Archbishop William E. Lori
Editor’s Note: This article is part five in a special series on men’s spirituality.
Years ago, as a seminarian, I bought tickets for a church raffle. Returning to my room, I looked at them more carefully. The fine print read: “You must be present to win.” Since I could not be present for the drawing, I threw the raffle tickets away. While I don’t think that rule is a good way to run a raffle, it is a good rule for every father. When it comes to being a father, you must be present to win.
AN ACTIVE PRESENCE
In order to see what it means “to be present” and “to win” in fatherhood, let us first examine how fathers can be absent. Even when they are not counted among the staggering statistics of fatherless homes, fathers can be physically absent either too preoccupied with work or too devoted to leisure activities. Second, they can be emotionally absent from their wives and children. If dad comes home from work only to fall asleep every night on the couch in front of the television, he’s not really present to his family. A third way fathers can be absent is by being uninterested in their children’s lives their ups and downs at school, their questions and struggles, even their achievements. Fathers also sometimes neglect their families by leaving responsibilities such as household chores and family discipline to their wives.
When fathers are absent, what do they lose? Often they lose the affection of their wives and children, and they deprive themselves of the great joy and challenge of being involved in their children’s growth and development. As a result, they also lose a sense of their identity and self-worth. All too often, absent fathers hasten the breakup of their marriages and lose custody of their children. And what do children lose? Deprived of the fatherly presence that they so deeply need and desire, children can become wounded and conflicted. In the end, the whole family loses when dad is absent.
Let us focus instead on what it means for a father to be present to his family. As we’ve seen, a father must be more than physically present but physical presence is a good place to start. It’s important for mom, dad and the kids to spend time at home. It’s often the case that parents and children are so overscheduled that they are like ships passing in the night; they live in the same house almost as strangers.
One of the best things a family can do is eat dinner together. A father must also be engaged with his wife and children, expressing interest in their activities and ready to discuss matters of importance. I remember how my own dad used to help me with math and how much that meant to me. Dads should also take an active interest in their children’s extracurricular activities by going to their sports events, school plays and musical performances.
Together with his wife, a father should be involved in the religious formation of his children. This means more than just dropping off the children at religious education classes. Religious education does not “take” unless parents actively demonstrate their own faith. And in a time when many fathers are absent from Sunday Mass, it is especially powerful when a dad really helps his children to know the Lord and love the faith of the Church. The witness of both mom and dad praying and practicing the faith every day is essential for evangelizing and catechizing their children.
When a father is present to his family, he is more likely than not to “win” the affection of his wife and children. But like everything else in life, winning is not always easy. Family members often clash over things big and small, while rivalries and jealousies are not uncommon. Sons and daughters sometimes chafe at wise rules set by loving parents. The temptation can be strong to run away and say, “I work hard every day I don’t need this!”
But this gets us to the heart of the matter. Winning the affection and love of one’s family is not a mere strategy for making life at home more pleasant. No, the image of winning portrayed in the Gospel is that of self-giving. When you add up all the ways a father can and should be present to his family, they amount to more than just offering time and energy. Winning at fatherhood really means the willingness to give of yourself day in and day out becoming a real presence and a true gift to your wife and loved ones.
Self-giving, in fact, is at the heart of every vocation. Our faith hinges on Christ’s gift of self on the cross. In baptism, we are called to become like Christ and are given the grace to make our lives an offering of love to God and others. Husbands and wives give themselves totally to each other in the sacrament of marriage, opening themselves to the beauty of new life, the gift of children. By consciously and continually giving oneself each day to Christ, to the Church and to one’s family, parents find the path to wisdom in raising their children in truth and love. It’s impossible for parents to protect their children from all harm or even from choosing wrong paths in life. Patient and persistent self-giving love is the only thing that ultimately prevails. Fathers, you really must be present to win!