Happy Father’s Day, ‘Dads’ in Black

Mothers get all the breaks. Mother’s Day is about as close to a national holiday without formally being one as you’re likely to find. Sailors get “Mother” tattooed on their chests and arms, not “Dad.” And a boy’s best friend is now, and forever shall be, his mom. If a dad wants to enjoy similarly strong bonding, he’ll have to schedule, say, a trip to the local puppy supplier.

Then there’s Father’s Day — the holiday in search of celebrants, the holiday that really isn’t a holiday no matter how hard Madison Avenue tries to make it one. There must be a reason for the ambivalence. Maybe it is a function of our inborn instincts that causes most of us to agree, in principle at least, with the catchphrase “women and children first.”

Dads also get shortchanged at birthday time. My own dad never seemed to mind that every single birthday I can remember we ever celebrated for him always ended with him receiving one new white shirt and one carton of Kent cigarettes. When he finally quit smoking, he started receiving sweaters to go with his new white shirts. We all reach that stage where birthdays are more about practical gifts (like a brand-new pair of hedge clippers, hint hint) than toys and gadgets.

That has changed a little, too, as men now experience protracted, and sometimes even permanent, adolescences.

Many play video games into their dotage. But surely that is more a function of the culture of early 21st-century America than of the differences between moms and dads.

If your everyday, garden-variety dad gets lost in the white noise of busy life that involves sports practices, music lessons, extra tutoring and enough extracurricular activity to warrant a gigabyte of computer storage to track, imagine how neglected and downright forgotten is another category of father.

These guys have been taking a public and humiliating beating for years. They are the punch line of every late-night comedian. They endure scorn and ridicule like a New York Yankee playing left field at Fenway Park. They have a thankless job in the best of times, and these aren’t them.

But then, nobody said working for your Father was easy.

As you might have guessed, the fathers I want to recognize this June are found before altars, in confessionals, next to hospital beds and beside caskets. These are the guys in the trenches. They don’t sneak off with the Sunday collection or make headlines by getting arrested at the airport after their “vacation” in Thailand. These are the good men, the good fathers who don’t warrant headlines because our broken world can’t recognize real heroism when it sees it. All of these guys, and they are multitudinous, are left holding the bag with nary a carton of cigarettes or v-neck sweater to show for it.

Well, that stops here and now — with Father’s Day 2010 on June 20, soon after the closing of the Year for Priests.

As a card-carrying amateur theologian, and as one who has engaged in armchair apologetics for quite some time, I am comfortable enough to embrace the tradition of not only calling God Father, but calling his ordained priests here on earth “Father” as well. These men truly are fathers in just about every sense imaginable. They lead by example, something us “regular” dads could do more of, and they head things, like parishes, parish councils and May festival committees. And any man who can survive “expert” liturgical commissars and other agenda-driven crusaders without mirroring the actions and behaviors of disgruntled postal workers has earned our respect.

And just like their counterparts in the lay world, these “dads” are oftentimes called upon to do the unpleasant tasks of life while receiving little commendation for it. Now I do not intend to engage in a pity party for my fraternity of dads with kids of their own. I do intend on shining a little necessary light on the thousands and thousands of good, decent priests who get up every morning and take on the myriad challenges a parish priest faces every day, rain or shine. (These days, it’s mostly rain.) The overwhelming majority of them do it with quiet grace and humility.

I guess I’m an anomaly. I grew up surrounded by priests and don’t have a single horror story to tell. I count an uncle, a cousin and a brother among the priests I have known, and I grew up one block away from our home parish of St. Elizabeth. I was an altar boy, attended the parish school, and continued to worship at this church all through high school. I have stayed in contact with a wide variety of priests, but never once was put in spiritual, physical or psychological danger.

I guess a New York Times reporter would suggest I’m a freak of nature. I don’t think that reporter would be right. Instead, I believe I was the beneficiary, like literally countless other people, of strong men who loved God and loved his Church.

All of these many good men, like their counterpart dads waiting to get their lawn equipment, if they’re lucky, on our “special” day, certainly have their faults. But, unlike their counterpart dads, our priests carry a lot more water as they do what we are all supposed to do: go about our Father’s work.

I don’t want to fall into some kind of clericalism trap here, because we know where that can lead. But I do want to give credit where credit is due and encourage everyone who reads this to seek out a priest on June 20 and just say, “Happy Father’s Day.”

Robert Brennan writes from Los Angeles.