I once attended an annual father-daughter dance with my two daughters at a local school. I always appreciate such events because it reminds me just how important fathers are to their daughters. I got to talking to another dad that I’ve known for five years or so. He’s married with two children. Within the last two or three years him and his wife have been more involved in parish ministries. To be sure, the two of them have taken their faith more seriously. But he is a traveling man and as most men do, he’ll let his wife run the household spiritual activities.
I asked him if he initiated prayer in the evenings when he is home. He answered in the negative. I then asked him if he initiates conversation about Christ at home with his two children. Again, he answered in the negative. Incidentally, he went on to tell me that his family decided to go to the Stations of the Cross devotion on the first Friday of Lent at our local parish. His son, the oldest child, put up a little fuss, claiming that they had gone to Mass the previous Sunday. For him, the practice of the Catholic Faith was a once-a-week deal.
Due to my familiarity with the father, I told him outright that it was his responsibility to initiate family prayers to God, conversation about Christ and the Faith and even to teach (informally or formally) his children about the importance about living the Gospel during the week. I then added: "If you do not groom out of your son the notion his faith is only a once-a-week thing, then you will lose him to the world when he goes to college."
I can’t tell you how many relatives and friends of mine lamented that their kids no longer attended Mass once they got into college. And in almost every single case, these disillusioned parents had developed the habit of confining their spiritual activity or the expression of their faith to Sunday Mass. But somewhere along the way their religion became routine. It was no longer a way of thinking and living. Rather, their Catholicism was something they did on a weekly basis.
What many parents did not realize – especially those who were parents in the mid-twentieth century – was that they came from an era or generation that was favorable to Christianity. During the 1940s and 1950s going through the routine of religious practice was sustainable because American culture was somewhat religious. After all, even Hollywood assumed a respectful posture towards the Christian religion during that time period. But that kind of automated religious practice (one more out of habit than real devotion) was no match for the tidal wave the Sexual Revolution was about to create. Is it any wonder, then, why so many priests and religious left their vocations in the late 1960s? And is it any wonder why there was a precipitous drop in Mass attendance in the years to follow?
No. Children instinctively know that a spiritual cause which requires the commitment and sacrifice of maintaining high moral standards- such as the Catholic Faith requires -can be intelligible only if there is an ongoing relationship with Christ during the week. The participation of the Mass presupposes that relationship. If the home is devoid a Christian culture in the home where Christ is an honored guest (not just an honored guest but the King of the Household) then I am afraid even the smallest of sacrifices, such as getting up on a Sunday morning, will hardly seem worth it. Indeed, the child who is trained in the "once-a-week Catholic” routine, will likely lose their faith in college.
This is where the father comes in. Scripture should be enough to prove this point but I will just mention that there are credible studies out there that show the impact a father has on his children’s spirituality, morality and even sexuality. In 1994 the Swiss conducted a study on parent’s religious practices and the effects it has on their children. When the father regularly attended church, his children were much more likely – 33 percent to 40 percent more likely – to attend church as adults; whereas when the mother attended church regularly (with or without the father), only about 5-6 percent of children kept the faith in their adulthood years.
While the percentages in the Swiss study may not be representative of church-going practices among families worldwide, the findings confirm what the Church has always taught: A father’s impact on the individual child is considerable. His role images God the Father. On the other hand, the mother has a great impact on the unity and relationships among family members. Her role images the Holy Spirit who binds the Father and the Son together in love. No doubt, both gifts overlap. But I do believe it is a great error to say that a father’s gifts are interchangeable with a mother’s gifts; as if neither is unique.
Catholic tradition has it that the father serves as a kind of high priest of the family. In fact, St. Paul told St. Titus that a wife should be under the guidance of her husband so that the “word of God may not be discredited.” (2:5) Because this is so politically incorrect, there are, unfortunately, few commentaries on this. But why would the word of God be discredited in such a case? Herein lies the reason why so many families, and even within the Church, are not as strong as they can be. The life-giving power of fatherhood- both supernatural/priesthood and natural/families –is no longer understood even among Christians. In fact, it is considered a threat when any emphasis is given to it.
Take, for instance, what St. Paul says in I Corinthians: “I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold fast to the traditions, just as I handed them on to you. But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and a husband the head of his wife, and God the head of Christ.” (I Corinthians 11:2-3) To verbally cite this revealed truth in the words St. Paul would make many people cringe. This is why very homilists mention it. After all, the headship and authority of the father is simply deemed to be a threat…even by good Christians. Yet, this interdependence between God and Christ, between Christ and man, and finally between man and woman is a God-given order through which God communicates himself to humanity. Disrupt this order and you begin to breakdown the Christian religion.
You see, the father is the primary mediator between God and his family. Political correctness, egalitarianism or even envy cannot undo this design. As Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XI taught, the father is the head of the family and the mother is the heart. The father governs but the mother reigns. With that said, when the father is missing in action; when he does not lead the family to God – when he does not prepare his children for the world and most importantly – when he does not prepare his family for eternity, then he creates a void that is very, very difficult to fill. God can undoubtedly communicate his grace to children through a single-mom. Although this works as the exception, it does not work well as a rule.
In any case, the father’s role as the spiritual leader of the family is almost sacramental in nature; it is that powerful! Every day is father’s day. Every day is yet one more opportunity for the father of the family take up his responsibility as the high priest of the household. It is he who must make Christ relevant during the week for his family. He must become the gateway through which his children will enter the world; a world that has become unfriendly to its Redeemer. A degree in theology is not required for this sacred vocation. All it takes are two things: time and love. The rest will follow.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.