Thomas Vander Woude Sr. is pictured with six of his seven sons in 2002.
Three and a half years ago, I was called to an emergency room to console a family that had lost its dad. I also anointed the injured son whom the father had died to save. Priests are often called to the hospitals, but this visit was different: The dad was my father, Thomas Vander Woude, and the son he saved was my youngest brother, Joseph.
Priests are often called to the hospitals, but this visit was different: The dad was my father, Thomas Vander Woude, and the son he saved was my youngest brother, Joseph.
My father’s death came after Joseph, who has Down syndrome, fell into a septic tank on the family’s land. My father jumped into the tank to rescue Joseph but was unable to climb out himself. My dad’s heroic action was the fulfillment of his vocation, as every husband and father is called to sacrifice his life for his wife and children. His fulfillment as a man and the joy of his vocation depend on it.
St. Paul exhorts men to love their wives “as Christ loved the Church, handing himself over for her” (Eph 5:25). How does a husband and father hand himself over to his bride and children? He follows the example of Jesus Christ, who offered himself on the cross for his bride (the Church) and for his children (all of us). Most husbands and fathers will not be required to give up their lives to the point of death. But every husband and father is required to give up his life for his wife and children in daily sacrifice. The small and hidden sacrifices of family life can be challenging but can lead to perfection when practiced over time.
In fact, every man whether single, married or consecrated is called to give himself to God and his neighbor. A boy learns this lesson of self-gift in the family, particularly from his father. Even more important than a father’s words to his sons is his example of self-gift to his family and to God. When a father speaks of sacrifice through his actions, a boy learns the essence of manhood.
In our family of seven sons, we learned this self-sacrifice from our father. We learned love. My father influenced me greatly in my own vocation and taught me how to love God and others. I watched him pray daily at Mass and lead our family in the rosary. By example, he taught me and my brothers to sacrifice for loved ones and family. Dad gave up a career in the military for our family. He and mom moved so their sons could receive strong Catholic schooling. My father spent time with us in sports and working around the house. He also taught me the lesson of hard work that he learned growing up on a farm. Granted, I did not learn the patience to work with my hands as well as my brothers did. However, dad instilled in me the discipline to give my full effort in my work to get the job done. As a priest, I learned to love my spouse, the Church, and my children, my parishioners.
The news of my father’s death spread quickly through local and national news. Even in our skeptical, self-centered culture, something is compelling about the story of a father giving up his life for his son. It affirms everything we know to be right and echoes the sacrifice that Jesus made for us.
The example of a father to his sons can and should guide them to live and love as men. Such an example will undoubtedly involve a life of daily prayer in which one encounters the perfect man, Jesus Christ. Sons will learn the virtues necessary to be dedicated husbands and fathers, whether physical or spiritual. I am thankful to Almighty God for the gift of my father, who guided me in word and example how to be a man.
Father Vander Woude is pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Gainesville, Va., where he is a member of Our Lady of the Rosary Council 12986.