It’s easy to become a father, but difficult to be a father.
Any man can become a father; he finds a wife, and together they bring children into the world. Simple. It’s true that, through generation, the father and mother pass on the hereditary qualities and characteristics which make the particular individuals that each human being is. But, what they pass on in this respect is really outside of their control. They can’t decide which particular characteristics each child will have (unless they have large amounts of money and an equal measure of foolishness to engage in unnatural methods of genetic engineering). In this manner, human parents are just like the animals.
However, once the child has entered the world, the man who became a father when the child was conceived, now has to be a father to the same child. What does this mean?
Obviously, the father has to be the breadwinner – protecting, sheltering and nurturing the family. This is the economic foundation of the home and is the necessary basis of all the other relationships in it. But, in theory, relatives or society could also provide this foundation. The father’s role, however, goes beyond just working to feed hungry mouths.
The father is the head of the Catholic home; the mother is its heart. Because the father is the head, he has to show leadership. This leadership doesn’t mean that he should be a tyrant; it just means that he should give the family its general direction, making sure above all else that the Law of God is respected by all the members, inside and outside the four walls. His wife is not his slave – she is (or should be) his best adviser. Saint Paul says that ‘wives [should be] subject to [their] husbands’, but he also says ‘husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church’. Pope Pius XI explains that the subjection of the wife to the husband ‘does not take away the liberty which fully belongs to the woman both in view of her dignity as a human person, and in view of her most noble office as wife and mother and companion’. He continues: ‘But it forbids that exaggerated liberty which cares not for the good of the family; it forbids that in this body which is the family, the heart be separated from the head, to the great detriment of the body’. The Pope summarises the complementary and ordered roles of the father and mother in the following beautiful words: ‘For if the man is the head, the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in ruling, she ought to claim the chief place in love’.
An essential part of the father’s role is to co-operate with his wife in maintaining a Christian family circle or society. This implies setting up an atmosphere of mutual love, affection, respect, orderliness, security and peace which will allow the gradually unfolding personalities of his children to develop towards maturity. It also means ensuring that his children receive an education in the Faith and in morality, not just by words, but especially by example.
This is because the father is a model for his children. By his example, he shows his children what it is to be a man, a citizen, a husband, a father and a faithful follower of Christ. One way or another, the father’s example will leave a lasting mark on his children, whether it is good or evil.
The father is also a teacher. He doesn’t teach in the same, detailed, pains-taking way the mother does every day (although he should help her in this when time allows him) – he teaches more by transmitting his outlook on life, the principles he uses to guide his actions in life. He does this by chance conversations, by formally expressing his opinion, and by his routine comments on religion, politics, neighbours, family problems, job and so forth, but chiefly by the example of his actions.
Finally, the father must guide and support his children while they are going through the highly individualised process of moving from the submissiveness of childhood through the instability of adolescence, to the personal convictions and self-control of balanced maturity. This is especially true for his sons.
This is what it means to be a father – something which is impossible without constantly calling on the all-powerful Grace of God which fathers have a right to, since they have received the Sacrament of Matrimony.