Papa was a rolling stone. Wherever he laid his hat was his home. ~ The Temptations
Efforts must be made to restore socially the conviction that the place and task of the father in and for the family is of unique and irreplaceable importance. ~ Pope St. John Paul II
I’m a rotten dad, but I’m not so rotten that I’m indifferent to becoming a better one. And that’s been the case since Nancy inexplicably agreed to be my wife a quarter century ago. Christian marriage is essentially a sacred contract, witnessed by the Church, that a man agrees to die perpetually for his wife, that a woman agrees to do the same for her husband, and that they both promise to do whatever it takes to get each other to heaven. That’s an astonishingly tall order—especially for us men who are (let’s be honest) constitutionally base and egocentric. In my own case, I’d been a bachelor for so long when we married that my habits of selfishness and sloth had become seriously ingrained, and I knew that my spousal learning curve would be particularly steep—and lifelong.
Even more challenging, I could foresee, would be the learning curve of fatherhood. Once married, I sincerely hoped and prayed with Nancy that God would bless us abundantly with babies, but I also harbored a serious terror at the prospect of being a papa. It’s one thing to get married and learn how to live with one other person—to adjust to the other’s preferences and wants and needs, to subjugate one’s own pride and sense of entitlement to what is in the best interests of that other, over and over and over, day in and day out.
But here’s the kicker: That permanent relationship of continual mutual regard and care ordinarily leads, in the natural order of things, to fecundity and new life—to additional embodied souls for whom we will need to die. Marriage is thus transformed into family, and the mutual regard of the couple must be expanded and re-routed throughout a multiverse of unprecedented relationships. This means that the love of husband and wife, which leads to the blessing of children, must exponentially increase and bust out of its binary tethers. The original marital bond retains a primacy in every family (or it should), but, with the arrival of children, that bond necessarily morphs into a foundation for carrying out the duties of childrearing and formation of souls. The couple who had been focusing on getting each other to heaven suddenly needs to do the same for a godsent, wriggling bundle of burps and smiles. And the same goes for the one after that. And the next one as well, and so on and so forth.
There’s more—listen up, guys: Unlike the beautiful woman you met and got to know—the one that you fell in love with and pursued and persuaded to marry you—unlike her, all those children God’s going to send you will be total strangers! As the saying goes, you don’t get to choose your relations, and that applies first of all to our own sons and daughters. Sure, we’re involved in their upbringing and education, and our way of seeing the world will be bound to have an influence on how our kids see it as well. Yet, we have no control at all over their personalities, their preferences, or even their life trajectories. For example: You like football? Maybe even love it? Get out there and toss the pigskin around with your son; urge him to go out for the team when he gets old enough. But, guess what, he might hate football, despite your best efforts and designs. He may not even be athletic at all. And it’s the dad’s responsibility—a solemn responsibility—to keep loving that son regardless. This applies all the more so to the daughters with whom God blesses you.
This goes way beyond sports—especially for Catholic dads. The essential sacrificial dimension of our marital commitment naturally extends to our progeny, and we are called to be crucified with Christ in terms of how we provide for our children, protect them, and guide them. Given our self-centered tendencies as a sex, and the paucity of role models in this age of widespread divorce, adultery, and porn addiction, it’s no wonder that so many of us are ill-equipped to be Christian dads. Heck, we’re hardly prepared to take on matrimony most of the time, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that we struggle mightily with the demands of dad-hood.
Certainly, that was the case for me. After my Catholic conversion, I thought for sure I was destined for the priesthood, so I didn’t give much thought to what marriage and family life entailed. Then I met Nancy and my vocational presumptions derailed. We wed, Deo gratias!, and I was just beginning to grapple with how to be a husband when God visited us with a son, Benedict Joseph—which can be translated as “blessed addition,” and rightly so. Then a daughter, Joan. Then another daughter, Margaret Rose. Whereas I’d been focused on our nuptial tutorial in Pauline mutual submission, it became apparent that I’d also matriculated in a crash course on radical paternal selflessness. Strap in and hang on!
And it’s been great, no question. Wonderful—even spectacular! Our seven children are truly the “supreme gift” of our marriage (CCC 2378), and I wouldn’t change a thing … well, except myself, of course. Curbing my selfishness had its feeble beginnings on my wedding day, but the process lurched forward in earnest the day Ben was born, and it’s been lurching forward ever since. As I already confessed, I’m a lousy dad, but I am willing to learn—continue to learn, that is—to become a better one, maybe even a good one.
The key is that willingness, and that willingness is rooted in one absolutely necessary requirement: honoring the vow of indissolubility. That vow is a sacred and unshakeable promise to stick around, come what may—and come who may in terms of kids. All that matrimonial “in sickness and health, for richer or poorer, through good times and bad times” business isn’t just about you and your spouse. It’s about your offspring as well. “Love seeks to be definitive; it cannot be an arrangement ‘until further notice,’” the Catechism teaches us. “The ‘intimate union of marriage, as a mutual giving of two persons, and the good of the children, demand total fidelity from the spouses and require an unbreakable union between them’” (CCC 1646, emphasis added).
The permanence of Christian marriage, in other words, is critical for living out the sacrament as a couple, but it is equally critical for the success of parenting—especially for us dads. Why? Because fatherhood is a school, and there’s simply no way to submit to its humbling curriculum if one holds out the possibility of taking off when it gets too rough. We can see the disaster that results from paternal (and equally disastrous maternal) desertion all around us. Our age is beset by fatherly failure at every level of society, and the ramifications go well beyond the resultant broken marriages and families themselves. The first step in rebuilding society and cultural cohesion—the first step, that is, in reducing violence, promoting true justice and peace, and creating real opportunities for temporal advancement—is to teach dads to stay put.
Men, if we marry, then we must care for those God entrusts to us—our wives first of all, but also the children we bring into the world. It doesn’t matter if we’re weak and cowardly and venal when we start. If we determine to stick around, our families will help us change for the better, believe me. It’s the best and most direct way to move from self-absorption to self-sacrifice, and that’s exactly what our families require in these turbulent times.
The same applies to the turbulent times facing the Church with respect to the priesthood. There are many factors that have contributed to the current catastrophe, but one of them has received little if any attention, at least with regards to diocesan clergy: the abandonment of permanent pastoral assignments. We’re so used to priests being moved around like pawns on a chessboard every six years (or twelve if they’re lucky) that we assume it’s just how it’s always been done.
Not so—at least according to the Code of Canon Law. “Those who are appointed as rectors of a parish should remain in office permanently,” reads the 1917 Code (cn. 299), and the updated 1983 Code makes the same point even stronger. “A pastor must possess stability,” reads cn. 522 (with added emphasis), “and therefore is to be appointed for an indefinite period of time.”
It’s true that the cn. 522 goes on to assert that a bishop can appoint pastors for a “specific period” if his conference has decreed such, but it’s also clear that the Church’s mind on this topic remains oriented toward perpetual assignments. At least that’s how I read the decree that the U.S. Bishops promulgated in 1984 (after Vatican approval) which relaxed pastoral stability nationwide. Here it is in full (again, with emphasis added):
Individual ordinaries may appoint pastors to a six-year term of office. The possibility of renewing this term is left to the discretion of the diocesan bishop. The primary provision of canon 522 that pastors may be appointed for an indefinite period of time remains in force.
In other words, Canon Law has long treated pastoral permanence as the norm, and this makes eminent sense for a leadership role that is in so many ways akin to human paternity. We call them Fathers, after all, and well we should. Like dad-shepherds, our pastors are called on to provide for us, liturgically and sacramentally, but sometimes even physically. What’s more, they’re supposed to protect us—from distorted teaching and deadly deviations from virtue—and safely guide us as a pilgrim family on our way to heaven.
But, like their human counterparts, priest-shepherds (and bishop-shepherds for that matter) must grow into their paternal responsibilities and the sacrifices required. They’re ordained men, true, but still men after all with all our men-ish flaws. Thus, they have to learn how to be good dad-pastors, and that requires schooling beyond the seminaries and in the real-world laboratory of parish life. And, just like me in my lifelong fatherly tutelage courtesy of my family, it makes sense that pastors would be similarly rooted in their parish families for indefinite ongoing formation.
Besides, those families ought to have time themselves to get to know their pastor-dads—it’s a two-way formative experience. “It takes several years for a priest to get to know his parishioners well, to discern their spiritual needs,” writes canonist Fr. Stuart MacDonald in comments on cn. 522. “It takes years, especially these days, for the faithful to trust their priests,” and it’s terribly counterproductive, when that trust is established, to uproot good pastors and move them around.
“Permanent pastoral assignments?” you might object. “That’s the last thing we need right now.” That’s an arguable point in the short-term, but consider this: If the last couple of generations of diocesan seminarians had been screened, educated, and ordained with an eye toward their vocation as dads—with a vision for their taking up permanent paternal missions with all that this entails instead of being groomed as professionalized, transient cogs in corporate ministry machines—we might not be in this mess. Or, at least, the mess might not have been as enormous and devastating.
Looking ahead, I’m banking on a revival of priestly pastoral ministry along these lines. It may well be that we’ll get even fewer men to step up to the clerical plate if they know they’ll be pastors for life. So be it. Better a few father-pastors caring for fewer, larger parishes than another generation of itinerant managers who may or may not have internalized a dad-like willingness to die for their kids.
(Photo credit: Pope Francis baptizes infants in the Sistine Chapel on January 10, 2016; CNA / L’Osservatore Romano)