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A Lesson on Fatherhood by Pope Francis

The Holy Father charts a path for dads

By Andrew M. Haines

I would be remiss not to make mention on this website dedicated to fatherhood that habemus papam — we have a papa – and indeed, what a remarkable papa Francis is turning out to be!

Even from the outset, our new Holy Father has offered many examples of fatherly love, wisdom, and practical judgment at work. There’s no denying that Pope Francis is a pastor — that is, a spiritual father — above all else, and that this dimension of ministry permeates his entire approach to the Petrine office.

Some of the more popular encounters aside — bus riding, crowd wading, and general smiling to name just a few — perhaps the most profound example of fatherly identity to date comes through the Holy Father’s preaching. Namely, his first homily to the cardinals just one day after his election set forth a pastoral plan that, while couched in terms of apostolic service, could have doubled for a five-minute crash course on the essence of Christian fatherhood.

Camminare, edificare, confessare. To journey, to build, and to confess. These are the three key “movements” the pope picks out from the Scriptures of his first Mass. They are indicators, according to Francis, not just of the biblical progression from Old to New Testament faith; just as importantly, they are the types of actions that define the Christian life in all ages. And they are ordered, he says, according to a natural sequence.

Camminare  to journey. It’s the first thing God commands to Abraham, and it’s the basis of our life of faith, and by extension the basis of our particular vocation. “Our life is a journey,” says Francis, “and when we stop moving, things go wrong.”

Edificare  to build. As we move toward perfection and union with God, we are called to show others the way. Building up the Church through our lives as “living stones, stones anointed by the Holy Spirit,” with “consistency” and stability, is the manifestation of the Bride of Christ. Our edifice is arranged on the cornerstone of Christ himself, and it should be suited to that divine foundation.

Confessare  to confess. By far the most compelling of the three motions, not least because Pope Francis openly considers this his primary mission, confession is what gives substance to journeying and building. “We can walk as much as we want, we can build many things, but if we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong.” More severely, the pope quickly interjects: “‘Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil.’ When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness.”

As earthly fathers, these three scriptural movements capture the fullness of our vocation — not only of its mundane dimensions, but also its ordination toward the mystery of divine Fatherhood. In a very real way, we encounter the progression that Pope Francis puts so plainly and clearly. Our primary call is to journey, to forge ahead for the sake of our families and our communities; when we stop doing this, “things go wrong.” Upon that foundation we construct the edifice of our household. Disciplines, fiscal prudence are meaningless unless we continue moving toward Christ, yet they are essential parts of a complete Christian family life. Finally, we must be more than good central planners or authoritarians: we must confess Jesus Christ to our spouse and our children.

Of course, the final movement is the hardest of all. Pope Francis acknowledges this, calling to mind St. Peter’s immediate response after confessing Christ as the “Son of the Living God.” “I will follow you,” the Holy Father paraphrases, “but let us not speak of the Cross. That has nothing to do with it. I will follow you on other terms, but without the Cross.”

Indeed, nothing is more off-putting than the Cross — especially to fathers. It is the sign of contradiction in the Christian call to holiness, and of our inescapable lowliness and powerlessness in the face of evil and sin. Still, the pope continues, “When we journey without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord.”

The final end of Christian fatherhood is to recognize all these things — the meaning of positive progress and material success for the benefit of our families — and at the same time to embrace the contradiction of our humble nature as sinful men. What Peter eventually learned was that the Cross without Christ was as useless as Christianity without the Cross. But also, that Christ crucified was the “the one glory” worthy to revel in, and the only guarantee that “the Church will go forward.”

“My prayer for all of us,” said Pope Francis, “is that the Holy Spirit, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, our Mother, will grant us this grace: to walk, to build, to profess Jesus Christ crucified.” This is the pope’s single greatest aim for the time of his pontificate; he’s told us as much. If we wish to work with him, then we should heed the call and profess, above all — to our children, spouses, and families — the same crucified Lord.

Andrew M. Haines is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America, editor of the journal Ethika Politika, and a professional web developer. He lives in Virginia with his wife, Kathleen, and their two children.