My dad died of heart disease when I was 15, leaving me with a huge void in my life. I needed a father to listen to me, guide me, admonish me, encourage me. But mine was gone. What would happen to me?
I went searching for the next best thing — a spiritual father who could take me under his wing.
I found him in a compassionate, gentle priest.
German by origin, but with a distinct Spanish flair to his accent after years of serving in South America, Schoenstatt Father Carlos Boskamp listened to me. He guided me. He admonished and encouraged me. And he did it all in ways that were deeply spiritual and distinctly fatherly, yet different from the ways of my natural father.
I couldn’t have survived the years after Dad’s death without Father Carlos, whom I met when I was a member of the Schoenstatt Girls Youth. He said the Masses for the girls’ retreats and summer camps. He was so kind and fatherly that it was natural for me to approach him for spiritual direction after Dad died.
No one can replace our natural fathers, but there are times in all of our lives when we need a spiritual father, or father figure, to fill in the gaps.
Maybe this Father’s Day — June 17 — we can say a prayer of thanks for these “other fathers” in our lives as well as for the men who begot, raised or otherwise parented us.
“I owe where I am today to the neighbor I had when I was a kid,” says Gordon Lis, a design engineer from Ohio. “He was a father figure for me from a practical standpoint and got me in gear.”
One day, Lis rode his bike home from high school and passed the elderly man as he worked in his garden. The man stopped Gordon, pulled a section of newspaper out of his back pocket and showed him the employment classifieds. He pointed to the job openings for draftsmen and machinists. He explained that, by applying himself to his education, Gordon could find rewarding work as a designer or draftsman.
“After that, I really got going and my grades went way up,” recalls Lis. “I realized at his funeral a few years later that he had intentionally stuck those ads in his pocket and was waiting for me to pass by. He didn’t criticize me, he just showed me where the potential was. That’s a father figure.”
Wise the Child …
Spotting a young person’s potential, and nudging him or her to reach for it, is a gift of true fatherliness.
Then, too, it’s the duty of the young person — whether truly young in years or just young at heart — to give serious consideration to freely offered fatherly wisdom.
“Filial respect is shown by true docility and obedience,” the Catechism reminds us (No. 2216) before quoting Proverbs 13:1: “A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.”
“There’s something about a father, especially a spiritual father, that demands the best out of you,” says Margaret Smith, a senior studying English and theology at Marquette University. “I can’t pull the wool over the eyes of my spiritual father and mentor, even if I want to. If I make him a promise, I can’t go back on it. He can tell when I’m telling the truth, and he can point out where my logic is flawed in about three seconds flat.”
“It’s this simple ability to see something that I’ve overlooked that makes a father figure such a valuable asset for a girl,” says Smith, who says she’s speaking from her experiences with campus chaplains, retreat leaders and her parish priest. “Whenever I feel I’ve become bogged down in the emotional turmoil of an issue, or am going around in circles, a good father can set me straight.”
Spiritual fathers and male mentors can have a decisive impact on how well we mature, set goals and make decisions. So it’s too bad so many fatherless people in our day look to men in sports, entertainment and media for cues on how to live.
“The role models the media offer are very poor,” says Maurice Blumberg, executive director of the Gaithersburg, Md.-based National Fellowship of Catholic Men (catholicmensresources.org).
“For example, take the show ‘Everybody Loves Raymond.’ It’s funny and charming, but it presents a poor model of fatherliness. When the model of fatherhood is weak, individuals — especially men — develop a huge number of issues in terms of how they live out their own lives.”
Few would argue that the need for a spiritual father or father figure is written into our hearts. And yet using the term “father” to refer to anyone but God or one’s natural father is actually a source of controversy for some. Certain fundamentalist Christians, for example, rebuke Catholics for calling priests “Father.” They point to Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:9 — “Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven.”
“You have to look at the whole text,” explains Father James Lobacz, vocation director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. “Jesus issues a series of admonitions. He’s telling his disciples to let God be God and place him at the center. If you deify one particular person, you’re really not of God, because all things provided are provided by God.”
The Catechism (No. 2214) backs him up. “The divine fatherhood is the source of human fatherhood; this is the foundation of the honor owed to parents. The respect of children, whether minors or adults, for their father and mother is nourished by the natural affection born of the bond uniting them. It is required by God’s commandment.”
God’s Own Example
“Earthly fathers, spiritual fathers and father figures participate in God’s fatherhood,” says Mark Brumley. President of Ignatius Press, he has written about the reasons we call God Father and not Mother. “It starts by acknowledging our own sonship, which means we’re dependent on the heavenly Father for all that we have and are. In that way, we become instruments of God’s fatherhood.
Brumley points out that the quintessential model is the relationship between the Father and the Son. The Son is most like the Father when he gives himself back to the Father in complete obedience to his will.
“His will serves as my guide in the way I relate to my own children,” Brumley adds. “It’s a total, self-donating love, a total gift of self. As a father I learn from God the Father to give of myself to my children.”
Spiritual fathers also use this model in their relationship with their spiritual children. As a spiritual father to many, especially to those discerning a possible call the priesthood, Father Lobacz exercises his role as a provider. Not of food, clothing and shelter so much, but of guidance, compassion and the sacraments.
“While women offer the nurturing, accepting, consoling and ‘being present’ side of physical or spiritual parenthood, men offer the stabilizing, resolution-finding, propelling-forward side,” he points out. “Spiritual fathers have a compulsion to provide for their spiritual children just as natural fathers have a compulsion to provide for their children.”
Father Carlos died 10 years ago. I’m grateful for the way he opened his heart to me. The lessons he taught me have molded my way of thinking and living.
Now there are other spiritual fathers in my life and all just as dear to me as Father Carlos. The strength and security that they offer me is indescribable, and the void that they fill can’t be filled in any other way.
Marge Fenelon writes from