Before diving in to my reflection, I invite you to please watch this short film (2 minutes, 40 seconds) produced by Blackstone Films. It is a fantastic message for Catholic fathers about their importance from www.strongcatholicdad.com.
The About section of Strong Catholic Dad reads: “Strong Catholic Dad exists to help fathers lead their families to heaven. Founded by Michael O’Rourke, father of 12 (two in heaven), we equip dads to grow in their own relationship with the Lord, build fulfilling relationships with their wife and kids, and pass on the Catholic Faith to their children.”
The Impact of Fatherhood on Faith
A study conducted by the Swiss government in 1994 and published in 2000 entitled “The Demographic Characteristics of the Linguistic and Religious Groups in Switzerland” found the following:
1) If both mother and father attend church regularly, 33% of children will end up being regular churchgoers and 41% will attend irregularly. 25% will end up leaving the practice of religion altogether.
2) If the father is irregular and the mother is regular in the practice of religion, then 3% of children will become regular religious practitioners, 59% will become irregular, and 38% will not practice at all.
3) If the father is non-practicing and the mother is regular, then only 2% of children will become regular religious practitioners, 37% will irregularly practice, and over 60% of children will not practice religion at all.
These numbers show the stark reality of the importance of fatherhood in the practice of religion. Notice also that the bar that is set is to regularly attend church. Imagine if the father was also personally engaged in catechizing his children, living as a good and virtuous man, actively engaged in praying with his family at home, and furthering his own knowledge of the Faith. I would have to imagine that the number would jump from 33% to a much higher number.
Like Father, Like Son
Human fathers are the preeminent model for behavior, belief, and value for their children. The father is the embodiment of culture, both in the family and in the world. Historically, the statistics show that if the father is engaged in a particular religious or cultural practice, then the family has more chance of following suit. As important as motherhood is, the statistics do not show the same effect that fathers have.
None of this is said to devalue motherhood. Mothers bring safety and security. They feed, clothe, and guide children. The emotional and mental health of a child is very much dependent on their mother. Of course, this is a generality. Children raised by single fathers can have the same good health, but it requires the father to embody both motherhood and fatherhood for the child.
From a societal standpoint, the mother brings forth life, she is caring, compassionate, nurturing, and provides stability for a child. The father, on the other hand, extends a balance of encouraging a child to progress while protecting the child from dangerous elements. This is a balance because it is possible to be over-protective or too permissive.
If the father has a strong sense of cultural and religious identity, which is put into practice, then the children stand a much better chance to embody this identity themselves. The phrase “like father, like son” is not so much a nice sentiment as it is a paradigm. If something is important to a father, then it will be important to their son, if the father is a good father.
A Good Father
What makes a man a good father? This is an expansive and difficult question and there is no one, simple answer. But I will offer a few key traits.
In a study entitled “Fathers and Their Impact on Children’s Well-being” on www.childwelfare.gov the following is reported. If a father is caring and involved, the children have better educational outcomes, have better socialization with their peers, better verbal skills, intellectual functioning, and better regulation of feelings and behavior. It is also stated that
“a mother who feels affirmed by her children’s father and who enjoys the benefits of a happy relationship is more likely to be a better mother. Indeed, the quality of the relationship affects the parenting behavior of both parents. They are more responsive, affectionate, and confident with their infants; more self-controlled in dealing with defiant toddlers; and better confidants for teenagers seeking advice and emotional support.”
So, a good father is first a good husband. If you are living the Sacrament of Matrimony, then your first and primary goal is your wife. If the relationship is solid between husband and wife, then the relationship with their children will benefit greatly. The converse is true as well, if the relationship between husband and wife is rocky or broken, then the children will be adversely affected.
According to Child Welfare Information Gateway, a father ought to be a healthy model of masculinity, protective of his children, disciplines his children appropriately, serves as a guide to the outside world, and provides for his family. In terms of being a role model, a father should promote the mission of his family, should abide by the spirit and letter of the rules that govern family life, and should acknowledge their mistakes.
Role Model of the Faith
I think the last point is important to apply to living the Faith as an apprenticeship. To be a mentor or role model, the father needs to promote the mission of the family, abide by the rules, and acknowledge mistakes.
To promote the mission of the family is to unambiguously and explicitly state that the mission of each member of the family is to get to Heaven, to be a saint. Spiritually, the father is the priest of his domestic church. So, the mission of holiness must be all-encompassing.
Second, the rules of the family need to be based firmly on the rules of the Church. The Ten Commandments are not the “ten suggestions” and the Beatitudes are non-negotiable. The spirit and letter of the law of the Church, rooted in Jesus Christ, needs to be the primary motivation of the family and ordering-principle of the way that the family functions.
Finally, the father needs to be willing to recognize and apologize when he has done wrong. This needs to be done publicly. Of course, there are common sense boundaries to this. The father should not scandalize his children or betray their innocence. It is more of a disposition of the spirit to be quick to seek forgiveness.
Set the Tone, Call the Plays, and Be a Man
Dads, it is up to us to set the tone for our families. If our goal is Heaven and we communicate this goal in all that we say and do, then our families will follow suit. We need to call the play, so to speak, because if we do not, the world will. Finally, we need to live admonition of St. Josemaria Escriva: “esto vir,” which is Latin for “be a man.”
If you bring your children to Jesus and introduce them to a real relationship with Him, then they will take it seriously. If you shirk your responsibility, you will be held responsible for your omission. Be who you are called to be in your Baptism. The moment you became a father, God has not ceased to give His grace to you. Accept it and cooperate with His grace, for the good of your family and the whole world.
Family life is hard. Being a saint is hard. Being a husband and father is difficult. Yet, the answer is simple: “man up.” Esto vir, brothers.