Fatherhood is neither a costume one wears nor a role one plays. It is a noble vocation, filled with “joy and pain, hard work and hope.”
Pope Francis referred to the joy and pain recently in a general audience, as part of his series of reflections on the family. It reminded me of the familiar line from the Second Vatican Council, “The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well.”
This is a helpful frame in which to place the pope’s comments, especially in relation to the feast of Saint Joseph, the model of the just and gentle father, which the universal church marks on March 19.
The responsibilities of fatherhood are highlighted by the contrast between the gifts that we are invited to share with our children whose vulnerability is evident through every stage of childhood and adolescence. But this image also speaks to the reality of our own physical, intellectual and emotional poverty, afflicted as we often are with woundedness, doubt and insecurity.
We too have our share of distress. I know from experience what it is to wish that I had been more patient, more tender, more magnanimous as children grow through the bewildering stages of life. Just as our children do, we too face the challenges of becoming wise and gracious in order to overcome our own ever-present limitations.
There are volumes written on the enduring effects of absence, distance and lack of compassion, but the knowledge that there are worse cases than our own brings little comfort when we see how much we have fallen short in trying to imitate the iconic virtues of Saint Joseph. It is in those times that we must extend mercy to ourselves as well as to others.
It helps to remember that we can only speak and act with wisdom and integrity if we, as Pope Francis suggests, “accept the burden of those inevitable misunderstandings” and turn to God who would not call us to be fathers—with its bittersweet mixture of joy and pain—without the necessary infusion of wisdom and grace. We are strongest when we know that he is the real father and we are instruments of his love and concern for our children.
The pope used words that serve as a job description for the ideal father. He spoke of sharing in the joy and pain of children, handing down wisdom and digging deep for inner strength, courage and tenderness in the face of inevitable frustrations. Such ideals can inspire or discourage us. Prayer, grounded as sit is in hope, is therefore necessary to overcome the regrets that we sometimes feel.
A book that I read a number of years ago divided the “role” of fatherhood into three categories: doing, loving and launching. As I recall, the book was filled with wonderful suggestions, but it failed to deal with human fragility and failure. To the contrary, it read like a training guide for some Olympian competition. It was focused on doing and ignored being—being present—, which is the foundation on which authentic and effective doing, loving and launching must be constructed. I regret learning late that doing and being are not always compatible. The great thing about mercy and hope is that it reminds us that it’s never too late to learn.