Bridgebuilding, Barriers, and Fatherhood

St. Bénézet as Patron for Dads

Philippe Mellan, “Bénézet Laying the Foundation Stone of the Avignon Bridge”, c. 1628
Philippe Mellan, “Bénézet Laying the Foundation Stone of the Avignon Bridge”, c. 1628 (photo: Public Domain)

“In the breaking of bridges is the end of the world.” —G.K. Chesterton


There are two ways to build a bridge. Sometimes we have to tunnel underneath an already established, well-traveled route in order to allow for unimpeded cross-traffic below – like a railroad underpass, for instance.

But that’s not the kind of bridge I’m talking about here.

The other kind – the kind we normally associate with the word “bridge” – involves erecting a new span across a divide or obstacle. It’s the kind that was constructed near my neighborhood a few years back: The Fellows Street Bridge. It extends south on Fellows from the busy east-west Ireland Road and connects with a side street, Jackson. Even though I was used to another route, I started using it regularly after its completion because it’s, well, fun and even beautiful. The bridge’s attractive rusty-peach concrete gracefully, airily arches and curves over the highway below. “Isn’t this a nice bridge?” I still ask my kids every time we rise up and around on it. They roll their eyes and smirk. “Whatever, dad,” I know they’re thinking. 

No matter. I’ll keep drawing their attention to it because it’s a prime example of how aesthetics can be – and ought to be – combined with utility. Bridges are necessary to bring together that which is separated, but beautiful bridges make that bringing together an altogether humanizing act – almost an act of worship. 

In fact, just the desire to link up that which is separated can be a holy thing, a worthy thing.

Today (April 14) is the feast of St. Bénézet, a French lad who is said to have taken up holy bridgebuilding out of obedience and faith. He was born around 1165 in southeastern France near the raging River Rhône. When he was old enough, he was sent out to the hills to tend his family’s flock, and so he had plenty of opportunity to observe the struggles of travelers and pilgrims attempting to ford the expansive waterway. 

One day, the story goes, an angel appeared to Bennet, as he was also known, and gave him a divine directive: Build a bridge across the Rhône – simple as that. Like another French visionary, Joan of Arc, Bennet balked at the strange heavenly edict. He had no knowledge of bridgebuilding – an enormous and challenging undertaking at the time – and, besides, who’d look after his sheep? The angel cut a deal with him to take over shepherding duties, and Bennet sought out the local bishop at Avignon for advice and support. 

Needless to say, the bishop balked, too. Here was an unlearned youth, no more than 12 or 14, telling the bishop and the entire Avignon community that God himself was backing an unprecedented project that no one else had ever accomplished – nor even attempted. The bishop turned him down flat, but Bennet won the hearts of the Avignonais, especially after he’d been spotted lugging a huge foundation stone – far too heavy for a single boy – to the river’s edge to get things going. Funds were collected, experienced artisans and workmen pitched in, and eventually even the bishop gave his approbation. 

Although Bénézet died before the bridge was completed, the community kept at it, and the young saint’s vision was realized in 1188. The bridge saw heavy use throughout the later Middle Ages, and Bennet’s relics were housed in a chapel there. Even after it fell into ruins in the 17th century, the Pont Saint-Bénézet attracted pilgrims as a site of veneration, and it continues to do so today. 

The legends surrounding Bénézet and his bridge relate that the folks who assisted him in his mission organized themselves into a kind of religious order – a Bridgebuilding Brotherhood that included knights, monks and lay workers, and which spread beyond Avignon to other parts of the continent. Although a few such brotherhoods did exist, they almost certainly did not include vows or any kind of formal religious association. Instead, they were more ad hoc than the legends make out, bringing together skilled workers with financial underwriters to raise up additional edifices to facilitate trade, transport and pilgrimage. Invariably, as Bénézet’s story was embellished with each retelling, the angelically appointed architect and contractor was adopted as bridgebuilding’s primary patron. 

But those of us in other callings can look to Bénézet for inspiration as well – like priests for instance. “The ancient Romans called a priest ‘pontifex’ – bridge builder,” writes Fr. Paul Scalia. “And with good reason, for a priest mediates – builds a bridge – between God and man. He reconciles and establishes communion between them as a bridge between two shores.” The same idea applies to the priest in his prophetic or teaching role, wherein he tenaciously tethers men to reality. “He has the responsibility of bringing – patiently, charitably – every heart to the truth, and the truth to every heart.”

In addition to these duties, priests also build bridges between the laity and their bishop. Bishops have a pre-eminent responsibility for carrying on the sanctifying and teaching ministry of the Apostles, and every bishop considers priests “his co-workers, his sons, his brothers and his friends” in this endeavor (CCC 1567). Together, our spiritual fathers lead the Church of Christ, preach the Gospel, and disseminate grace through the sacraments. They are truly bridge-builders extraordinaire – as is the Holy Father himself, who has been known since ancient times as Pontifex Maximus

Similarly, although on a much smaller scale, we dads are bridge-builders as well, and St. Bénézet’s tale can be especially instructive for us. 

To begin with, consider the saint’s assessment of need. He comprehended the danger inherent in river-crossing without a bridge, and thus he was primed for angelic prompting to do something about it. I suppose an alternative could’ve been to discourage river-crossing altogether, but that would’ve stunted the full flourishing of human contact and commerce that bridges facilitate. 

In our families, we dads usually have a special responsibility for gauging gaps that impede relational flourishing and that require spanning. Of prime importance is our taking the lead in building and maintaining bridges to God and his Church. We insist on Sunday Mass attendance (no exceptions) and remind our children to get to confession if need be – or else skip Holy Communion. Hopefully, we also create a bridgelike spiritual updraft through our own modeling of prayerfulness and virtue. We work on our shortcomings, check our sinful tendencies, and acknowledge failure honestly when necessary. 

Within the family itself, we also foster and defend multiple relational bridges, and chief among these is the respect and honor that we owe our wives – and which our children owe their mothers. Then, between siblings, we create opportunities for shared experience which strengthens their mutual bonds – often in the simplest ways, like regular mealtimes together and game nights. We break up fights, pacify sibling resentments, and do our best to act Solomonic when passing judgment. Here, too, if we make mistakes, we add to our family’s bridgebuilding culture by fessing up and changing course when required. It’s a matter of balance – just like the balance required in cantilever bridge construction. “As experience teaches, the absence of a father causes psychological and moral imbalance and notable difficulties in family relationships,” St. John Paul II noted in Familiaris Consortio, “as does, in contrary circumstances, the oppressive presence of a father.” 

And if we work diligently in creating such a domestic culture of connective equilibrium, then it’s natural that we’d want to take it on the road – particularly when we get the sense that our children are much too turned in on themselves. Maybe we’ll together go visit elders in a nursing home or help out at a soup kitchen. Even simply (and patiently) enlisting our children’s assistance in putting together a meal for another family in a jam or helping with a neighbor’s yardwork can be an important object lesson in extending sacrificial bridges in new directions. 

Of course, like anything else, our own example is especially instructive in this regard, and we profoundly enhance our families’ bridgebuilding identity whenever we demonstrate that reaching out to others is normal and expected. “A man is called upon to ensure the harmonious and united development of all the members of the family,” is how Pope John Paul put it, particularly “by means of the witness he gives of an adult Christian life which effectively introduces the children into the living experience of Christ and the Church” (FC 25).

Daunting? Sure, and Bénézet’s hesitation in confronting the Rhône’s challenges strikes us as eminently understandable. Yet, the saint stoked his courage, stood firm in his faithful convictions, and assumed the gargantuan task given him, despite his fears and public opposition. We do well to follow his example and bravely shoulder the bridgebuilding stones at our disposal to create the links, with God’s help, that our families – and society – so desperately need.

And if we can do it with an eye for beauty and balance, all the better.