Fathers have a special role in our Church and society to be a living image of Our Father in Heaven. The Our Father prayer that Jesus taught us in Sacred Scripture has some valuable lessons for all fathers especially in terms of their threefold mission to be a leader, provider and protector for their families.
The first part of the Our Father concentrates on God’s holiness and omnipotence. This corresponds to the leadership dimension of fatherhood. Children look up to their fathers as a source of authority and the behaviour of a father in terms of what he says and does can either inspire their children to great heights or show them the path of least resistance. A large study by the Swiss Government published in 2000 found that in families in which the fathers and mothers attend Church regularly, 33 % of their children will end up regular churchgoers as opposed to 2% for families in which only the mother regularly attends Church. This study illustrates that fathers have a major impact on the priority their children place on religious practice.
This conclusion has also been illustrated in Paul Vitz’s book “Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism” in which he analysed the lives of the leading intellectual defenders of Christianity over the last 400 years and found the influence of a strong Christian father. Conversely, Vitz also found that most of the leading intellectual atheists of the past 400 years had a bad experience of fatherhood and this had a significant influence on their thinking. It seems from this evidence and from my own experience of people I meet, that our experience of earthly fatherhood has a profound impact on our image of God.
The Our Father’s invocation: “give us this day our daily bread,” highlights that fathers are also called to provide for their families. Many fathers work hard to provide for the material needs of their family. But they need more than just money. Fathers have a major role to play in spending time with their children to communicate their love and affection. Fatherly affection has a profound effect on children especially for girls in terms of their self-esteem and levels of drug use and teen pregnancy. This effect has been highlighted in “Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters” by Meg Meeker. Meeker also provides ten key tips for fathers to help them with their daughters.
Lastly fathers are called to be protectors to “lead us not in to temptation but deliver us from evil.” Young children need their fathers for physical protection as they learn to navigate the outside world. However as children get older they are in more need of spiritual protection. Fathers have traditionally kept a close eye on who their daughters were dating. Now with the advent of smart phones and social media the challenge of protecting children has risen to a new level. Sons can get pornography in their pockets and teenagers can be involved in sexting in the privacy of their own bedroom. Moreover the internet has become a hunting ground for sexual predators who often pose in sheep’s clothing to lure the unsuspecting and naïve. In the light of these new challenges fathers and mothers need to work together to develop clear guidelines for their children for the safe use of computers and devices.
It is clear from this short reflection on the importance of fatherhood in terms of their roles as leaders, providers and protectors. Their success in living out their role has important implications for how children ultimately perceive Our Heavenly Father. Hence fatherhood is indispensable for a strong Church and society.
Lastly, not all families are able to have a resident father as a result or death, divorce or donation. The premature death of a father is a tragedy and divorce is also tragic and often separates children from intimate contact with their fathers. In terms of donation, I am referring to those families in which a father has either abandoned his fatherly duty after he planted his seed or those families (single women and lesbian couples) who have deliberately excluded a father by accessing a sperm donor. The deliberate exclusion of fathers from families is a retrograde development and the children from these families are short changed and are being used as guinea pigs in a new social experiment with unknown consequences. Will the sign of the cross make any sense to these children?