J.D. Flynn is editor in chief of Catholic News Agency and a canon lawyer.
Each November, for more than a decade, my father coordinated the annual “Scouting for Food” program in the small town where I grew up. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts would drop off empty grocery bags at each house in town, and then a week later, collect bags filled with food for the poor.
My father arranged the assignments, and then compiled, organized, and distributed the food to food banks. He’d also quietly drop off large boxes of food on the porches of struggling families in our town. We weren’t rich ourselves, but he’d often purchase turkeys or hams to go along with those boxes.
Because blocks would be missed, or we’d not have enough Scouts, my father and I annually dropped off and picked up bags on twelve or fifteen separate blocks. We’d do the project together—after he got home from work, we’d trudge through piles of fallen leaves under the street lights, collecting bags of food and putting them in his old Toyota hatchback. My father would repeat to me—it seemed like on every block—the words of Jesus from St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Whatever you did for the least of my brethren, you did for me.”
Christ’s words, spoken through my father, left an imprint on me. So did the image of my father’s effort for the hungry, especially those in our own neighborhood who were struggling—young single mothers, or parents who’d lost jobs, or hard-working, underpaid immigrant families. Those autumn nights impressed on me the Christian obligation to charity, and the importance of humility in service.
But when I became a father I realized that when my father talked about serving the “least” of the Lord’s brethren, he was also talking about me.
My father commuted an hour to work, and an hour home, on what he called the “nightmare” of the Garden State Parkway. He had jars of coins, everywhere, to cover the tolls he paid daily. He often got home long after it was dark. My father is brilliant, but he’s never worked his dream job: he’s worked at difficult, unglamorous, often tedious jobs, because they’ve afforded us a home in a safe neighborhood, our mother’s availability to children, and the great gift of our education.
It would have been easy for my father to ask the Scouts to find someone else to run the food drive, or the religious award program, or the troop itself, all of which he volunteered for. It would have been easy for him to skip my sisters’ games, and our—likely off-key, in my case—chorale concerts. It would have been understandable if he’d napped on the couch all day on Saturdays, instead of riding bikes with us to the library.
And it certainly would have been easier for my dad to pick up all of that food on his own, tired after work, rather than bringing along his oft-dawdling son. But my father took—and still takes—seriously the words of Jesus Christ. My father has always understood that loving, and forming, and spending time with his children is a way of serving Jesus Christ himself. My father has taught me that St. Joseph spent time with the “least among us”—and, at the same time, with the very first among us—when he dedicated his life to forming, and protecting, and raising Jesus of Nazareth.
My father says to our family—often enough that we sometimes scoff and roll our eyes—“we are greatly blessed.” He says it to thank God for the blessings of our family life. But he also says it to remind himself that fatherhood—the challenge of forming children as disciples of Jesus—really is a blessing. That the work and time it takes to raise children is the chance for fathers to serve Christ himself.
Our children are hungry, and thirsty, and—so often—needy. God calls us to love them as we would love Him. “Whatever you did for the least of these,” the Lord tells us, “you did for me.”
God also calls us to form our children to do the same—to become, as St. Joseph was, humble servants of Christ the Lord.
This Father’s Day, I thank God for the gift of my father, and for the gift of fatherhood, through which men are given the chance to serve the Lord himself. We are, indeed, greatly blessed.