The father knelt in the dark of night, deep in prayer.
Sometimes his young son would wake up and witness his devotion.
Such witness made a deep impression on the son.
Who were this father and son?
A young Karol Wojtyla — the future Pope St. John Paul II — and his father.
Karol Wojtyla Sr. well recognized that a father’s primary duty is to get himself and his family — wife and children — to heaven.
Others have been likewise impacted by a father’s faith.
“My dad was very much the spiritual leader of our family,” recalled Father Richard Heilman, pastor of St. Mary’s of Pine Bluff Church in Cross Plains, Wisconsin, and founder of the website RomanCatholicMan.com. What dad Walter “represented for us kids — I’m third of seven children — is all of us got to Mass every Sunday and holy day of obligation, and we were active in our parishes helping out. That was instilled in us early on.”
Today, all his brothers (one is deceased) and sisters are joyful Catholics. “They all love their faith,” the priest said, “and Dad did it with such great joy, too. He loved living out his faith, primarily at the local church.”
It’s essential for fathers to take the lead with their children. Father Heilman and others point to the findings of a study conducted by the Swiss government in 1994 and published in 2000, which revealed that the religious practice of the father of the family “determines the future attendance at or absence from church of the children.”
The study found if a father doesn’t attend church, “no matter how faithful his wife’s devotions — only one child in 50 will become a regular worshipper. If a father does go regularly, 75% of the children will continue as churchgoers.
“This confirms the essential role of father as spiritual leader, which I would argue is true fatherhood,” said Father Heilman.
Such masculine example is increasingly important. In January, a Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University national study of young millennials who left the Church found that 74% decided to leave as young as 10 years old, and only 17% replied that when they were Catholic, they went to Mass weekly.
And in 2015, the Pew Research Center found that, among Catholics, 73% of those who say “religion was very important to their family while they were growing up describe themselves as Catholics today, compared with just 38% among those who say religion was ‘not too’ or ‘not at all’ important to their families.” Matthew James Christoff is helping men turn the tide through the “New Emangelization Project” (NewEmangelization.com).
“A Catholic man’s greatest duty is to lead his spouse and children to meet Christ in the Mass,” said Christoff, on Sundays and holy days of obligation, as the Church dictates. Men leading their families to Sunday Mass “will have a lasting impact.”
He cites dire findings that Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix referred to in his apostolic exhortation to Catholic men called “Into the Breach” in 2015. The statistics include: Only 29% of Catholic men believe attendance at weekly Mass is “very important”; merely 34% strongly agree Catholicism is among the “most important parts of life”; only 26% think of themselves as “practicing Catholics”; only 33% say they attend Mass weekly; only one-third pray daily; and less than a third believe confession is important.
In “Into the Breach,” Bishop Olmsted noted, “[T]he truth is that large numbers of Catholic men are failing to keep the promises they made at their children’s baptisms — promises to bring them to Christ and to raise them in the faith of the Church.”
“Fathers who lead their children to Mass are helping in a very real way to ensure their eternal salvation,” emphasized Bishop Olmsted.
“The Mass is a refuge in the Spiritual Battle, where Catholic men meet their King, hear his commands, and become strengthened with the Bread of Life.”
Fathers need to take the lead, Christoff agrees.
“As a man, the father needs to build unity at the top,” said Christoff. “The father plays a very significant role.”
The fatherly witness of prayer, participation at church and actively teaching children the faith “has a huge impact on children” as part of the “domestic church militant.”
Father Heilman said his father’s faithful witness “instilled … that we take our faith seriously. It’s not a matter of fulfilling our obligations, but putting it into practice. That’s the key,” adding: “If you take your faith seriously — more than just fulfilling an obligation and looking at your watch, but you understand that faith is a daily matter — when duty calls, you’re first in line to say, ‘Send me.’ Children are watching. That was the way in which faith has been anchored in each one of us. It wasn’t just an obligation of worship, but actually doing everything the Church asked us to do, and doing it with joy.”
In growing in faith, dads should look to faithful examples of the saints, including Jesus’ earthly father, St. Joseph.
“Our ultimate goal as men is to be spiritual fathers,” said Christoff, and for fathers who do so, “their children will see how the faith has made their father better. As the father grows in holiness, the family realizes and naturally follows.” Christoff is also a co-founder of CatholicManNight.com, “a website dedicated to help men meet, get to know and build a friendship with Jesus Christ.”
Another program helping men fulfill their faith-focused mission is Fraternus.net.
As a parish youth director, co-founder Jason Craig wanted to support men in faith formation.
Fraternus, which has several chapters around the country, has become a place where fathers pass on their faith to future men, whether they be their own sons or fatherless boys or those who are fatherless spiritually.
“Every faithful Catholic man can point to a mentor or a man that really taught him to be a Catholic man,” Craig emphasized.
“If as young adolescent men they don’t have fathers or fatherly mentors, they will not practice the faith without a man’s intervention. The Son reveals the Father. If you don’t have an image of fatherhood, it’s hard to understand the faith.”
“In Fraternus, we look the man in the eye and say, ‘You are the example.’” Craig explained it as foremost a training for men, who then bring young men to maturity via solid faith formation, conversations and catechesis about the virtues, in addition to Mass attendance and other prayer practices.
As fathers become leaders in faith formation, Father Heilman agrees that there should be a sense of integrity.
“If you want children to grow up and take their faith seriously [you must guide] by the example you’re setting.”
Father Heilman also strongly recommends fathers exhibit Christian joy. He well remembers, “Dad was joyful in the faith.”
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