And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven — Matthew 23:9

We have one Father in heaven, to be sure, but we also have fathers here on earth, — fathers that we will rightfully honor this coming Father's Day.

St. Thomas Aquinas comments on the above teaching of Jesus by saying that we must not look to earthly fathers to provide what only our heavenly Father can provide, namely, our inheritance of eternal life with Him. Yet we also have true human fathers to whom we owe respect and affection, as required by the fourth commandment, and also spiritual fathers, as St. Paul calls himself (2 Corinthians 6:13, 17; 1 Thessalonians 2:11).

The key point of Jesus' teaching is that the Father is not the Father because he does things that human fathers do. Rather, the Father is eternally the Father because he begets the Son, and therefore it is human fatherhood that takes as its model God the Father. It is God the Father, “from whom every paternity in heaven and on earth takes its name” (Ephesians 3:15), to whom human fathers must look as their model of father-hood. We do not call God “Father” because he is like us; we call our fathers “Father” because they ought to be like him.

▴ Self-Giving as the ‘Work’ of the Father

The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) warned that between the Creator and creatures it is not possible to note any similarity without noting that the dissimilarity is greater. Nevertheless, with that caution in mind, it is possible to suggest ways in which human fathers can model Matthew 5:48.

What distinguishes God the Father as the Father? It is that he gives himself entirely to the Son, so that the Son is equally divine. Self-giving is what the Father “does” from all eternity, and this self-giving is total and complete (cf. John 16:15). Human fathers are therefore called to give of themselves. But how?

A father first gives of himself completely to his wife, and that mutual self-giving bears fruit in the gift of children. This fruitful self-giving is an image of the inner life of the Trinity — a truly breathtaking assertion, but one made by Pope John Paul II is his catechesis on the book of Genesis.

A man is called to fatherhood by first giving all that he is to his wife, and then to his children, in imitation of the two processions of the Trinity, wherein the Son and the Holy Spirit both proceed from the self-giving of the Father.

Fathers of families know well the sacrifices that are demanded by this self-giving. While mothers quite obviously experience in their own bodies the sacrifices demanded by children, fathers too can know this sacrifice, experiencing in their weariness and toil the blessed burden of being responsible for others.

Due to biology and psychology fathers remain more distant from their children than mothers, but this distance is not intended to invite neglect. Rather that distance, when overcome by the immediacy of love, testifies in a most powerful way to the closeness of the Father to his own creation: For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son (John 3:16).

▴ Delighting in Children

Fruitful self-giving is the paradox at the heart of the Trinity and of the Christian life; only by giving everything away can anything of lasting value be gained. Christian fatherhood, in imitation of the Father, means delighting in what is gained. The Father speaks only twice in the Bible “as Father,” rather than as “the Lord” — at the baptism and transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:5; cf. Matthew 3:17). He speaks on both occasions not of himself, but of the Son: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.

Christian fathers are also called to point to their children as their beloveds, in whom they are well pleased. This is not difficult to do, for every father naturally wishes to tell others about how proud he is of his children. Indeed, just as the Son testifies to and reveals the Father, so too do children reveal, for good or ill, their own fathers. Today the Christian father is called especially to proclaim that children are a blessing, not a burden, by delighting in his own children, especially if they are numerous. O the happiness of the man who has filled his quiver with these arrows (Psalm 127:5).

▴ Leadership of Service

Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. ... Husbands love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:22-25).

St. Paul's words to the Ephesians are difficult for our contemporary ears to hear, given our instinctive rejection of hierarchies. While here St. Paul exhorts husbands to love their wives as Christ “gave himself” to the Church — meaning to the point of death — the person of the Father also provides a model for Christian fathers.

The Father is the “source” of the Trinity, and to him is “attributed” the work of all creation.

The pre-eminence of the Father is termed in theology the “monarchy” of the Father. Yet the Father does not rule like an earthly king, subjecting others to his domination. He draws close to his creatures, numbering even the hairs of their heads. His rule, as should be the “rule” of a father in his household, is animated only by love and aimed entirely at the good of the others.

“In revealing and in reliving on earth the very fatherhood of God, a man is called upon to ensure the harmonious and united development of all the members of his family,” writes John Paul II. He continues:

“As experience teaches, the absence of a father causes psychological and moral imbalance and notable difficulties in family relationships, as does, in contrary circumstances, the oppressive presence of a father, especially where there still prevails the phenomenon of ‘machismo,’ or a wrong superiority of male prerogatives which humiliates women and inhibits the development of healthy family relationships” (Familiaris Consortio, 25).

▴ The Merciful Father

And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying “Abba! Father!” So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir (Galatians 4:6-7).

There can be nothing more opposed to “machismo” than mercy. Not the false mercy that revels in holding power over the weak, as a bully forces his victim to cry for mercy, but the mercy of the Father, which seeks out the lost sheep to return them to the fold.

Mercy flows out of the superabundant love of the Father, who, when rejected by his own creatures, does not stop at condemning them, but sends his Son for their redemption. The entire work of the Trinity in our redemption is aimed at enabling us to say once again, Abba! The Father never stops being a father and always seeks to restore fallen man to sonship.

Likewise, the vocation to show mercy (cf. Matthew 5:7) means that fathers should never stop being fathers. Even when, as happens so often, children turn away from their fathers, rejecting the family and their faith, the merciful father always seeks to restore the bonds of fatherhood. Perhaps there is nothing more difficult for a Christian father to do than to welcome back the prodigal son — not waiting for him to shamefacedly enter the house but rather running out to embrace him.

Whether it be a son who has a child out of wedlock, or a daughter who wastes the money saved for her education, the merciful father must never stop working for the conversion of his child — the return to sonship. In a culture that promotes entitlement and autonomy rather than gratitude, fathers have frequent opportunities to show mercy.

▴ The Priest as Father

My Father is working still, and I am still working (John 5:17).

Priests are called to act in persona Christi — to act in his person and to be “other Christs” in the world, and from that identity comes his mission of revealing the Father, as Jesus himself did.

What can be said about human fathers — self-giving, true authority as service, showing mercy — also applies to the priest. But the priest has a special task in showing forth the image of the Father, for he is united more closely to the work of the Son. The priest therefore must work with the zeal that the Son works — to the point of exhaustion — seeking to dispense the mercy of God and to restore sinners to sonship. The work of the Father is entrusted in a special way to the priest, who is sent into the world to preach the Gospel that reveals God as Father.

The priest, who bears the sacred obligation of praying on behalf of the Church the thrice-daily Abba of the Lord's Prayer, must learn to be a father from the Father that he knows best — God the Father whom he discovers in prayer. And from the Father the priest must learn to open his fatherly embrace wider than the human fathers, who have limited numbers of children. A priest is not called “Father” because he is like a father, but because he ought to be a true father, after the one Father from all father-hood takes its name.

“Father” is not only a title, given to our fathers and to our priests. It is a vocation, shared by the Father through his Son, Jesus Christ: As the Father has sent me, so I send you (John 20:21).

Raymond de Souza writes from Rome.