The family is under attack in today’s culture. Not surprisingly, the forces that seek to undermine traditional family values take particular aim at fathers, Catholic experts say.
“Our culture attacks fatherhood by trying to make it irrelevant,” said Thomas Wurtz, director of Varsity Catholic, an offshoot of the FOCUS evangelization group that works specifically with athletes.
It’s not just the culture’s doing, with its easy acceptance of broken families, same-sex “marriage,” surrogate motherhood and a woman’s legal right to abortion. Certainly, such trends tell fathers that “it doesn’t matter if you’re there or not,” Wurtz said. Yet a lot has to do with men’s own weakness and failure to live out the masculine and fatherly role.
“We’ve done that to ourselves as men,” Wurtz said, as many men have become workaholics, addicted to sports, if not pornography, and succumb to other distractions that take them away from spending time with their children. Even when they are home, dads can thereby disengage from their families to the point that they become virtually absent fathers.
“They have lost the sense of mission when it comes to family,” and “that passivity robs men of what their role is supposed to be,” said Tim Gray, president of the Denver-based Augustine Institute.
Wurtz and Gray were among Catholic leaders interviewed in the “Fatherhood” episode of the Into the Breach video series produced by the Knights of Columbus. The series and its accompanying study guide are based on the 2015 apostolic exhortation of the same name by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix, which challenges all Catholic men to step up to live their vocation “to do the work of Christ’s soldiers in the world today.”
When fathers are not present or abdicate their roles, it’s a crisis for both the Church and the wider society, according to Father Sean Kilcawley, family life director for the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb.
“We have a lot of young people growing up with absent fathers or with no fathers,” Father Kilcawley said. “The Church is starved for fatherhood. Answering that call means stepping up to be an example of Christ’s love in their own families, in their parish communities and in the world.”
Fathers are to be providers, protectors and spiritual leaders of their family. In that role, a father must emulate the very fatherhood of God to his children. That image takes the form of unconditional love. “This is a great and deep longing of every human heart — to be loved, to be known, to be seen, to be chosen,” said Sister Maria Stella of the Sisters of Life. “God places this love in our hearts, and he brings it to life in our earthly fathers. And this is what allows a child to flourish.”
God grants men the authority to form their children in faith, said Curtis Martin, founder of FOCUS. “When men abdicate that responsibility, it leaves their children fatherless,” he said, which robs children “of one of the most significant influences in their life.”
As a Humble Shepherd
Mike Sweeney, who had a 15-year professional baseball career mainly with the Kansas City Royals, described a father’s role as that of a “good shepherd” who leads his wife and children to heaven. Becoming that kind of father requires a strong relationship with God through prayer and the sacraments.
“I cannot be a good father to my six children unless I am a good son to God the Father,” Sweeney said. “And that means getting up in the morning and spending time reading God’s word. It means humbly serving my wife and loving her like Ephesians 5 says, as Christ loves his Church.”
In a culture that is “all about me,” humility is the key to fatherhood, he said.
“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less often. It’s thinking, I’m a child of God. I’m called to be a saint. And I’m not going to think of myself — I’m going to pour myself into everyone else. That’s humility. On the baseball field, it’s called being a good teammate. It’s considering your other teammates as more important than yourself.”
Sweeney said he remembers his own father modeling that family leadership — spending time at home every day, leading the family in prayer, working hard to provide and taking the family to Mass every Sunday. The former baseball player believes that’s vital if children are to be formed as faith-filled Catholic adults.
“The reason we have so many young people falling away is because fathers aren’t living out their faith,” Sweeney said. “The future of my children depends on who I am in this home today. My kids see me going to confession every month [and] going to daily Mass because they know I want to be filled up with Christ.”
It’s not enough to just take the kids to church or send them to Catholic school, said Matt Birk, a former All-Pro center for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens.
“That’s just meant to complement what you’re doing in the house,” he advised. “If you’re not partaking in regular prayer, reading the Bible and saying the rosary, that’s the father’s job.”
For fellow professional athlete Sweeney, the sacrifices he makes as a father are not just for the sake of his children’s formation in faith, but for his own holiness as well as he lives out his vocation.
“I don’t want to be just a good dad,” he said. “I want to be the greatest dad ever. My desire is, through God’s grace, that I be a saint.”
To view episodes of the Into the Breach video series and to access the study guide and other resources for promoting the series in your parish, visit kofc.org/intothebreach.