even fewer are lauded precisely for their fatherhood.
The Glorious deficiency of Fatherhood
This lack of recognition of the human father initially appears to indicate a great deficiency in fatherhood as a means of pursuing holiness. Often men believe that because they have jobs, have wives, have intercourse, there are disqualified from achieving great sanctity. Some men conclude that greatness, holiness and sanctity are impossible to achieve and rather than pursuing radical holiness, they compromise with worldly whims and diversions expecting little of themselves or from God. While it is true that “he who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife; and he is divided,” (1 Cor 7:10) the same apostle said, “Let every man remain in the calling in which he was called. If thou cannot be free”— that is, not married—“Make use of it (Marriage, fatherhood) rather.” (1 Cor 7:20) In other words, we can make use of our vocation as fathers to become icons of God the Father, that by seeing us, our children may see God the Father.
The Father who follows Christ
It’s easy to believe that we fathers are unable to follow Christ and become saints when considering the deficiency of fatherhood and its inability to follow Christ Who commands us to “sell all” , “give all”, and “be all” for the Lord. Yet, if we truly become the father God has created us to be, we do indeed sell all, that is, we cast out worldly temptations in exchange for a life of familial communion. We do indeed give all: that is, we pass on all the resources we receive from God to our wives and children. We do indeed become all, by being a father who is an icon of the Father of all.
Quiet lives of Desperation
It was Henry David Thoreau who said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” So many men, after converting to the faith, discovering their vocation or beginning to walk with Jesus, become fired with zeal, passion and vitality for the Gospel, and yet, after some time, become disillusioned with their vocation. Why? The daily grind, the mundane minutia and relentlessly common obligations seem to wear down their fervor—like water that drips on a rock for years, the man is eroded away by his desperation—his hopelessness. When this happens we spend our lives looking forward to the next game, the next cigar, the next desert, believing that these will afford us the consolation that we all desire and will re-ignite a new passion in us—but they never do. The superfluous consolations, regardless of how good they are, are a bad substitute for God. Sainthood is found in the sacrifice and it is from this sacrifice and daily relationship with Jesus that we will obtain new fervor, zeal and passion for our vocation and the Gospel.
Go Home and Be Joseph
Our Lord confirms the vitality of fatherhood with these words:
“Amen I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Whoever, therefore humbles himself as this little child, he is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one such child for my sake receives me.” (Mt 18:5)
After my third daughter, Anna Marie, suffered permanent brain injury, my wife implored me to focus my energies on being a better father. At that time, I considered fatherhood to be a second rate vocation—not truly a means of following Christ—not truly a path to sainthood. I struggled with embracing the hidden, silent, humble vocation of fatherhood. I desired to be “out there” involved in ministry, rather than being “in here,” that is, involved in the family. Around that time, I went on a pilgrimage and confessed my struggles to one of our spiritual leaders who said, “Go home and be Joseph.” Initially, those words stung, but by “going home and being Joseph” I discovered a path to greatness that is beautiful, fulfilling and fit for me—I realized that fatherhood is a path to sainthood. When I was a wee lad, I was convinced that I was destined to be a pro-baseball player. I was consumed with this ideal. And yes, I was even shorter then. Did I mention that I hoped to be a pro in the professional midget baseball league? When we have a conversion, or begin to walk with the Lord and become engaged in our faith, we discover the lives of the saints and begin to desire to be like them – a professional saint. Instead of a baseball card, we imagine a prayer card with our mug on it.
If they, why not I?
The desire to be a saint, is not our own desire, but rather a desire that has been placed in our hearts by God. God desires you and I to become saintly fathers—great fathers. Can a father be a saint? Of course. You are called to be a saint! The two greatest saints who walked on this earth were a husband and a wife, a father and a mother—Joseph and Mary. And as St. Augustine says, “If they, why not I?—If these men and women could become saints, why cannot I with the help of Him who is all powerful?” But as St. Jerome said, “What saint has ever won his crown without first contending for it?” We can, like my friend, be frustrated that in the past, so few fathers have been proclaimed as saints precisely for their fatherhood, or we can contend for the crown and become the future’s fatherly saints. Ours is an age of married saints, of saints who are fathers—we live in the Age of St. Joseph. So, we need to be like Joseph by first admitting that we are weak and divided in so many ways; second, we trust that God will heal our divided hearts; and third, we re-commit ourselves to living a life of greatness which is formed in a vibrant life of prayer.
Let us contend for our crown by being a father who is dependent upon the Father, by becoming a child of God who raises his children to become children of God. By doing this we will receive God in us and become great. Let us follow the example of St. Joseph who was both son the Father, that is dependent on the Father, and father of the Son, that is, he successfully provided for Jesus Who was dependent upon him, and become like he became—a saint.