In an era of family breakdown and easy divorce, there is still hope for Catholic families to grow and develop under the leadership of fathers – both biological and spiritual. But men today must confront new challenges to their traditional roles.
“The greatest force pulling apart fathers and children is divorce,” said Brian Caulfied, editor of the website Fathers for Good. He told CNA that over time, children of divorce “generally have little or no contact with their biological fathers.”
“It's tough to put a broken glass back together, and the pieces never again quite fit,” said Caulfield, the father of two children.
An analysis released in June 2011 by the Pew Research Center shows that in 1960, 11 percent of children in the U.S. did not live with their fathers. The number increased in 2010, with 27 percent living away from their paternal figure.
Father Gerald Murray, a priest in the Archdiocese of New York, also pointed to divorce as “a big deal,” even if many Americans now accept it.
“The union of husband and wife, leading to children, is meant to be a stable unit to the benefit of all involved,” said Fr. Murray in a June 17 interview with CNA.
But there is good news, as well. The Pew Research Center's recent study also found that fathers who do live with their children are spending more time with them, in interactions such as helping with school work, playing and having meals together.
In 1965, fathers who lived with their children spent about 2.6 hours per week with taking care of them – whereas, by 2000, they spent an average of 6.5 hours with them.
Caulfield believes many dads are reacting against four decades of family breakdown. “We are all tired and disillusioned with our divorce culture,” he said.
Reaching one's full potential as a father, he said, requires a personal relationship with God the Father.
“You can't do it on your own, and that's where faith comes in,” he observed. “Without my Catholic faith, I don't know how I could live through the many trials of fatherhood with a sense of hope.”
Priests, who take their traditional title from the notion of spiritual fatherhood, have an even higher calling in this regard. Fr. Curtiss Dwyer, director of pastoral formation at Denver's St. John Vianney Seminary, said that the priesthood is also all about being a “provider, protector and guide to people.”
“To be able to stand in a position to help protect God’s children is a very fulfilling aspect of priesthood,” Fr. Dwyer said. “Celebrating Mass, you are providing and giving nourishment to God’s family.”
Another gratifying aspect of being a spiritual father, Fr. Murray observed, is being able to see children grow in their faith.
“You realize that, through God’s providence, you were the instrument for the beginning of their Christian life,” by baptizing them.
All three men agree that fathers have to be an example of serious faith for their children. They have to “pray, go to Confession, and go to Mass,” Fr. Murray said.
Caulfield says this good example, or lack thereof, can make or break a child's faith. “Unless dad is seen to be involved in the faith and showing his kids that it's important, the children will tend to fall away.”
The examples of both biological and spiritual fathers set the foundation for children to grow and develop – on earth, and hopefully, in heaven.
“Your child is really God's child,” Caulfield said.