Twenty-six years ago, my life changed forever.
When my wife Colleen and I were married, we made a permanent decision to love; to give ourselves to each other freely and completely. In doing this, we entered into a profound and intimate relationship; we became a one-flesh covenant in communion with Christ through the gift of sacramental grace.
The real power of Love
The life-giving bond that Colleen and I share is so powerful and so real that we had to give that love names: Claire, Angela, Benjamin, and Sophia. Children are the result of the central act of sacrifice and worship between a husband and wife, namely, the union of their bodies in the conjugal act, which mirrors the total gift of self by the Eucharistic Christ to his Church. Together, the married couple forms a lifelong, self-donating, and indissoluble union of love: a “communion of persons intended to bear witness on earth and to image the intimate communion of persons within the Trinity” (William E. May, Marriage: The Rock on Which the Family is Built , 65).
Marriage and, indeed, all the sacraments, tell us something about who God is. Marriage, in fact, reflects the reality that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are of one divine nature, essence, and substance, for Scripture tell us: “God created man in His image; in the divine image He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27), and again “‘this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’ Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:23-24).
In creating husbands and wives, God has made two things very clear: first, that the one-flesh union between a husband and wife reflects His own divine image and likeness, and second, the fact that husbands and wives are truly equal does not mean they are the same person or have the same role in the marriage.
We can understand the role of husbands and fathers within marriage by correctly interpreting chapter five of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, particularly verses 22-24: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body . . . As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.”
St. Paul is saying that wives should put themselves under the mission of their husbands. What is the mission of the husband? Verse 25: to “love your wives as Christ loved the Church.” How did Christ love the Church? He gave himself up for her; he died for her. Jesus tells us, ‘I came into the world not to be served but to serve’ and to lay down my life for my bride. “The husband’s headship in the family derives from the fact that he is the chief servant” (Christopher West, audio tape, “Sacramentality of Marriage”).
Fathers who follow Christ to the Cross
Our role as husbands and fathers necessarily means that we must sacrifice everything: our bodies, our desires and wills, our hopes and dreams; everything we have and everything we are for the sake of our wives and children. Living our fatherhood by the example of Christ on the Cross is what separates the boys from the men: what separates the men who are merely “daddies” from the real men who are truly fathers.
Our spiritual fatherhood is truly authentic when it is “centered in Jesus Christ and through him to the Trinity” (Jordan Aumann, Spiritual Theology , 17). Jesus, in the Gospel of John, confirms this authentic spirituality when he said to His disciples “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). To be authentically spiritual, then, means that we must enter into the life of Christ and, through God’s grace and the Holy Spirit, transform our hearts, minds and wills to that of Christ’s.
It is only through Christ that we can receive salvation and any spirituality that is truly genuine must be Christocentric and Trinitarian at its very core. Lumen Gentium, the Vatican II document on the Church, states it this way: “The followers of Christ . . . have been made sons of God in the baptism of faith and partakers of the divine nature, and so are truly sanctified” (Lumen Gentium, n.40).
Hence, it is only through an authentic spirituality of fatherhood, a spirituality that imitates Christ; that meditates on God’s Word and responds to that Word in faith and, through the Holy Spirit, makes us share in the Triune life, that we can foster and nurture growth in holiness. The more we act under God’s spirit, the more we seek to know and to do God’s holy will in our lives, the more we implore the assistance and grace of the Holy Spirit, the more we grow in holiness. The Lord Jesus is the quintessential model of holiness and by following His perfect example, we grow in our love of God, our families and ourselves.
The Most Blessed Sacrament is the source of spiritual fatherhood because the Eucharist is Jesus Christ. It is not a symbol or representation of Christ, but the reality of God with whom we are in intimate relationship: a relationship which “draws the faithful and sets them aflame with Christ’s insistent love” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n.10).
The Eucharist, therefore, is the fountain where we receive the strength, power, and grace to seek the Lord in faith, hope, and love. The Eucharist is the beginning of spiritual fatherhood and “is for the soul the most certain means of remaining united to Jesus” (Abbot Columba Marmion, O.S.B., Christ the Life of the Soul: Spiritual Conferences, 261). It is a deepening of the relationship which began in Baptism and realizes a level of intimacy which is inherently supernatural and mysterious, yet inexhaustive. In the reception of the Eucharist, we literally become one with God in a way that is purposeful and real. It is the “fount” from which flows the definition of who we are as men in terms of our relationship with Christ. By receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, we become more of who we already are in Christ “who maintains and increases the Divine life in us” (Marmion, 263).
Strengthened by the Eucharist, fathers should personify and exude faith, that is, they should exhibit a clear awareness that the work of the Church is, first and foremost, God’s work. Therefore, we should foster on-going growth in faith and personal formation, which must include daily prayer, so that our spirituality is firmly grounded in the Trinity and the Catholic faith.
Taking the Faith to the entire family
Spiritual fathers must be aware of the influence of secular thought and culture, with its disordered values, ideologies, and disintegrated view of the human person, and its profound influence within and upon our children today. Many of our teenagers and young adults are struggling to hold on to the Catholic belief in absolute and objective truth. Many, because they have been poorly catechized in the faith, plummet down the slippery precipice of subjective and relativistic “truth”; of societal norms that place themselves as the center of all reality and truth.
This view is in direct contrast to the life and mission of Jesus Christ and is, therefore, the antithesis of the life and mission of the Church. Solid faith formation within the family must occur and operate within the context of faith and Church, so that, as the domestic church, we are continually molded into the image of Christ for the purpose of salvation. Pride of place must be given to a systematic approach to disseminating the teachings of the Catholic Church–firmly rooted in the foundational truths of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and grace as revealed to us in Sacred Scripture, passed down through Sacred Tradition, and protected by the Magisterium–that makes Jesus Christ come alive in the hearts of our youth (cf. Luke 24:32).
To this end, the chief servant of the family must nurture an atmosphere of inclusion in all aspects of family and parish life so that even the young persons, “who by Baptism are incorporated into Christ and integrated into the People of God, are made sharers in their particular way in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly office of Christ, and have their own part to play in the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world” (CCC, 896). The youth should participate fully in the evangelizing and sanctifying activity of the domestic church as well as the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, the renewal of the social order in the spirit of the gospel, and the pastoral ministry of the parish.
In addition, the sacramental dimension of family life must be encouraged in young people. The home must embody a spirituality that enhances and promotes devotion and active participation in the Eucharist where “grace is channeled into us and the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God, to which all other activities of the Church are directed as toward their goal, are most powerfully achieved” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n.10). This must be accompanied by a deeper appreciation and understanding of the reality of sin and the need for frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance.
All of this must be fostered in the home, the domestic Church and foundation of the parish community, where education in the fundamental truths of the faith are nurtured, fostered, and ensconced through family prayer, e.g. rosaries, Eucharistic Adoration, weekly attendance at Mass, recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours, and Scripture study. Families, led by truly spiritual fathers, are a special witness to God’s loving plan in the world and the breeding ground for future generations of Catholic men and women. Hence, the domestic Church, while always remaining faithful to the Magisterium, must work together as an evangelizing society to produce “shining witnesses and models of holiness” in the world (Lumen Gentium, n.39).
The qualities of fatherhood must include practical aspects as well. We should be empathetic, careful, and attentive listeners. As chief servants of the domestic church, we must develop the skills to become excellent managers of our time and family resources that must be exercised “in accord with the knowledge, competence, and preeminence which [we] possess [and] with consideration for the common good and the dignity of persons” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.907).
To do this effectively, the spiritual father must see clearly with the eyes of Jesus Christ, through the lenses of faith, hope, and love. This vision, in turn, must give spiritual strength to the faithful, concreteness to the domestic church, and extend charitably to the broader community. We must live our lives “in harmony with [our] faith so that [we] can become the light of the world. We need that undeviating honesty which can attract all men to the love of truth and goodness, and finally to the Church and to Christ” (Apostolicam Actuositatem, n.13).
The spirituality of fatherhood must be rooted in Jesus Christ, the pillar of our salvation, through whom we can begin to understand the depths of the Heavenly Father’s loving kindness. If we follow Christ’s example and allow ourselves to be open to the Father, who is rich in mercy, we can “evoke in the soul a movement of conversion, in order to redeem it and set it on course toward reconciliation” (Pope John Paul II, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, n.20). Our response to God’s love and mercy must be that of the prodigal son: recognition of our sinfulness, humility before the Father, and the conversion of our hearts, minds, and wills.
We must lead our families under Christ’s call to service, because it is only by imitating the self-sacrificing Christ that we can ever hope to be role models and heroes worthy of the whole families gratitude and honor.
(Editor’s note: This essay has been updated from a 2004 essay first published at IgnatiusInsight.com.)
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