Human Fathers and their Sublime Task and Mission of "Revealing and Reliving on Earth the Very Fatherhood of God"

William E. May
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation


We have seen already that human husbands and fathers have the sublime mission and honor of "revealing and reliving on earth the very fatherhood of God" (see St. Paul, Ephesians 3:15 and Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, no. 25). John Paul II continues by identifying the principal things a father should do in performing "this task." He will do so "by exercising generous responsibility for the life conceived under the heart of the mother, by a more solicitous commitment to education, a task he shares with his wife (cf. Gaudium et spes, 52), by work which is never a cause of division in the family but promotes its unity and stability, and by means of the witness he gives of an adult Christian life which effectively introduces the children into the living experience of Christ and the Church."

It is reasonable to think that some of the characteristics attributed to God as Father are present, analogously, in human fathers, enabling them to exercise their task. I also believe that in his catecheses on the "theology of the body," in reflecting on the complementary differences between males and females, Pope John Paul II has given helpful clues to identify a major characteristic proper to fathers in carrying out their mission.

I think that the following characteristics are centrally important for fathers: 1. the father is the human bodily person emphasizing God the Father as the One who "gives in a receiving sort of way"; 2. the father is endowed with authority; 3. the father is gifted with the ability to exercise providential care of his children by educating them; 4. he has the ability to engage in work that must never divide but rather promote family unity and stability; and 5. the father is able to give witness of an adult Christian life that introduces his children to a living encounter with Christ and the Church.

Fathers are bodily persons imaging God the Father as the One who "gives in a receiving sort of way"

God the Father, whom we rightly address as the "Wellspring of the joy of living and the Ocean depth of happy rest" (see earlier article, "The Mission of Fatherhood: 'To Reveal and Relive on Earth the Very Fatherhood of God'") can also be addressed as the Person in the Triune God who "gives (=Wellspring of the joy of living) in a receiving sort of way (=Ocean Depth of happy rest)." This is analogously true of human fathers, as John Paul's reflections on the complementary difference of men and women in his theology of the body show.

A man and a woman "give and receive" one another when they freely consent to marry and in doing so make themselves to be husband and wife. They literally "become one flesh" when they "give and receive" one another in the spousal act, the sort of bodily act in and through which they can become fathers and mothers. But the husband, precisely because of the kind of body he personally is, is able personally to enter into the body of his wife and to "give himself to her in a receiving sort of way," and she, precisely because of the kind of body she personally is, is uniquely capable of "receiving him in a giving sort of way." Pope John Paul II clearly indicates this in the following beautiful passage:

While in the mystery of creation the woman is the one who is "given" to the man, he on his part, in receiving her as a gift in the full truth of her person and femininity, enriches her by this very reception, and, at the same time, he too is enriched. The man is enriched not only through her, who gives her own person and femininity to him, but also by the gift of self. The man's act of self-oblation, in answer to that of the woman, is for him himself an enrichment; in fact, it is here that the specific essence, as it were, of his masculinity is manifested, which, through the reality of the body and of sex, reaches the innermost depth of "self-possession," thanks to which he is capable both to give himself and to receive the other's gift. The man, therefore, not only accepts the gift, but at the same time is welcomed as a gift by the woman in the self-revelation of the inner spiritual essence of his masculinity together with the whole truth of his body and his sex. When he is accepted in this way, he is enriched by this acceptance and welcoming of his own masculinity. It follows that such an acceptance, in which the man finds himself again through the "sincere gift of self," becomes in him the source of a new and more profound enrichment of the woman. The exchange is reciprocal, mutual, and the mutual effects of the "sincere gift" and of "finding oneself," reveal themselves and grow in that exchange."[1]

This is a very important characteristic of a father who must give himself in a receiving sort of way not only to his wife but to his children as their "wellspring of the joy of living." His wife, their mother, emphasizes God as the "ocean depth of happy rest" and as the One who "receives in a giving sort of way" (beautifully illustrated by the fact that the wife/mother is the one to whom the child is first entrusted on his or her conception). The father, for his part, is as it were the "other," who must be introduced to his children by their mother, and introduced as the one who is indeed the wellspring of the joy of living who gives himself to them in a receiving sort of way.

The authority of human fathers

"To ensure the harmonious and united development of all the members of the family," a duty assigned to him, the father must have authority over all the members of the family, including his children and his wife. But we must be clear about the meaning of authority. It does not mean the exercise of power or dominance over others. Rather, it refers to the authority to make decisions or choices. All human action demands a decision, and this is true of the action of communities, especially the community of the family. To make decisions for a community or group is to act as the authority in that community. This is the kind of authority the husband/father is to exercise. He is the one who must make a decision for the good of the family whenever there is disagreement among family members. In doing so the husband/father should yield in matters of personal preference and choose the alternative that he judges, after deliberation and if necessary counsel from others, to serve the common good of the family since it is the common good that is the bond of family unity.[2]

Human Fathers and providential care of their children

Fathers share with mothers the great honor, and duty, to educate their children. But because of their differences, they exercise this care quite differently and with emphasis on different periods in the lives of their children. Children need to be both accepted and nurtured, to be challenged and held to standards, and both mothers and fathers must accept and nurture their children, challenge them and hold them to standards. But they do so in somewhat differing modalities, with the mothers accentuating acceptance and nurturance, the fathers challenging and disciplining. Moreover, it is commonly thought - and there is abundant literature to support this common thought[3] --that women are more focused on personal relationships whereas men are more focused on the attainment of specific goals and the way in which to attain them. As a result, the role of the mother in educating children is more prominent during the early years of a child's life whereas the father's role is much more significant during a child's adolescence. We could say that while a woman nurtures, a man tends to construct, i.e., to impose an order on things, whether it is the simple physical fact of initiating pregnancy, providing the home as shelter and protection, or the more spiritual tasks of disciplining the children physically and mentally, or undertaking the work of the wider social order. As one author says, "Where the woman allows the child to grow, the father causes the child to grow."[4]

It is of particular importance that the father give to his children, both the boys and the girls, while they are pubescent and teenagers, a role model who can show them how a man is to act responsibly toward others, in particular, toward women. He is never to abuse them, or treat them as objects, and he is to be chaste in his behavior toward them. This is perhaps a truth most needed by his sons, but his daughters too must know how to resist any man who lusts after them.

A father's work is essential; it must not divide but promote family unity

The father has the primary responsibility to provide his wife and his children with food, shelter, and protection, particularly during her pregnancy and their infancy, to give his children (and their mother) a sense of security by his presence and reliability. In saying that the father has the responsibility to provide for his wife and children, I do not mean to foreclose the possibility that in specific families the wife-mother may be the one who contributes more economically to the family. It may be that she has special talents and has acquired more marketably profitable capacities and could therefore more adequately meet the financial needs of the family than could the husband-father. But even in such situations, it is nonetheless still the husband-father's primary responsibility to see to it that the wife and children are provided for.

A father must bear witness to an adult Christian life that will lead his children to a living encounter Christ and the Church

The father must be a person who lives his faith daily, in his everyday work and social relationships. This means that he must take seriously the call to holiness, to sanctification as Jesus teaches us: "Be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect." This teaching is central to Catholic faith and is affirmed vigorously in documents of Vatican Council II, for instance in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium, no. 50). A father seeks holiness by sanctifying himself in his everyday work and social relations and he has the mission of sanctifying others, in particular his wife and children, in all that he does.

If he strives every day to be holy and to sanctify others - humbly acknowledging too his failures to be holy and to love, as God the Father loves him and all human persons in his Son Jesus, by forgiving those who wrong him and by praying for them, he will have a profound influence on the emotional, psychological, and spiritual lives of his children. He will also encourage them to discern their own unique vocation as Christians.

All this, of course, is a lifelong task, but one for which he can count on the mercy and grace of God to help him.