A few weeks ago, I went to the cinema to watch the film ‘Rocketman’ which tells the story of the life of Elton John. The film – which was endorsed by the man himself – concentrates mainly on his early life as a boy and later how he struggled to handle fame when it came along. Central to the story of his childhood and youth is his relationship with his father. Mr Dwight is portrayed in the film as emotionally distant from his son, cold and lacking pride in his son’s talents and achievements. The father’s lack of interest clearly hurt the young Elton as did his leaving home for good without saying goodbye. The film brings out one important fact – that whatever relationship we had or have with our Dad, it matters. It is or was not a matter of indifference. If we had or have a good relationship with our father, we are better for it and if we have or had a poor relationship to him, we are scarred.
So as we celebrate Father’s Day this Sunday, and celebrate the lives of all fathers in our families, it is a good time to ask ourselves the question: what does a good Christian father look like? What are his qualities? Here are ten suggested ways that draw from the Bible and our faith in God our Father.
1. A Father who knows himself first as Son.
Every father is himself a son. Therefore, his own relationship with his father will effect his relationship with his son. He will want to pass on the best things that his Dad passed on to him and correct the negative things that he experienced from his father. The Christian father also is aware of God as his heavenly Father. Jesus had a intimate and trusting relationship to his Father and has given us access to that same relationship through our baptism when we became sons and daughters of the Father. So in order to be a good Dad we need to be good sons.
2. A Father who protects.
The famous psychologist Sigmund Freud once wrote: ‘I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection’. During his homily at his inauguration as successor of Peter, Pope Francis spoke beautifully about how St Joseph became the protector of Jesus and Mary when they were vulnerable. The Pope urged all Christians to be protectors ‘of creation, of people…showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. It means caring for one another in our families: husbands and wives first protect one another, and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time, protect their parents. It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect, and goodness. In the end, everything has been entrusted to our protection, and all of us are responsible for it. Be protectors of God’s gifts!’ (19th March 2013).
3. A Father who provides
One of the most basic natural instincts of a father is to provide for his family. Traditionally, this was understood as him being the bread-winner. But as Scripture reminds us, we can’t live on bread alone. Even if he provides bread but fails to provide the emotional support and good example to his children, people will suffer. What we need is not just the gifts of a father but the gift of a father. Just ask Elton John if he agrees! As St Paul tells us: ‘If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his own household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). So don’t think your job is done by putting a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs, and food in their stomachs. Children are body and soul, they need your provision in the spiritual realm as well.
4. A Father who teaches
Scripture is full of examples of holy men and women who acquired wisdom through wise mentoring by others. Many of us have memories of our Dads teaching us things like tying our shoes, how to swing a hurl, how to cast a fishing rod or how to stand up for ourselves. One of the most important tasks of a father and mother is to hand on the Christian faith and teach their children in the ways of virtue and holiness. On the day their children were baptised, their parents were reminded: ‘You will be the first teachers of your child in the ways of faith. May you be also the best of teachers, bearing witness to the faith by what you say and do, in Jesus Christ our Lord’. This begins with parents teaching their children the basics like saying ‘Please’, ‘Thank you’ and ‘I’m sorry’. The father’s role in teaching his son/daughter to be a disciple of Christ is indispensable. If as Tertullian once wrote, ‘Christians are made, not born’, then both fathers and mothers form their children in the ways of the Gospel as a life-long task.
5. A Father who loves
No wife or child has ever said, “I was loved too much!” There is something powerful in the love of a father. For the first Christians, this is who they understood God to be – a loving Father. They learned this from how Jesus related to the Father in a loving and trusting relationship that they noticed while he prayed. By teaching us the ‘Our Father’, Jesus gave us the permission to call God our Father as well as his Father. When fathers show love to their children, they give them a direct experience of God and his love. They bring God close and make it easy to believe in Him. Loving another is about accepting them as they are. This is also how God loves us, by accepting us. This does not mean that a parent needs to approve all the choices their children make or certain lifestyles they choose. But not accepting their choices is not the same as not accepting them. This is an important distinction to make.
6. A Father who leads by example
When it comes to handing on the faith, parents often say that they will present their children for first communion and confirmation but then leave it up to themselves to make up their own minds whether to practise the faith or not. While this approach respects the freedom of the children, it underestimates the power of good example by the parents. If the children don’t see that the gift of faith is important in the lives of their parents then it is unlikely that they will value it either. The best way for fathers to lead their children into faith is with good example. Share with your children the value of faith, the story of Jesus and his example and the importance of a purposeful life. As St Paul said: ‘So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God’ (1 Corinthians 10:31). Demonstrate to your family that every moment matters, every person is significant and worthy of respect, every task is important. Do all things with His glory in view and do them with your whole heart and soul. Lead your family by example and create space in your home where there is room and time for God.
7. A Father who corrects
In the letter to the Hebrews. It says of God: ‘the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son/daughter’ (12:6). While we might think of this as punishing, it simply points to the truth that all of us need correction from time to time. We make mistakes, make bad choices and sin. Like any good father, God wants us to grow, to mature and become more perfect in love. For every child, the first people to help them do this is their parents. As St Paul teaches: ‘Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord’ (Ephesians 6:4). Correction is never for its own sake but serves becoming a better person and is always done with mercy.
8. A Father who prays
The father of a family has a key role in setting the tone of the home. In a real sense, the father is the priest of the family, the physical and spiritual father. For many families, it is left to the mother to take the lead in this area. For some reason, religion and handing on the faith is seen as the mother’s responsibility. First Communion and Conformation parents’ groups are made up mostly of women. But if we are to have committed Christians of the future, we need fathers to ‘man up’ and take the lead in this area and to teach the children the importance of prayer and how to pray. This includes taking his family with him for worship and to join with the local parish community for Sunday Mass where we gather as ‘a family of families’. If children see their father as a man of prayer and holiness, it will become one of his finest and most important legacies to his children. He will teach them that there is nothing more important than an intimate and personal relationship with God our Father through Christ and in the Holy Spirit.
9. A Father who is present
The Furey brothers and Davy Arthur composed and sang a beautiful song about the death of a father called ‘The Old Man’. The end of the chorus goes: ‘And I never will forget him for he made me what I am. Though he may be gone, memories linger on. And I miss him, the old man’. Fathers who are not there are missed. There is a void, a gap that no one else can fill. It may sound obvious, but the most important gift a father can give to his children is his presence. He is there for them. He is a point of reference, a person to go to for advice and direction. Again, this is the Fatherhood of God that Jesus revealed to us. At the very end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus promises his disciples: ‘I will be with you always, yes, until the end of time’. This was the fulfilment of God’s name in the Old Testament – Emmanuel, the name which means ‘God is with us’. When fathers are consciously present to their children they put flesh on this promise.
10. A Father who serves
St Thomas Aquinas once defined love as ‘willing the good of the other’. This definition connects love to service. We serve people because we love them and will their good. Service isn’t easy. It takes commitment, time, patience and sacrifice. It requires that the needs of others come before mine. While this is true for parents in a family, it is also true for our lives lived out in parishes, communities and our country. A father teaches his children about the value and volunteering for the common good, of community involvement and the responsibilities of being a good citizen. He forms his children to give back as well as teaching them how to receive well. In the Gospels, Jesus reveals God as one who loves and who serves. He is not a god whose authority lords it over his children but whose authority comes from his service of those he loves.
Christian fathers, you have been given the glorious and wonderful task of leading your homes in Christ. Leading takes thought and intentionality. How are you leading your family in the Lord? What principles, practices, and pursuits are you employing for their good and the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ? I hope these thoughts have made you even more aware of your unique vocation as a father to your children as we celebrate who you are on this Father’s Day.