Recently I ran into my former advisor at Texas A&M University whom I hadn’t seen for nearly a decade. While I held my son Thomas in my arms, I shared with him the details of my pro-life work for Human Life International. He beamed, looked at Thomas and said, “Looks like you are doing some great pro-life work right there.”
While I had immediately focused on my professional life, his nod toward my son was a generous reminder that the greatest work in which I and every other father engages is found in our vocation as husband and father.
Yet our tendency as men to focus on our professional work and economic wellbeing, especially in the midst of a culture that manifests a contraceptive mentality and views children as obstacles to greater wealth, makes it difficult and increasingly rare to respond with joy to even the potential vocation of fatherhood. Unfortunately today the response to a new child is the opposite of sheer joy. Words like “burden,” “accident,” “intrusion,” and “stressful” are commonly employed to describe a new child or parenthood in general.
“Poor Cindy” and “You know they have contraception for that” I was told upon recently announcing the joyous news to family and friends that my wife Cindy is pregnant with our fifth child. While my four year old daughter was thrilled to see her new sister or brother’s heartbeat on the ultrasound a number of adults—including family members—responded incredulously or with disdain.
It can be difficult to understand such negative reactions, especially from one’s family.
In a recent homily Pope Francis shared some insight into this situation, identifying a “culture of economic wellbeing that causes us to be lacking in courage, makes us lazy, makes us selfish” as a culprit. He noted that this drive for economic wellbeing leads us to say, “No, no, not more than one child, because otherwise we will not be able to go on holiday, we will not be able to go out, we will not be able to buy a house. It’s all very well to follow the Lord, but only up to a certain point. This is what economic wellbeing does to us … it deprives us of courage, of the courage we need to get close to Jesus.”
A myopic focus on economic wellbeing can cause us to forget that the life of a father is privileged and blessed. Today it is largely assumed that a new child automatically makes the various signs and privileges of economic well-being more difficult to attain. A child is seen as bringing about a loss of wealth, instead as a source of great richness. In light of this particular manifestation of what Blessed John Paul II described as a “contraceptive mentality” we need to recover the rich scriptural appreciation for children and fatherhood: “Grandchildren are the crown of the aged, and the glory of sons is their fathers” (Proverbs 17:6). Fatherhood is a vocation of sheer joy and great responsibility.
John Paul II had a great appreciation for life and the family writing his second Apostolic Exhortation “for the purpose of … helping them to discover the beauty and grandeur of the vocation to love and the service of life” (1). In his Familiaris Consortio, he wrote of fathers: “In revealing and in reliving on earth the very fatherhood of God, a man is called upon to ensure the harmonious and united development of all the members of the family: he will perform this task 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, 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” (25).
What a privilege it is for a father to be a sign of God’s generosity in the world who bear the awesome responsibility to live his life in a way that introduces and immerses his family to the God who is love. A father is tasked, in the first place, with cultivating the spiritual wellbeing of the soul. In his Rule for monastic life Saint Benedict of Nursia describes the role of the abbot, the title of which is derived from the Aramaic, “abba”—“Father” or “Daddy.” “Anyone undertaking the charge of souls” Saint Benedict notes, “must be ready to account for them … on judgment day he will surely have to submit a reckoning to the Lord for all their souls—and indeed for his own as well.”
With profound openness to God’s plan and by an act of love, husband and wife cooperate with God to bring new life into the world. They cherish that life and commit themselves to education and formation while entrusting their children to God’s providence.
A man who becomes a father is eternally blessed and entrusted with the care of a precious soul. Fatherhood is a vocation of love, one that finds in children (imperfect, as we all are) the sort of joy that abides forever.
Editor’s note: The image above entitled “Father and Son in Church” was painted by Norman Rockwell in 1961.