The Way of Beauty A Tribute to Fathers

Pieter van Lint   St Joseph carrying the Child Jesus on the left arm

From ancient times, men have reflected on the role of fathers and their family relationships.  In the 1972 crime film "The Godfather," Don Vito Corleone (Marlin Brando) counsels his eldest son Santino (James Caan):  "A man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man."  Studies show that fathers who put family first are usually good husbands and fathers. 

Fathers come in all different shapes, sizes, and personalities, a fact best seen in father-roles on the screen and television.

The Movies

In the "Father of the Bride," the versatile Spencer Tracey plays a comically neurotic father. Weeks before his daughter's wedding, he's subject to apoplectic fits as costs for the event continue to rise. 

In "Life with Father," Clarence Day (William Powell), a thrifty banker, is a stickler for rules in a family with four boys. Clare's dislike of surprises makes for fun when, time and again, his wife Vinnie (Irene Dunne) outwits him with her confounding 'woman's logic.'  

Yes, we have super-Dads like Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) who, in the film, "To Kill a Mockingbird," exceeds our expectations of fatherhood.  A widower and defense lawyer with two young and impressionable children, Atticus is devoted to them not only as father but also as a patient teacher. 

In the television drama, "Blue Bloods," Frank Reagan, played by Tom Selleck, is the Police Commissioner of the NYPD.  Not only is he the beloved patriarch of the Reagan family but he has also earned the respect, admiration, and affection of his officers.

An Outstanding Father on Nightly News

A few years ago, Bret Baier, the Anchor of Fox Special Report, took a leave of absence when his infant son Paul underwent heart surgery.  He and his wife remained at Paul's bedside round the clock, and this experience only deepened their Catholic faith. 


Despite their disabilities, wounded male veterans still manage to fulfill their roles as loving husbands and fathers. Long and arduous rehabilitation becomes a family project because facing the future alone, especially if it entails living without limbs or sight, is unthinkable. There is nothing more moving than to see young children help their struggling Dads move about their homes in new and limited modes of living.  The actor and activist, Gary Sinise, also a wounded veteran, now assists other wounded veterans in a variety of ways. Married with four children, Sinise is a faithful Catholic.

Present State of Fatherhood

In this country, life without fathers is now established as a major social concern.  More than 27 million children, four out of ten, live apart from their fathers, and half of them do not see them. In most TV sitcoms, if a father is present, he is portrayed as a bumbling, aloof, and unnecessary member of the family. 

The high cost of absentee fathers is reflected in school dropouts, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, nefarious behavior against teachers in public schools, and crime and violence in the streets.  Father-absence contributes to social problems, emotional dereliction, male aggression, and low academic achievement.  Some have blamed the collapse of the father-figure on the Freudian Oedipus-complex.

Millions of children have fathers who are physically present but emotionally absent.  These numbers have increased with the growing number of premarital births and a continuing high divorce rate.  Divorce is no longer the main reason that children do not grow up with both of their parents.  In recent years, divorce has declined, but single parenthood has increased.

As yet, we do not have firm numbers on those fathers who are addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling, or pornography.  Today there are more idle or unemployed men than at any time since the Great Depression.  This is partly due to issues in the work place. If fatherlessness were classified as a disease, it would be an epidemic and a national emergency. 

While super-Dads exceed our expectations, derelict fathers debase their exalted vocation.  Discussions about women having it all and all at once are a fallacy. Most women cannot conceive children, give birth to them, and raise and support them without the presence of a loving father in the home.  It must be said however that single mothers try doing it all the time.  

More in The Way of Beauty

The Biblical Father-God

In his book, The God of Jesus Christ, Walter Kasper writes that "the relation of father-child is not only an inalienable aspect of being human, but it also cannot be replaced by other relations; father is a primal word in the history of humanity and religion.  It cannot be replaced by another concept and cannot be translated into another concept" (138). The same holds true of the mother-child relationship. Father and mother are primary words incapable of being reduced or replaced.

God, the mystery beyond all mysteries, transcends gender and human language.  Nonetheless, the Divine I-AM-The ONE Who IS is revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures as Adonai, (Lord), Melech (King), Avinu (Our Father).  These are figurative and not literal ways of speaking about the source and creator of the cosmos. 

Jesus and His Father 

In the Christian Scriptures, Jesus addresses his Abba, the intimate form of his very dear Father, connoting their intimate relationship.  When did Jesus pray to his Father?  He prayed before making a decision, after apostolic work, before the Lord's Prayer, in Gethsemane, and on the cross (Lk 6; 12; 5:15-16; 11:1; Lk 2:41; 23:34, 46).  In the Johannine Gospel alone, the Father is mentioned about 110 times.  What did the Father mean to Jesus? The Gospel's entire Chapter 17 expresses their mutual love in which men and women are invited to share. If the word Father is purged from the Gospels and liturgical language, then the Trinitarian dogma collapses, God the Father is dead, Jesus Christ is his Only Son, Christianity collapses as does Catholicism.

The biblical belief in the Fatherhood of men and women has been revealed to us. Jesus taught his disciples to pray "The Lord's Prayer" beginning with the verse," Our Father, who art in heaven." As we pray, so we believe; as we believe so we pray.   Without the Fatherhood of God, how do we begin our prayers?  'In the name of the (      ),'  'Glory be to the (    )  and to the Son (whose Son?) and to the Holy Spirit?' "The Father must be the addressee of praise, thanksgiving, and petition" (Kasper, 155-6). The Eucharistic sacrifice is addressed to the Father, and Christians are baptized in the name of the Father. . . .   

The Odyssey:  Telemachus

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In Homer's Odyssey, there is a touching moment between Odysseus (Lat. Ulysses) and his son Telemachus, who is determined to find out what has happened to his father who left home to fight in the Trojan War when his son was still a baby.  Telemachus has yearned for a lifelong relationship with his father.  

In Crisis of Manliness by Walter Newell observes that too many boys today are like Telemachus who long for a father who will nurture and guide them through a hard world. 

Many boys are from broken homes and are forced at a very early age to be their mother's protector from oppressive men.  At the same time, they struggle to bring themselves up in a way that would make their absent fathers proud of them.  Each year Newell tells his students the story of Telemachus and his father in Homer's Odyssey. As the narrative advances, the classroom grows silent because his students realize that they are Telemachus.  Part of the dialogue is given below:

"Sir," said Telemachus, "as regards your question, so long as my father was here it was well with us and with the house, but the gods, in their displeasure, have willed it otherwise and have hidden him away more closely than mortal man was ever yet hidden. . . ."

"And Ulysses said, "I am no god; why should you take me for one?  I am your father on whose account you grieve and suffer so much at the hands of lawless men."

As Telemachus spoke, Ulysses kissed his son, and a tear fell from his cheek on to the ground, for he had restrained all tears till now.  But Telemachus could not yet believe that it was his father, and said:

"You are not my father.  You are some god who is flattering me with vain hopes that I may grieve the more hereafter.  No mortal man could of himself contrive to do as you have been doing and make yourself old and young at a moment's notice, unless a god were with him.  A second ago, you were old and all in rags, and now you are like some god come down from heaven." [Ulysses has cleaned himself up and changed his clothes to make himself look presentable.]

Ulysses answered, "Telemachus, you ought not to be so immeasurably astonished at my being really here.  There is no other Ulysses who will come hereafter.  Such as I am, it is I, your father], who after long wandering and much hardship have got home in the twentieth year to my own country. I will tell you the truth, my son."

As Ulysses spoke, he sat down, and Telemachus threw his arms about his father and wept. (William J. Bennett: The Book of Man, 365-68).

Saving the Best Earthly Father until Last

Mention of St. Joseph in the New Testament is limited to very few passages, one of which regards the loss of Jesus in the Temple. After chaos, confusion, and turmoil, after a frantic search for him all over, Mary and Joseph returned to Jerusalem to look for their son. "Three days, they found him in the Temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.   . . . . When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him: "Why have you treated us like this?  Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety" (Luke 3: 41ff).  As the exemplar of fathers, St. Joseph holds a special place of honor in the Catholic Church as well as in other faith-traditions. In addition to his feasts on March 19th and May 1st, this illustrious descendent in the patriarchal line of David, this model of artisans, this protector of family life richly deserves to be honored with all fathers on their day. He shouldered the twofold responsibility: loving and protecting Mary, his beloved spouse, and guiding into adulthood the Son of the Most High, the Incarnate Word of God. 

But let us never forget that Jesus took his legitimacy as well as the secondary characteristics of his gender from Joseph who taught him how to be human in the real world.  Even God's Son had to be taught something that only an earthly father could teach. In his male identity, Jesus was truly the son of an artisan.  He was Joseph's son. 

Image: St. Joseph and the Christ Child by Pieter van Lint via Wikicommons. 

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