Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe.
C.S. Lewis

Years ago, following a family viewing of Old Yeller, I asked my kids what they thought the movie was about. The responses were what you’d expect: “Growing up,” and “Life on the frontier,” and, of course, “It’s sad – the dog dies.” After everyone had a chance to chime in, I made this observation: “I think it’s about fatherhood.”

“What? Fatherhood?” everyone objected. “No way! The father is gone most of the movie!”

It’s true. Fess Parker probably wasn’t paid much for his role as the dad, because he only appears in two brief scenes: Once, at the very beginning, as his character bids farewell to his family, and once at the very end for the homecoming.

Nevertheless, I held my ground. “Sure, the father was physically gone, perhaps,” was my comment, “but he was present in his son. In fact, I think the whole story was about the son rising to the father’s challenge to become a man and take on a father’s responsibilities.”

Father’s Day notwithstanding, and regardless of your own take on the movie, it’s fair to ask if that’s even a rational assertion. I mean, can we even talk about “father’s responsibilities” these days?

Our society has been working overtime to flatten out the roles of mothers and fathers – to reduce the differences between maternity and paternity to biology, and to promote the egalitarian ideal of a generic “parenthood.” Plus, too many paternal icons littering the landscape of our popular culture involve buffoonery and cluelessness, if not outright catastrophic failure, and we dads see ourselves in those images all too readily. It doesn’t help, of course, when our teenagers see a clownish cartoon father and report, “That’s so you, Dad!”

Nevertheless, there’s increasing evidence that traditional understandings of how moms and dads differ are rooted in nature, not just stereotypes, and that fathers qua fathers really do contribute something essential to healthy family life and child development. For instance, Sue Shellenbarger just recently wrote about a parenting study in which dads scored low for the nurturing traits usually ascribed to moms, but high on other important qualities:

The children described rich, warm relationships with their fathers, says Dr. Kerns, a professor of psychological sciences at Kent State University in Ohio. They said things like, “My dad gives me encouragement to do things,” or, “My dad tells me he thinks I can do well.”

With another Father’s Day in the rearview mirror, it’s worth taking stock and reflecting on the particular vocation of us dads. According to the Catechism (#2214), we take our cues from God the Father, who brings order out of chaos, doles out justice while simultaneously lavishing mercy, issues challenges and makes allowances for error – just like the dad in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Mothers, obviously, can and do manifest these traits as well, and often (too often) they’re obligated to live them out solo. Even so, it’s a list that tends to be associated with the masculine dimensions of personality, and thus men who wish to succeed in their fatherliness do well to embrace their masculine identity.

And what happens when a father abandons his paternal vocation or his children? Then those children will find a substitute, for good or for ill. It seems that kids crave paternal leadership, especially sons, and they’ll seek it out when they don’t get it from their biological dads. 

Take St. Aloysius Gonzaga, for example, whose feast (June 21) happened to coincide with Father’s Day this year. Aloysius was the eldest son of an Italian Marquis and successful military commander, and there was a great deal of pressure on the boy to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, Aloysius was drawn to religion, and he had no inclination to take up the sword and become a soldier. Yet his dad insisted, threatening to have Aloysius flogged, and then eventually sending the boy on a tour of Italy’s fast-lane courts as an enticement away from the priesthood. 

Throughout these ordeals, Aloysius respectfully and manfully resisted his father’s entreaties, in part due to the support and example of two other future saints, Charles Borromeo and Robert Bellarmine. Finally, in 1585, having outlasted his father’s objections, Aloysius followed the example of his Jesuit surrogate fathers and entered the Society of Jesus. 

Gonzaga was an intensely passionate novice, and his Jesuit superiors insisted that he pare back his ascetical practices a bit. When the plague came to Rome in 1591, Aloysius demonstrated the depths of his devotion by volunteering to care for the afflicted, despite the dangers involved. As it turned out, this son of royalty and privilege, by preferring the way of self-abnegation and service, himself contracted the dread disease. Nonetheless, when he died at the age of 23, he was clearly reconciled to the path he had chosen for himself. “Like Joan of Arc and the Ugandan martyrs,” Fr. James Martin writes, “Aloysius Gonzaga died with the name of Jesus on his lips.”

And here’s the lesson in fatherhood, for Aloysius’s peculiar path to holiness required paternal assistance that his biological father, who ardently desired rank and entitlement for his son, couldn’t provide. Fatherhood, when we do it right, is a vocation given over to giving over: giving over our own interests, our own inclinations, our own passions, in favor of providing and securing and making stable for others so that they can find their own way. Thus, sanctity, for most fathers, largely involves the humdrum duties of keeping a roof over heads and food on the table. Nothing flashy – no dragons to slay or Huns to repel at the gates or even strings of opportunity to pull. Just showing up for work, paying bills, getting the oil changed on the van, and taking out the trash.

It’s still an adventure, though, and a kind of martyrdom, although the Coliseum of our martyrdom will most likely be the kitchen table and the office, the commute and the checkbook. Our martyrdom involves that ordinary sanctification that comes with being a flunkey at work and the handyman at home. It’s not usually a red martyrdom (blood), or a white martyrdom (heroic virtue), or even a latter day green martyrdom (financial persecution), but more often than not a transparent martyrdom – maybe the hardest of all. It’s like we become invisible, we dads – like Fess Parker in Old Yeller – and in that is our chance to be knights errant and heroes.

Father’s Day is over – back to work! Let’s pray for each other.