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Fathers of Mercy
By Andrew Haines

Fathers are good at forgiving. It’s part of what they do. They’re wired for it.

In fact, Christ himself reinforces this time and again; and the mercy of one father toward his Prodigal Son makes for perhaps the most compelling parable in the whole of sacred Scripture.

But as wonderful as fathers are at showing clemency, they are often awful at receiving it. I’ve often wondered why this might be the case.

Fathers are such naturally good forgivers no because they’re out to protect the things they value. This is a pretty basic human trait; and it’s certainly almost identical with being a “good father” – a father who seeks the best for his children, sheltering them from evil.

In short, fathers forgive because they don’t want to let evil – any evil – come to their families, even if that evil is self-inflicted. They defend against evil in an unqualified way.

It’s not hard to see, then, why fathers would be less receptive to being forgiven: they’re wired, as I said, to look for evil and confront it. They aren’t usually disposed to submission, and allowing someone else to confront evil for them.

“But good fathers must be good penitents!” you say.  Surely. But not because they’re good fathers. When fathers bow to the mercy of their Father, it is because they accept their role as sons of God.

Fatherhood is an oft-emphasized Christian identity. Sonship is not. But to understand what it means to be a father requires a strong sense of one’s filial duty. What is a father, after all, without a child?

As Catholics, we’re fortunate to have a theology of fatherhood that also entails two other divine persons: the Son and the Holy Spirit. And we’ll never understand who the Father is – his persona, as it were – until we grasp the identities of the other two persons of the Trinity.

As reasonable as this sounds, it’s really a pretty revolutionary approach to fatherhood – and to our faith as a whole. We’ve each got a “favorite” God to pray to: “I prefer to think of God as Jesus,” I’ve heard; or “I envision God as the Father of the Prodigal Son.” This is good. It’s what the depth and resilience of Scripture is all about. But it’s only part of the story.

I learned a valuable lesson a few years ago, during a class on Trinitarian theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. My professor portrayed the Trinity in the simplest terms: “Il Padre è il Padre – the Father is the Father,” he’d say, “because he is the Father of the Son. And the Son is the Son, because he is the Son of the Father.”

Sometimes, during class, the old Jesuit would weep. And when I thought about it later, I would cry too.

The fact is that the Triune God – our God – is magnificently simple. And because he is so simple, he is incredibly absorbing.

For fathers to understand their role as sons – to identify with Christ, the suffering servant – is only one step away from identifying with the Father – the lawgiver and caretaker of creation. But it’s a radical step; and it requires no small degree of humility, reflection, and prayer.

“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” Christ tells us in the Gospel of John (14:8).  And as Christian fathers, those who see us should also see the obedience, love, and reverence of the Son. They’re deeply interconnected, as that Jesuit taught me; and it’s a mystery that demands a real response – a radical shift of focus away from confronting evil, and toward self-offering.

In reality, those who fight the most to be perfect are often the greatest models of virtue. Think of St. Augustine, the famously unchaste sinner whose conversion is all the more powerful an example because of the distance he traveled. So it is with Christian fathers: conformed to protect against evil, they’re averse to receiving mercy. But when they do submit to mercy, they’re the greatest example in the world of authentic courage, strength, and virtue – which includes surrender to the higher power of God. When a Christian father understands himself also as a son of the Father, the depth of his love becomes even more evident and extraordinary.

As Christian fathers, the most important thing we can learn is how to be forgiven – how to act as sons of God in need of redemption. If we learn this – and if we model it – we’ll be teaching our own children to accept forgiveness on the innumerable occasions when they’ll need it.

When we can be forgiven as fathers, we show the world the deep love of the Trinity at work. And this is precisely our vocation.

Andrew Haines is a graduate student in philosophy, and president of the Center for Morality in Public Life (https://ethikapolitika.org/author/andrew-haines/). He lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, Kathleen, and their unborn baby, whose due date is in December.