How can fatherhood possibly be a vocation?

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By David Gibson

Catholic News Service

I am the same father today that I was 44 years ago when my parenthood journey began. Yet, paradoxically, I am not the same. Fatherhood changed me!

Fatherhood, after all, encompasses a vast commitment, and no real, ongoing commitment leaves people as it found them.

In the church’s eyes, moreover, fatherhood — like all parenthood — is a vocation, a call. Specifically, God calls fathers to put love into practice in the concrete circumstances of their lives, and true love is a pathway to greater maturity.

A fun part of fatherhood comes with the joy of witnessing the endearing antics of little children. The growth, accomplishments and emerging insights of older children provide ample reason to celebrate life and genuinely enjoy it too.

I might enjoy writing about just the fun parts of fatherhood, and there would be plenty to say. But the temptation could arise to oversimplify a father’s vocation greatly. For fatherhood is a genuinely challenging and demanding role.

A father, for example, serves as a teacher, model, guide, authority figure and companion to children who may well not become his clones in terms of their greatest interests.

Over time, as children’s unique personalities develop, a father may not always know how to speak with children about surprising talents and goals of theirs, particularly those that seem somewhat foreign to his own best talents and goals.

A father’s ill-defined job description inserts him into a relationship with children who are a mystery. Children neither are fully known nor understood at any given moment, though little by little they reveal what makes them tick.

Indeed, children are a constant revelation to parents. This can be wonderful and surprising, and, yes, it can sometimes feel like a lot to accept, absorb and handle.

So, in the end, fathers do not guide children simply by speaking words of wisdom to them. Fathers are listeners, too. A remark of Pope Francis to four British Muslim leaders who visited him in April 2017 seems relevant here.

“The ability to listen: This is very important,” the pope commented. What is interesting, he suggested, is that “when people have this capacity for listening, they speak with a low, calm voice. …  Instead, when they do not have it, they speak loudly; they even shout.”

A father’s role, it appears, is complex, multifaceted. He both succeeds and fails at staying one step ahead of his children.

What in any of this makes Christian vocations of fatherhood or motherhood? Perhaps one answer is that “the love of parents is the means by which God our Father shows his own love,” as Pope Francis said in “The Joy of Love” (“Amoris Laetitia”), his 2016 apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family.

He believes a parent’s “selfless and loving service” is “a sign of the free and selfless love of Jesus.”

But can God’s quiet presence truly be recognized in the rush, confusion and even chaos of ordinary family life? Pope Francis seemed aware of this question when he wrote in “The Joy of Love” that “no family drops down from heaven, perfectly formed; families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love. This is a never-ending vocation.”

Vocations, as that observation by the pope indicates, commonly are described in today’s church as ways of life in which love is all of the essence.

The pope did not want parents and families to be discouraged by their imperfections. Contemplating “the fulfillment that (they) have yet to attain” allows families “to see in proper perspective the historical journey” they are making, he sought to assure them.

I must mention trust as one of the essentials in every parent-child relationship. Even if exasperation seizes the moment now and then, and the road a parent and child travel together gets a bit rocky, children have little choice but to trust their parents’ faithfulness, whose love, they assume, is unshakeable.

“A person’s affective and ethical development is ultimately grounded in a particular experience, namely that his or her parents can be trusted,” Pope Francis wrote in “The Joy of Love.”

The trust children place in parents and their integrity is a mind-boggling fact of life. I am reminded of one of my grandsons, who in a fit of anger at his mother stormed off to his room and slammed the door.

But every few minutes thereafter the little guy reappeared briefly, opening the door to make sure his mother was all right and to assure her he still was angry. Obviously, he did not doubt she remained there for him.

My intent from this article’s outset was to avoid oversimplifying a father’s vocation. So much more could be said of fatherhood. But my conviction is that there is scant room for platitudes in discussions of fatherhood (or motherhood). Fathers are real people, but imperfect too.

Sure, we make mistakes. Fatigue or worry can wear us down. But the hope survives that our committed love will help to bring the mystery of a child’s life into the light.

Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years.

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