Contrary to the popular reading of Ephesians 5, the father's role as head of the family is not intended to be one of domination.

His headship must be given to him by the woman because men and women are of equal dignity, both possessing free will. The husband cannot demand authority. If he were to force it, how could he serve his wife and his family as Christ serves the Church?

For many American households, including Christian ones, heated discussions of such matters would be a good problem to have. As the latest census figures reminded us, fewer and fewer children are growing up in homes with a father.

Meanwhile, by some accounts, Pope John Paul II has spent an inordinate amount of time nurturing the discussion of woman, feminine nature and the feminine vocation. Or at least, some say, he hasn't spent enough time on masculine vocation and fatherhood.

Could it be that the Pope has not focused enough on the issue of fatherhood and the masculine vocation? Or could it simply be that he's addressing the crisis from a different angle than we'd expect?

As the Holy Father understands it, the mission of men as fathers is to “reveal” and “relive” on earth the “very fatherhood of God.”

Between husbands, wives and their children, John Paul II insists, there must exist the merciful love spoken of in the parable of the prodigal son. According to the parable, this love is most characteristic of God the Father.

Dr. William May, professor of family and marriage at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C., comments that merciful love must characterize the way men exercise fatherhood on earth. But it is not enough.

In the encyclical letter Mulieris dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Woman), John Paul II includes a curious statement. In contrast to the immediate union that a mother experiences with her child, he comments: “The man — even with his sharing in parenthood — always remains ‘outside’ the process of pregnancy and the baby's birth; in many ways he has to learn his own ‘fatherhoodfrom the mother.” Fatherhood, therefore, depends on the mother.

Dr. May explains that this phrase implies that the woman must let her husband be a father by allowing him to become involved with his children: “Man, in short, becomes a father by doing things that a father ought to do. … I believe that fathers also learn their own fatherhood from their own fathers — and men whose fathers have truly revealed on earth the fatherhood of God, as mine did, are truly blessed.”

By focusing on the feminine vocation, the Pope has prepared a fertile ground for fostering the masculine vocation, particularly with regards to fatherhood. He speaks from his own experience. He has learned his own fatherhood from the example of his father and, in a unique way, from the Mother of the Church, whom he knows directly through prayer.

From the beginning of his pontificate, John Paul II has been a father to the faithful of the entire world. Recall his first words as Pope: “Be not afraid.” And his fatherly attention has not been limited to Catholics. His paternal solicitude accounts for his amazing success with young people throughout the world. No other figure in the world can draw such numbers of young people open to being “parented” — to being prepared and entrusted, that is, to become the next generation of leaders.

Merciful love must characterize the way men exercise fatherhood on earth. But it is not enough.

His fatherly leadership is having an effect. Father Belisario, a theology classmate of mine in Rome who is now a priest of the Missionaries of Charity, became aware of his priestly vocation when he saw the Pope from a distance during a papal trip. He wasn't even a practicing Catholic at the time. Yet he was drawn to the fatherhood which the Pope has been able to live in a very dynamic way.

Through prayer the father comes to know God the Father. Many cultures, however, see prayer as something for women and children, not for virile men. Father Gereon Goldmann, a well known author and missionary, wrote: “Prayer means talking with God. … First and foremost, it is for the man, the head of the family.” In order for fathers to reveal God, they must first know him.

Although natural fathers and spiritual fathers will live out their fatherhood in different ways, both reveal God the Father. Much of this depends on the women of the culture. The rest depends on each father's individual prayer life.

In a time when we are experiencing the crisis of male identity in every aspect of society, John Paul II's deep understanding and powerful personal example of father-hood has communicated itself in various ways, all of which have been formed by his prayer life. Through it, the Mother of the Church has taught him to be a father. Whatever trials the world is experiencing, there are many signs of a new springtime in the Church. We see it in the men who have been ordained during this pontificate and we also see it in the rebirth of nuclear family.

The Holy Father's writings have indeed focused more attention on the vocation of woman, but not to the detriment of fatherhood. Instead, he is living fatherhood — and teaching it — in every aspect of his life.

Pia de Solenni is a theologian based in Washington, D.C. She may be reached at Pia1@compuserve.com.