The Catholic contribution to male spirituality was relatively sparse until the 1990s when, sparked largely by the success of the Protestant Promise Keepers movement, interest in strengthening the faith of men and helping them to deepen their relationship with God—while increasing their knowledge of the Catholic faith through apologetics and catechesis—began to rise. Today, the resurgent Catholic men’s movement has yielded a steadily growing number of conferences, books, study programs, prayer groups and several male-oriented Catholic television series. Much of the Catholic literature has focused on fatherhood but recent works have broadened the spectrum, embracing a more holistic approach to male spirituality.
Clayton C. Barbeau’s excellent book, The Father of the Family: A Christian Perspective (Sophia Institute Press, 2013), an updated and expanded edition of his earlier work, The Head of the Family (Sophia Institute Press, 2002/The Liturgical Press, 1970), explores various aspects of Christian fatherhood with a wonderful blend of timeless spiritual wisdom and practical insight. Although written for fathers, Barbeau’s book provides rich fare for any man who hungers to go deeper in his faith. A family therapist by trade, Barbeau is careful not to psychoanalyze fathers, avoiding the mistake of Richard Rohr and others who have lost authentic male spirituality amidst the exploration of Jungian archetypes. The Father of the Family, by presenting a spirituality that truly embraces what it means to be a man of God, makes for an effective weapon of choice against the ever-encroaching culture of death.
Four aspects of Barbeau’s presentation on fatherhood stand out in this book: the power of God’s love in a father’s life; his use of Scripture; the direct, to-the-point style of writing; and the wonderful balance between the spiritual and practical dimensions of Christian fatherhood.
Like the hook of a popular song that you constantly hum, the love of God is a constant theme that flows seamlessly throughout the entire book. This new edition reads like an extended reflection of Pope Emeritus Benedict’s first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”) or even a homily by Pope Francis, with a splash of Saint John Paul II’s theology of the body thrown in for good measure. Barbeau understands that he’s writing to men, and does not dilute and trivialize the power of God’s love in a father’s life so that it becomes unrecognizable as the driving force of male spirituality. The evangelistic moment of a man’s encounter with Truth—the realization and subsequent inculcation of Christ’s love in the life of a husband and father—is not a mere expression of a “feminine side” but connects his life to the Cross: “the essence of love is sacrifice. We have the constant reminder of Christ’s Cross that it is through sacrifice that love is proved […] The lifelong sacrifice of ourselves to the good of others is what constitutes our fatherhood in its fullness” (34).
This thread of love is woven into every aspect of fatherhood that Barbeau presents (i.e., the father as creator, lover, Christ, priest, teacher, breadwinner and saint) and he does a particularly masterful job at integrating the fecundity of God’s love into the conjugal act, observing that for a husband and wife “the tremendous paradox of marriage is this: the most bodily expression of love is also the most spiritual expression of love” (12).
Scripture and fatherhood
There is no doubt that by prayerfully reading the Bible, men can have a deeply meaningful and profound encounter with God the Father. Men can personally experience Christ, the Word who became flesh, through a fuller and deeper understanding of how to read the Bible as a Catholic man, come to acknowledge that this is important, and realize that he can to use the Bible for moral and ethical guidance. Being open to the Holy Spirit, the Catholic man will take his Bible off the shelf and start reading it every day, begin to see himself and his life in the pages of Scripture, and then use this knowledge to grow spiritually as a man of God.
This approach to Scripture is evident in The Father of the Family where—with a few exceptions—every footnote is a biblical reference. More than that, Barbeau uses the Scripture verses like a virtuoso musician uses arpeggios in a solo: he understands that it’s not about how fast you can play but how the notes compliment the entire composition.
For example, in the Introduction where Barbeau distinguishes a true father from a mere biological one, he states that the “notion of responsibility is at the crux of true fatherhood. The conscious sense of responsibility for the physical and spiritual well-being of others is the mark of a true father. It was in this sense that Joseph was the father of Jesus. Finding the boy Jesus in the temple, Mary says: ‘Your father and I have been looking for You with great anxiety’ [Luke 2:48]” (xiv). After reading Barbeau’s comments on responsibility, one expects to read how Joseph protected the Holy Family, exercising his paternal responsibility with great courage (e.g., Matt 2:13, 19-22). Instead Barbeau gives us the words of the Blessed Mother, who acknowledged Joseph’s adoptive fatherhood as equal with her own biological motherhood, and that they both shared the anxious worry any parent would feel under similar circumstances. The point Barbeau makes here is that being listed on a child’s birth certificate doesn’t make you a father but a true father shows a love and “a generosity free of any thought of reward; a true image, indeed, of the loving fatherhood of God” (xv).
My favorite aspect of this book is Barbeau’s no-nonsense, direct approach when making a point. He understands that men receive information differently that women, and that a firm, to-the-point style is an effective way to communicate truth to men. “We do not use our authority for our own good … but for the temporal and eternal good that we will for those we love. The man who does not see his authority as essentially a means whereby he serves those for whom he is responsible neither knows what authority is nor deserves to have it” (29).
In the chapter entitled “Father as Breadwinner,” Barbeau addresses a father’s often difficult task of balancing family, work and faith. He encourages men to make relationship with God our unconditional top priority. “if we give our children only the material goods of this world … we shall starve them to death, and, before God, we shall have to answer for our crime” (107). In typical Barbeau style, he underscores his point with Scripture, specifically, the sobering words from our Lord in Matthew’s Gospel: “[w]hoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea [Matthew 18:5-6]” (107). Such an admonition should make any father sit up and take notice.
Priests of the domestic church
Barbeau also does an admirable job incorporating spiritual and practical considerations for Christian fathers. In the chapter, “Father as Priest”, he examines the vocation of fathers as priests of the domestic church. The priest of the home must accept the responsibility of living the Gospel by his words and actions. In a world filled with temptation and sin, living Gospel values can be challenging. It takes discipline and self-control to hone virtue and holiness within the family. As such, fathers should be the locus of order and life-giving authority in the home.
As the priests of the home, men are to offer their lives as a sacrifice for their children, lead family prayers, establish faith-based household rituals and customs, give blessings, and help their kids to love the Mass. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass should lead fathers to personal relationship with God, uniting him so closely to Christ that the Eucharist becomes the very soul and center of his spiritual and family life. “The father who participates in the Mass regularly gives to his children a far more convincing statement as to the importance of the Mass than all his words do” (63).
Finally, Barbeau spends a significant amount of time in the book exploring the relationship between sex and marriage. His approach is unique in that he gives no consideration whatsoever to the plethora of vices that many men struggle with on a daily basis (pornography, masturbation, contraception, etc.). Rather, Barbeau opts to give fathers a theology of the body mini-course, placing sexual intimacy within the context of covenant relationship, chastity, and the communion of persons. He is confident that this holistic formation approach will yield an abundant harvest of graces for fathers by deepening the connection between a man’s heart, mind, and soul when he thinks about sex; moving men toward the beauty and truth of human sexuality in conformity with the natural law; and forming the consciences of fathers in such a way that they approach the marital embrace with honor, reverence and respect for God. “A mutual love and a mutual desire to bring and give to the other’s whole person will bring about gestures, caresses, and other expressions of love so rich and so unselfconscious that one could only degrade them by calling them a ‘technique’” (9).
Barbeau, however, does not shy away from giving good, solid advice for fathers who experience the cross of temptation. In the chapter “Father as Saint,” Barbeau shows his skill in balancing the theological and practical by addressing how a father expresses love and intimacy with his wife during her menstrual cycle, concluding that “the man who has mastery over his sexual powers, who practices restraint, is the man who will be capable of finding in those times of abstinence a deepening love for his wife” (127). As people of the Cross, Catholics do not soon forget that there is no resurrection without crucifixion. Spiritual fathers must learn to take hold of the Cross in their lives; to open themselves to the love, the peace, and the real joy that flows from the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and to live this reality every day of our lives. It is only when we begin to understand the gift of vulnerability lived from the Cross that we will know what it means to be a man of God.
Exceptional, accessible resource
The Father of the Family is an excellent addition to the burgeoning male spirituality canon. It is very readable—not exceedingly intellectual or overly simplistic—and because it is comprehensive in both breadth and scope, this book is very accessible at all levels of interest, most especially for new dads, converts, and young men who want a deeper, more personal experience of their spirituality as men. Barbeau connects the tenets of Christian fatherhood with the every day lived experience, recognizing that all men are called to be spiritual fathers. Hence, the book becomes a grace-filled roadmap that men can use to lead their families to greater holiness, while identifying and avoiding temporal and spiritual pitfalls along the way. “In Christ, even our failures become a source of grace when we accept them in imitation of His humility and courage; even our anxieties become a path to holiness when we ally them with His sufferings” (pg.119).
The Father of the Family is a must-have resource for every man or men’s group that is committed to restoring an authentic fatherhood model of servant-leadership in the home, the Church, and the world.
Father of the Family: A Christian Perspective
by Clayton C. Barbeau
Sophia Institute Press, 2013
Softcover, 160 pages
• Related: “Calling Men To Be Icons of God the Father” (May 6, 2014)