Francis of Assisi and Fatherly Blessing

There is a famous moment in the life of Francis of Assisi, in which he dramatically renounces his earthly father and claims God as his heavenly Father. Francis gives back to his father not only the money he was demanding, but the very clothes off his back.

His furious father, the wealthy cloth merchant Pietro di Bernardone, had pressured the local bishop to call Francis to trial. Pietro demanded that his son pay back what he owed.

Francis had encountered the voice of Jesus calling to him from the cross in the hillside church of San Damiano. Jesus had beckoned: Rebuild my Church, which as you see is falling into ruin. Francis began the rebuilding effort quite literally, gathering or begging for stones to repair the dilapidated building. He also helped himself to a large bolt of his father’s expensive silk, selling it and attempting to give the proceeds to the stunned priest of San Damiano for help in the repair efforts. The priest prudently refused, not wanting to become one of Pietro’s enemies.

Pietro was a greedy man, but his rage had little to do with wealth. It sprang up from the shame and embarrassment that he felt as Francis rejected the rigid role assigned to him.

The famous friar of Assisi was actually named “John” at baptism – a name given by his mother Pica during the long months of Pietro’s absence in France. Upon returning, Pietro met his son and renamed him “Francis” (basically, “Frenchy”) in honor of the affluent country he loved visiting. In what he saw as great benevolence, Pietro planned to pass on his significant wealth to his son Francis, who would make him proud in carrying on the lucrative family business.

Instead, Francis went about begging, mingling with lepers, and sharing his father’s wealth with the poor. Disgusted and embarrassed, Pietro had him beaten and locked in the cellar, hoping he would fall in line. He didn’t. The next time Pietro was away, Francis’ mother released him, and Francis was right back to rebuilding the church of San Damiano – only now he hid himself in a cave to avoid the revenge of his father. That is when his father went to the bishop demanding justice.

The trial was public. Many witnesses heard Francis declare, “From now on I will say freely: ‘Our Father who art in heaven,’ and not ‘My father Pietro di Bernardone.’ Look, not only do I return his money; I give him back all my clothes. I will go to the Lord naked!”

He stripped himself there and then of his father’s robes, revealing the penitential hairshirt he had been wearing underneath.

And here is where I want to pause the story of Francis’ conversion.

Too often, the Saints are seen as these superhuman beings who quickly and easily rise to heights that are too lofty for the rest of us. The more steps I take on the road of conversion, the more I realize that the Saints were very normal and sinful human beings like you and me who walked a long and often painful path of conversion.

Most of the people who write the lives of Saints are themselves less than fully converted – so they tend to glamorize or oversimplify the journey of conversion. Sure, we would all love it if our conversion could be one simple and dramatic moment of decision and then living happily ever after. But that is rarely if ever how conversion works! Rather, there are many moments of weakness, faltering, stumbling, and struggling. There are many moments of new discovery and new growth. Consider the life of Peter in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. From early on he loves the Lord and has faith in Him. But he continues to struggle before, during, and after the dying and rising of Jesus. His maturing in the love of Jesus is gradual, but significant.

Let’s just suppose that Francis was still – at this moment in his conversion – rather immature and in need of much more conversion. That is actually what the evidence suggests! First, there is Francis’ behavior. He is fearfully hiding in a cave. Plus, his father makes a fair point – it was not okay for Francis to presume that he could just start selling his father’s possessions without permission. There is still no small amount of the entitled party boy in him.

But there is another wonderful detail. For some time, Pietro has been lashing out at Francis with curses. Francis’ solution is to call upon “a lowly, rather simple man” to help him by taking the place of his father. Whenever Pietro would curse Francis, the poor man would speak words of blessing over Francis.

Underlying these details are the fear and shame and insecurity that Francis still felt. Like all human beings, he needed fatherly blessing, and ached for it. He needed to become secure in his identity, to know who he was. That is the greatest gift that fathers in the flesh can give to their children. They can lead them to be secure in the identity that God the Father confers on them – our heavenly Father who alone can fully bless us in the way our hearts desire.

Francis’ greatest example here is not so much his outward poverty as his inward poverty of heart, including his willingness to beg for help. Rather than shaming himself for being emotionally “needy,” he humbly reaches out for words of blessing from a fellow outcast. Through the repeated reminders of another flesh-and-blood human being, Francis’ words to the bishop and the crowd begin taking on flesh.

It sounds nice to say that God is my heavenly Father and that he meets all my needs. But it can be little comfort when my old wounds of shame and insecurity whisper in the shadows that I am not enough, that I am all alone, or that nobody really loves me.

There is a reason why Francis and his followers lived in community as brothers. There is a reason why Jesus taught us to pray to God as Our Father. We cannot connect with the Father without simultaneously connecting with each other as fellow members of the Body of Christ. Only God the Father can fill the void we feel deep in our hearts. But only within healthy community, vulnerably stating needs and receiving care, can we be opened up to receive the Fatherly blessing we need and ache for.

As we become blessed by the Father, then the slow and steady change can begin to happen. Secure in the Father’s love, we can mature in Christ.

Francis’ biographer (Thomas of Celano) delights in the scene of Francis’ nakedness before the bishop and the people: Oh how free is the heart of a man for whom Christ is already enough! True enough, as long as we also remember that Francis was still in the process of claiming that truth and internalizing it – and never without help from others.

Each of us, one way or another, gets pushed into roles. Each of us struggles to discover our true identity, and to be secure in love. In our insecurity we stay stuck in our sins. We need fellow pilgrims on the journey – those who don’t shame us or fix us, but declare us to be beloved children of God. We absolutely need that repeated reminder so that we can stay secure in the Father’s love and keep walking the difficult road of conversion. Maturity will keep coming – usually quite slowly. Like little children who are growing, we need others to notice our growth, to name it, to celebrate it, and to cheer us on. The Saints in heaven certainly do so, but hopefully also some of our fellow Saints-in-the-making.

Who are the “lowly, rather simple” people in your life who remind you of your identity as a beloved child of God?

Fatherhood and Play

“Play is the language of paternal love and kindness.”

I was listening to an audiobook this spring as I zoomed downed the highway. These words brought one of those epiphany moments– in which the veil is briefly lifted, time seems to hold still, and – as long as the moment lasts – I feel embraced by deeper Truth. For me, those are moments in which the hosts of heaven beckon (in the words of C.S. Lewis): “Come further up! Come deeper in!”

In case you are curious, the words were from Kelly McDaniel’s 2021 book entitled Mother Hunger. She writes from the perspective of a secular therapist, and in the process affirms several core biological, emotional, and relational truths about motherhood – all of which are strongly reinforced by the latest findings of neuroscience and attachment theory. My May blog posts benefitted from a few of her insights. She is writing to adult daughters, inviting them to consider what they needed and didn’t entirely receive from their own mothers. And then she casually drops in her comment regarding fatherhood, kindness, and the language of play.

In that timeless moment of hearing her quote, I was immediately transported back one year in time to Tallahassee, where I was assisting as chaplain for the priest retreat at the John Paul II Healing Center. As is common, the 18 priest participants showed up with fears, resistance, and defenses. It was amazing to watch those melt away in unexpected ways. Play played a huge part!

I already shared with you last June about the “human sculpting” exercises we engaged in each day. Bob Schuchts invited me, three days in a row, to play the part of God the Father. Another played God the Son, another the Holy Spirit, along with several human and angelic (and demonic) characters. We were invited to follow our intuitions and interact with each other in a visual scene. I felt fear and constriction at first – the familiar perfectionistic pressure to perform well – or else. I turned to Bob and whispered, “I’ve never done these before – what am I supposed to do?” He smiled and shrugged. I felt the familiar dread in my gut. But I reconnected with my body and was able to tap into my deeper desire and intuition. Each sculpt was a surprise. Many participants received insight or healing. For me, it was a oneness with the heart of the Father that shifted my connection with him. I felt his poverty of heart – the way he willingly honors our freedom amidst his ache for our flourishing.

Each day, play opened us in receptivity and a rediscovered joy of fatherhood. The team there ever so simply invited us into play each evening – a cornhole tournament with Sister Miriam as a DJ taking song requests, a Pictionary competition with three teams, a trip to the cinema to watch Father Stu, a group hanging around the campfire each night and laughing together. Everyone felt more authentically human – which is so important to being a healthy priest, much less to being true spiritual fathers! Then Bob shared (without naming names) about the retreat for bishops they have started doing. He described busy bishops, buried beneath impossible pressures and ugly problems, laughing and playing together like little children. How healing! Obviously, deep prayer is the foundation.  But without a playful heart, fathers cannot be fathers!

I can only imagine the plight of bishops. It’s hard enough to be a parish priest these days. I am at my worst when I am in a scarcity mentality. In those moments I feel a drivenness that screams loudly “I don’t have time for that!” – no time to slow down and delight, or savor, or play, or connect, or rest. It is then only a matter of time before I wind up in a place of resentment, and then entitlement – seizing small pleasures that bring no true joy.

At times, I still have the hoarding heart of an orphan – a heart that is terrified of needing and depending on the Father or others. In those moments, fueled by shame and fear, I stockpile and self-protect; I hide my truer and deeper self. At my core, I am highly sensitive, highly creative, eager to connect, and totally playful. But I frequently feel inhibition around play – or at least around being seen in play. It’s so much easier around children, or when I am unaware of anyone watching. It is in those moments when I am the most childlike in my faith, and when I am willing to engage in play with others, that God most powerfully shows up. It is then that I receive the most, and then that others receive the Father’s love through me.

On the retreat, Jake Khym left us with profound words on the Father’s love, encouraging us to anticipate his affection day after day: “Over and over, I will be good to you, my son.” He invited us to notice and receive those frequent moments of affection, to allow the Father to be playful with us and delight in us.

If I pause in the afternoon or evening to reflect on the day in a General Examen, it is a marvelous request I can make to God the Father: Show me how you were affectionate to me today. If I allow myself the time and space for that meditation, it is remarkable how quickly he shows me moments small or large in which he was playfully affectionate to me. He is always a good Father, tending to me in my poverty, and inviting me to become playful as he is playful. I just struggle to believe that it can be so simple and so effective. I struggle to trust amidst that poverty that he will keep showing up and keep being affectionate. Yet he always does!

I believe all men are called to be one or another kind of father – not in the toxic masculinity of the last few hundred years, but in our uniqueness and individuality. Whatever fatherhood may look like for each of us, playful affection will be the language the Father speaks to us, and playful affection will be the language he teaches us to speak to our children.

Fatherhood and Subsidiarity

God is our Father. Jesus presents himself as God’s own Son. He speaks of God as his Father who desires to become our Father. All fatherhood derives from God the Father and has its meaning from him (cf. Ephesians 3:14-21).

And what do we see in God’s Fatherhood? He is radically different from the counterfeit versions of fatherhood that are far too common today! In the Trinity, all three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are equal in dignity. Jesus is from the Father (not the other way around), yet they are coequal in dignity and majesty. There is no “greater than” or “less than.” God shows us that fatherhood is not meant to be about power or privilege. Fatherhood is about pouring blessing into others and lifting them up to be secure in their own identity.

Children look to their fathers to discover their identity, to discover and know securely who they are. In the Old Testament (even amidst the dysfunction!) the concept of fatherly blessing is a recurring theme. Adam is given authority by God over the whole cosmos and gives names to all of the animals. Had he exercised his stewardship well, the entire cosmos would have flourished under God’s Fatherly blessing. In Genesis 27, Isaac bestows his blessing upon Jacob, and not upon Esau. Flooded with envy, Esau desperately aches for that fatherly blessing. In the next generation, Jacob names and blesses his sons in highly descriptive and specific ways (see Genesis 49).

In the New Testament, after calling many disciples to himself, Jesus inaugurates his public preaching with the Sermon on the Mount – beginning with the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-10). Each one promises Fatherly blessing – not because we strive for it or earn it, but because we allow ourselves to be open and receptive to a Father who is eager to bless us.

Ultimately, only God is fully a Father. Any earthly fathers (whether in our families or in our churches) are called to be icons of God’s Fatherhood. But too often we are distorted caricatures, in which his true Fatherhood is barely recognizable.

Perhaps that is why Jesus cautions us against calling anyone on earth our “father” (Matthew 23:9). There are even some evangelicals who have used that verse as a stick to bash Catholics for calling priests “Father” – while simultaneously protecting patriarchal structures that allow white males to be leaders in their families and churches who somehow have more power and privileges than the rest. The fact is, all Christian traditions (including Catholicism) are prone to an abuse of fatherly authority. Any time fatherhood claims power or privileges for its own sake, it becomes oppressive and harms those who are meant to be served.

In our Catholic Tradition, we have an important (and little practiced) teaching called “subsidiarity.” Authority of any kind is called to assist, support, and empower those it serves, rather than to replace them. Typically, this teaching is applied to governmental structures – and rightly so. Those in office have a duty to be solicitous for the common good and to intervene where others are struggling (whether than be parents, local governments, or state governments). But in intervening they are called to support and empower rather than to usurp or replace.

Sadly, we don’t seem to apply subsidiarity to fatherly authority! Whether we are fathers in a marriage and family or father figures in a church family, our fatherly authority is never meant to be about power or privilege! Remember – in the Trinity, Jesus and the Father are totally equal. There is no “greater than” or “less than.” Jesus is absolutely secure in his identity precisely because of his relationship with his Father. Any human form of fatherhood is meant to be a true icon of God’s Fatherhood – helping those who are fathered to become secure in God’s Fatherly blessing.

Fatherhood has been under fire for a long time. Some Christians see this trend as a liberal secular threat that needs to be fought and suppressed. But in their reactivity, they are not listening well to the grievances! We need to name the many ways in which fatherhood has harmed rather than blessed. We need to empathize with the grief and anger of those who have been abused or oppressed. We need to examine our structures and how they operate – asking humbly and honestly whether the authority there is ever exploited for power and privilege rather than lifting others up into secure identity and delegating to them their own proper authority. We need to toil tirelessly to arrive at the day in which women and children don’t have to fear being used or harmed by the men in their families, communities, and churches!

Many males in authority have been resistant and reluctant to needed reform. Is it any surprise that many others rebel against any and all forms of patriarchy? Rather than seeking to reclaim authentic fatherhood, many today want to name it as evil.

As often happens with rebellion, this rejection of fatherly authority will only lead to greater problems. A void of authentic fatherhood is worse! As harmful as it is when fathers use or oppress, it is even more harmful when fathers abdicate their fatherly authority. Those under their care remain unblessed and insecure in their identity. They go unprotected. They live in chaos and disorder.  There will only be more self-indulgence, exploiting of others, and aggression against others. All the while God’s Fatherhood, his fierce and tender embrace, remains a distant and forgotten dream. Is this not the story of Simba’s fatherhood in The Lion King? In his fear, shame, and woundedness, he flees his true calling and true authority, and many suffer disorder and oppression until he reclaims it.

As we approach another Father’s Day, we can remember that God has truly revealed himself as our Father, and that fatherhood is a gift from him. The greater the gift, the greater the devil’s envy and attacks as he attempts to distract or distort. We can reject all distortions of fatherhood while challenging ourselves to bring blessing to others in a way that truly allows all God’s children to be secure in their identity.

The Embrace of the Father

In Luke 15, the Pharisees and scribes are seething with suspicion and envy. The problem? Jesus is hanging out with sinners – welcoming them with kindness, dining with them, and curiously getting to know them. The Pharisees feel a conviction that those sinners need to know the truth! How can they stop sinning if we don’t tell them clearly the difference between right and wrong?

Jesus responds by telling them three stories. God the Father seeks out the lost sheep, seeks out the lost coin, and seeks out his lost sons. In each story God’s desire is not to scold or to punish, but to pursue what had been lost, to embrace with delight, to reconcile, and to restore. In each story, God’s deepest desire is to celebrate the heavenly wedding feast with all his scattered children. He wants all of us at the table, where we can celebrate the one-flesh union between his own Son and all those human beings who dare to desire so much delight.

The younger son (the “prodigal”) comes to his senses and begins to tell the fuller truth to himself – not just about the legal rules he has violated, but about how much harm he has caused in his relationships. He has sinned against heaven. He has sinned against his good father. He rises and returns to the house of his father.

As much as the son desires to return, the father’s desire is infinitely greater. He sees his son from afar, rushes out to meet him, and embraces him.

Here is where the Pharisees and scribes have it so wrong. The Father’s embrace comes first. In his eternal love and kindness, he eagerly seeks us out. He embraces us with delight – while we are yet sinners! Full conversion will come in due time – gradually, and always in a way that keeps inviting us to come further up and further into the infinite vastness and intensity of his delight.

If we are not secure in the Father’s embrace, there is no way we will keep choosing our journey of conversion. If we are like the younger son, we will (sooner or later) return to the familiar smallness and squalor of old and familiar behaviors that cause harm to self and others. If we believe ourselves to be unlovable, and to be lacking in dignity, it’s only a matter of time before we start behaving that way!

If we are like the older son (or the Pharisees or the scribes), we will self-righteously cling to “the truth” – which is really just a list of propositions that allow us to feel good enough about ourselves. If we can control and manage our behaviors, we can style ourselves to be “good” and not like those other people who disregard the truth.  But what we are calling “the truth” is only a very partial glimpse of the living God. Without the relationship, it becomes a caricature and a distortion.

Yes, morality matters. Yes, moral relativism is a problem and a threat. When each person gets to define for himself or herself what is true, good, or beautiful, then innocent people will indeed suffer!

But the answer is not the answer of the scribes and Pharisees. It is not the answer of the elder son. They are fixating on the rules while ignoring the covenantal relationship that is the foundation for all those rules! Jesus teaches us that every single law hinges upon the two great commandments of loving God and loving neighbor.

This past spring, I was chaplain at a priest retreat at the John Paul II Healing Center. Bob Schuchts asked us to consider what the experience of the younger son would have been like if he returned home and was greeted, not with his father’s embrace, but by his older brother.

What a question! And it’s not an abstract question. In our church families, heartbroken humans emerge, month after month. Desire is awakening in their hearts, even though their lives are a mess. They are trying to find their way back to the house of the Father. And what do they encounter here? The Father’s embrace and an invitation into deeper relationship? Or a checklist of expectations for how they are to behave if they want to belong to our club?

Truth-telling is important, but I find that many of us Christians today (like those Pharisees and scribes) are more interested in comparing, categorizing, and condemning. We want to tell “the truth” about particular moral issues while ignoring the deeper and fuller truth about who God is and who we are as human beings.

God tells the truth with kindness, never with contempt. His pursuit of us and his embrace of us communicate to us the Truth of our dignity and our destiny. He reminds us of what we are capable, and emboldens us in our desire. THEN we begin to grow and mature and bear fruit.

The contempt of the older son is a symptom of his underlying shame. I’ve learned to watch for that connection. Whenever contempt for human poverty shows up – whether it’s the poverty of “those people” or my own poverty – it’s a symptom of shame. It’s a symptom of seeking to earn love by performance rather than receive it as gift.  It’s a symptom that we may not truly believe the amazing and foundational Truth of the Gospel – that God makes the first move, that he is always eager to embrace, and that he desires to share everything with us.

We all desperately need to hear that Good News proclaimed to us – usually more than once. We are shattered by sin, and there are many shards of our heart that still don’t know this Truth. The more fully we receive the Gospel, the more we grow and mature and bear fruit.

The saints are those who keep growing into the Father’s embrace. Their deepest suffering is an increasing realization of the infinite gap between themselves and God.  The more they grow, the more they realize how far they are – no longer in shame or discouragement, but in a loving longing that aches for union and realizes there will still be a wait before all fullness comes.

As a result, authentic saints exhibit an incredible kindness to sinners – because they feel a kinship. The gap between God and the saint remains infinite. The gap between the saint and the sinner is miniscule. The saint begins to share in God’s desire for every sinner to be embraced, reconciled, restored, and celebrated. The saint begins to share God’s delight in human dignity, treating self and others with honor rather than contempt – especially when human poverty shows up. Here we find the truer and deeper meaning of “Love your neighbor as yourself” – to welcome human poverty in self and others and allow God the Father to embrace with honor and delight.

Will we allow the Father’s embrace to change our own hearts? Will we desire the same embrace for others – even those we dislike or despise? The Father desires them and us to come into the feast! His embrace is all-transforming. But he never pressures or forces. The decision is ours.

Fatherhood – Concluded

Authentic fatherhood is a sharing in God’s Fatherhood, a manifestation of it in the flesh. Loving fathers don’t seize power for themselves, but exercise their God-given authority for the sake of lifting others up, helping them to be secure and confident in their own identity as beloved children of their heavenly Father.

Whether we speak of dads or or priests or other spiritual fathers, we saw last time how damaging it is when earthly fathers are absent or severe or emotionally enmeshed with their children. All three deviant behaviors cause damage to the children’s identity. Those children become wounded in their capacity to receive and give love.

In John 10, Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd. He leads his sheep into a relationship with the Father. He does not abandon his sheep to the wolves, like a hireling (cf. fathers who are absent or who abdicate their authority). He does not steal like a thief or devour like a wolf (cf. a chummy father who uses the children to meet his own emotional needs). He does not beat or abuse the sheep in severity but – as we read in Luke 15 – tenderly places the lost sheep on his shoulders and brings it with joy into the feasting of the heavenly banquet.

We who are called to be fathers are called to imitate Jesus, to be loving shepherds.  To the extent we have authority, it is only for the good of the sheep, never for ourselves. It is ultimately a celebration of and with God the Father, who invites us all into the heavenly feast.

But how?

I am myself so weak and wounded. I am poor and needy. I am insecure and unconfident in my identity as a beloved child of God. How can I pour into others when I regularly feel like I have nothing to give?

Here is where we must look to Jesus, who he is and what he actually teaches. He is from the Father. His entire identity is in the Father. He is one who receives.

Jesus embraced poverty. He allowed himself to be totally and radically dependent upon his Father. In his human existence, Jesus reflected his eternal identity of being “from the Father.” He then invites us to receive from him, as branches on the vine, just as he himself has received all as gift from the Father.

I love the way Jacques Philippe connects fatherhood with the Beatitudes, especially the first Beatitude of poverty of spirit. The Beatitudes are all promises of Fatherly blessing, through the anointing of the Holy Spirit. If we acknowledge and embrace our poverty, if we open up in humble receptivity, the Father blesses us and confers a Kingdom upon us. If we grieve and mourn, we will be comforted (“paracleted”) by the Holy Spirit.

We men who are wounded in our identity can only be healthy and holy fathers if we are willing to grieve and mourn the ways that we ourselves have been wounded. I can only be a loving father to the extent that I am secure as a beloved son. Many of us were ourselves abandoned or abused or used (or possibly all three!). We spend much of our lives avoiding just how painful that was for us rather than grieving it and seeking healing and restoration. If we are willing to walk that path, we experience a dying and rising with Jesus. We discover his secret of relying totally on the Father. We meet God again for the first time, discovering him to be a Father who never abandons, is never harsh, and only desires to pour blessing into us. We become secure as beloved sons.

This spring, I had the joy of returning to the John Paul II Healing Center in Tallahassee, assisting as chaplain on the “Holy Desires” retreat for priests and seminarians. There Bob Schuchts invited me, three days in a row, to play the part of God the Father in a “human sculpting” exercise. Another played God the Son, another the Holy Spirit, along with several human and angelic (and demonic) characters. We followed our intuitions and interacted with each other in a visual scene. We first depicted the sweet intimacy of the Holy Family – Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus abiding in the love of the Father and the Holy Spirit. We then rearranged ourselves to sculpt a contrast: a scene of strained marriage and a wounded child. As God the Father, I felt such an ache for all three humans in the sculpt! The next day we sculpted the baptism of Jesus and the Father’s utter delight in him, followed by the baptism of someone else, who was struggling to be secure in his identity. The third day, there was a character struggling with the same sin over and over. Someone else, representing shame, began covering the person’s eyes so that he could not see my loving gaze as God the Father. Jesus and I were there, deeply desiring to love him, but he knew only shame. In my ache to love this child of God, I whispered into Jesus’ ear and asked if it would be okay for me to take the hands of shame and place them over his eyes. He willingly agreed, even though it would cost him. I moved the hands onto Jesus’ eyes, and immediately I sobbed and wept. I weep again just remembering it.

Something shifted in my heart at that moment. So often I have turned to the Father with my deep and intense longing to see his face and to receive his blessing. This time I experienced his longing for me, for you, and for all his beloved children. I know it was just a glimpse, a taste, a small measure – and my chest felt like it was going to explode. What an intense desire! It brings to mind the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est that God himself has “eros” – a passionate and intense longing as he seeks out his people in love.

When I return to that experience, I find myself having moments in which I can more fully surrender with peace into the Father’s hands. When my own call to fatherhood feels overwhelming or exhausting, when I feel powerless or feel like I am failing, I can enter the Father’s desire that is infinitely bigger than my own. I can be reminded that all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well. God’s fullness will prevail.

The apostle Paul describes this fullness, and our security in the Father’s love, when he names all fatherhood as deriving from God’s Fatherhood. Let us conclude with those beautiful words of Scripture (Ephesians 3:14-21):

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named, that he may grant you in accord with the riches of his glory to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner self, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or imagine, according to his power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Fatherhood – Part II

How do we reclaim authentic fatherhood without succumbing to counterfeit versions of it?

The only way we can discover true fatherhood is to go back to its true source: God the Father and the eternal communion of love that is the Trinity. The Father is the source, the eternal font, without being “greater than.” The Son is from the Father, yet they are coequal in dignity and majesty. The Son eternally receives from the Father; he has his very identity from the Father. Yet he is just as fully and perfectly God as the Father is God. All that is the Father’s is his. The loving communion between them, the eternal delight they share IS the Holy Spirit.

I have been relishing Jacques Philippe’s new book entitled Priestly Fatherhood. He rejects all abusive forms of fatherhood while gently but firmly inviting his fellow Catholic priests to be icons of God’s Fatherhood. Icons are not God; rather, they draw us into the divine. Priests are invited to be loving shepherds, loving in a fatherly way as we accompany the flock into the heart of God the Father. How beautiful it is when we Catholic priests embrace our ordained identity as “another Christ” – one who manifests the love of the heart of Jesus so that others can come to see the face of the Father in heaven.

Often, we falsely exalt priestly fatherhood – putting priests up on a pedestal, pretending like we are not truly human. Our fatherhood is genuine, but it is only a sharing or a participation in God’s Fatherhood. It remains a heavenly treasure held in vessels of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7-11). When we priests forget our humanity, we begin abusing power and harming people. When people expect us priests to be superhuman, they will wear us out. Both happen far too often! God is the true Father people seek, and that means renouncing any idolatrous versions of priestly fatherhood.

Jacques Philippe names well some of the distortions of fatherhood. I would like to consider three of them: severity, absence, and chumminess. I think they are the most common abuses – not only for shepherds and spiritual fathers, but also for dads in family life!

Severe fathers harm their children, who live in fear of missteps or mistakes. The children feel like their efforts will never be good enough; they will never measure up. Sometimes the abuse is blatant: name calling, belittling, yelling, screaming, interrupting, or assaulting through physical violence. Other times, the abuse is subtler – not loving the children for who they are, expecting them to fit a certain image or mold, only showing them love or affection when they behave a certain way or play their proper role, reacting with anger or fear if they somehow bring shame on the family or expose the family’s problems to others.

Absent fatherhood is every bit as damaging, perhaps even more so. Fathers who abdicate their authority leave their children alone to face the harshness of a fallen world, to figure things out for themselves. When children feel alone, unseen, unheard, and uncared for, it doesn’t take much for them to internalize a lie of worthlessness. Something must be wrong with me.

What Jacques Philippe describes as “chumminess” is a third failure of fatherhood. Yes, it gives lots of attention to the children. Perhaps they even like it – much of the time. But it becomes a using and an exploitation – meeting the emotional needs of the father in a way that ultimately sucks the life out of the children rather than strengthening them, holding them accountable, and helping them discover their true identity.

As I read Jacques Philippe, I found myself immediately thinking of another favorite book of mine, Unwanted by Jay Stringer. It is, to date, the single best book on unwanted sexual behaviors, why they happen, where they come from, and how real transformation happens. Jay conducted research with 3,800 individuals and found some common denominators in their family of origin: rigidity, disengagement, and triangulation.

“Rigidity” is another way of describing severe parenting, just as “disengagement” is another way of describing emotional absence or lack of connection. The term “triangulation” is unfamiliar to most, but we need only turn to Genesis to find examples. Isaac and Rebekah are in a marriage covenant, but Rebekah prefers emotional intimacy with her son Jacob, while Isaac prefers their twin son Esau. Jacob continues the pattern into the next generation, choosing his own favorite son Joseph.  Joseph, at first, rather enjoys the power and privilege of this special relationship with daddy – which incites much envy and violence from his brothers. They make him pay by selling him into slavery.

Fatherhood, in its authenticity, is a humble exercise of authority that helps children to know who they are. Consistent and loving fatherhood allows children to be secure in their identity. If you read the writings of John Paul II on Theology of the Body (please do!), you will discover that our identity and our sexuality cannot be separated from one another. God created us male and female in his own image. The devil immediately and furiously assaulted that identity, seducing us into a ruptured relationship with God, others, and ourselves. We have been wounded ever since, both in our sense of identity as children of God and in our sexuality – which, more broadly speaking, includes how we relate to anyone and everyone. Most of us struggle to some degree in having healthy and holy relationships. We wear masks and hide parts of ourselves; we resist vulnerability and true intimacy – because we are wounded.

Only God the Father can restore us in our true identity, through Jesus his Son, in the Holy Spirit. Earthly fathers (both dads and priests) are given authority for the purpose of helping the children to experience God’s Fatherhood. Earthly fathers harm, but we can repair the harm. We can recognize and confess that we have been severe or rigid, that we have abdicated or abandoned, or that we have used others to meet our own needs. We can become authentic fathers who are truly icons of God the Father. We can shine the love of the Father in a world that needs it.

But how?

To be concluded…