Turning the Hearts of the Fathers

Last time, I concluded with the proposition that sexual sins, while not the worst of sins, are particularly anti-paternal, as they are bound up with the generative faculties. The Creator, in His goodness, made humans capable of physical, rational, volitional, and emotional bonding. Not only can we be attracted physically to members of the opposite sex, but we can also “fall in love” (emotionally), take intellectual pleasure in conversing, make mutual commitments with our wills, and otherwise practice virtue towards one another. We can “love” at all these levels. This capability is admirably situated for the begetting and education of offspring in a wholesome and loving environment. When we divorce the physical (or even the emotional) part of that complexus from the rest of it, bad things happen — and the children are inevitably the ones to suffer the worst for it.

Two contrasting accounts from the Old Testament will help to illustrate this.

Solomon the Wise, son of David, was a figure of Our Lord in many ways, besides being an inspired Biblical author. But, whereas earlier, Solomon had prayed for and received the gift of continence, he fell from his great wisdom and became lustful and even idolatrous. (These two sins, by the way, frequently accompany one another in the history of Israel. Not only that, but idolatry is compared to impurity [cf. Deuteronomy 31:16].)

“And king Solomon loved many strange women besides the daughter of Pharao, and women of Moab, and of Ammon, and of Edom, and of Sidon, and of the Hethites: Of the nations concerning which the Lord said to the children of Israel: You shall not go in unto them, neither shall any of them come in to yours: for they will most certainly turn away your heart to follow their gods. And to these was Solomon joined with a most ardent love. And he had seven hundred wives as queens, and three hundred concubines: and the women turned away his heart. And when he was now old, his heart was turned away by women to follow strange gods: and his heart was not perfect with the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father.” [3 Kings (1 Kings) 11:2-4]

We find here expressions that inversely parallel the prophesies concerning Elias and Saint John: “…that he may turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children…” (Luke 1:17). Solomon’s heart was turned away by women, or, rather, by his lust for them. If he was joined to these 1,000 women “with a most ardent love” (which was, rather, lust), could he possibly have truly loved all his multitudinous offspring? Could he have had a father’s heart for them? He probably could not even name them all.

The subsequent history of Israel, which was sundered into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, shows that Solomon’s sons followed their father not in his earlier wisdom, but his later folly.

A contrary good example is that of Tobias, whom our separated brethren have lamentably tossed out of their canon of the Scriptures. The younger Tobias’ wife, Sara, had the misfortune of having married seven times previously, losing in succession each of her bridegrooms on their wedding night to a certain murderous demon named Asmodeus. The Archangel Raphael advised Tobias how to avoid this fate. The couple were first to abstain from consummating the marriage for three nights, spending the time together in prayer:

“And when the third night is past, thou shalt take the virgin with the fear of the Lord, moved rather for love of children than for lust, that in the seed of Abraham thou mayst obtain a blessing in children” (Tobias 6:22).

The archangel who specializes in healing also revealed to Tobias a little secret: “For they who in such manner receive matrimony, as to shut out God from themselves, and from their mind, and to give themselves to their lust, as the horse and mule, which have not understanding, over them the devil hath power” (Tobias 6:17).

The end of Holy Tobias was a beautiful one, for he died happy and holy, and left a devout posterity:

“And after he had lived ninety-nine years in the fear of the Lord, with joy they buried him. And all his kindred, and all his generation continued in good life, and in holy conversation, so that they were acceptable both to God, and to men, and to all that dwelt in the land”(Tobias 14:16-17).

As mentioned earlier, any number of sins can turn away a father from his children. I have no intention of providing and exhaustive list or treatment of them. Suffice it to say that a father who, like Tobias, lives a pious life, will have his heart set on loving God and doing His will. This necessarily includes fidelity to the duties of his state in life.

But this is not automatic! The institutionalized anti-patriarchal evils we are drowning in have taken their toll. Therefore, some considerations on the being and doing of fatherhood will be necessary for the modern Catholic man who wants to do the right thing. This will help us answer the question “How does a man turn his heart toward the hearts of his children?”

First, a man should know what his fatherhood is. Human fatherhood is a created image of the Paternity of the First Person of the Holy Trinity. Theology teaches us that the Father possesses his Paternity as “an incommunicable personal property” within the Trinity. In other words, it is owing to this substantial Trinitarian “Relation” of Paternity that the Father is a distinct divine Person. This constitutes the created male parent not only in the image of God (as all Adam’s children are), but also in the image of God as Father. What a dignity! Thus could Saint Paul say, “For this cause I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom all paternity in heaven and earth is named” (Eph. 3:14).

A man should pray for his children and instruct them in the Faith. Holy Job, described in the Bible as “simple and upright, and fearing God, and avoiding evil” (Job 1:1), was known to pray for his children: “And when the days of their feasting were gone about, Job sent to them, and sanctified them: and rising up early, offered holocausts for every one of them. For he said: Lest perhaps my sons have sinned, and have blessed [i.e., “cursed”] God in their hearts. So did Job all days” (Job 1:5).

Our Lord wants children to come to Him. “Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Mark 10:14). Given the dependence of children on their parents, who better to “bring” them to Jesus? Of course, we do not slight the role of the mother in this, but the father’s duty here is primary. Statistically, it is known that the father is more influential than the mother on the child’s future practice of religion. This makes sense, given his leadership role in the family — a role rooted not in mere social conversion, but in nature.

A father must pass wisdom on to his children. Considering what we’ve said of Solomon, above, it might seem strange to cite him here; but it was the Holy Ghost who inspired his former wisdom, whereas the later folly came from himself:

“Hear, ye children, the instruction of a father, and attend that you may know prudence. I will give you a good gift, forsake not my law. For I also was my father’s son, tender and as an only son in the sight of my mother: And he taught me, and said: Let thy heart receive my words, keep my commandments, and thou shalt live. Get wisdom, get prudence: forget not, neither decline from the words of my mouth. Forsake her not, and she shall keep thee: love her, and she shall preserve thee. The beginning of wisdom, get wisdom, and with all thy possession purchase prudence. Take hold on her, and she shall exalt thee: thou shalt be glorified by her, when thou shalt embrace her. She shall give to thy head increase of graces, and protect thee with a noble crown. Hear, O my son, and receive my words, that years of life may be multiplied to thee. I will shew thee the way of wisdom, I will lead thee by the paths of equity” (Proverbs 4:1-11).

More tersely, Jesus the son of Sirach gives us the downside of not passing on wisdom: “A son ill taught is the confusion of the father: and a foolish daughter shall be to his loss” (Ecclus. 22:3).

How does a father pass on wisdom? He does not have to possess the proverbial wisdom of Solomon. He can read to his children when they are very young (as St. Therese’s father did), tell them good stories, pontificate at the supper table, lead the family in prayers, correct bad behavior gently and praise good behavior lavishly. So that his words ring true, of course, he must strive to act in accordance with them himself. When children are older and in school, he should review their homework with them, impress upon them good habits of study, and listen sympathetically to their woes. He should not be professorial, but personal — never distant, and never afraid to hear bad things from them. For — and this is key — if he impresses upon them through their youth that he is genuinely interested in them, they will come to him for advice when it’s advice they need. Otherwise, others will give them advice — and these could include unworthy counsellors.

Here are some other odds and ends from Holy Scripture:

A father must rejoice in his children. “Nine things that are not to be imagined by the heart have I magnified, and the tenth I will utter to men with my tongue. A man that hath joy of his children: and he that liveth and seeth the fall of his enemies” (Ecclus. 25:9-10).

But he must not rejoice in their iniquity. “Rejoice not in ungodly children, if they be multiplied: neither be delighted in them, if the fear of God be not with them. Trust not to their life, and respect not their labours. For better is one that feareth God, than a thousand ungodly children. And it is better to die without children, than to leave ungodly children” (Ecclus. 16:1-4).

In correcting and disciplining, he must not err on the side of excess. “Fathers, provoke not your children to indignation, lest they be discouraged” (Col. 3:21).

“And you, fathers, provoke not your children to anger; but bring them up in the discipline and correction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).

“As a father hath compassion on his children, so hath the Lord compassion on them that fear him” (Psalms 102:13).

Neither should he err on the side of defect. For this, I offer the counter example of Heli, the priest.

“And the Lord said to Samuel: Behold I do a thing in Israel: and whosoever shall hear it, both his ears shall tingle. In that day I will raise up against Heli all the things I have spoken concerning his house: I will begin, and I will make an end. For I have foretold unto him, that I will judge his house for ever, for iniquity, because he knew that his sons did wickedly, and did not chastise them. Therefore have I sworn to the house of Heli, that the iniquity of his house shall not be expiated with victims nor offerings for ever” ( I Kings 3:11-14).

Do not be wickedly sentimental toward them. “For the beginning of fornication is the devising of idols: and the invention of them is the corruption of life. For neither were they from the beginning, neither shall they be for ever. For by the vanity of men they came into the world: and therefore they shall be found to come shortly to an end. For a father being afflicted with bitter grief, made to himself the image of his son who was quickly taken away: and him who then had died as a man, he began now to worship as a god, and appointed him rites and sacrifices among his servants. Then in process of time, wicked custom prevailing, this error was kept as a law, and statues were worshipped by the commandment of tyrants” (Wisdom 14:12-16).

In his book, The Three Marks of Manhood, Dr. G.C. Dilsaver quotes Saint Augustine addressing a group of fathers of families as “Co-episcopi mei” (my fellow bishops). “Each and every one of you,” the saint said, “have in the home the bishop’s office to see to it that neither his wife nor his son nor his daughter nor even his servant fall away from the truth. For they are bought with a great price” (cited in Dilsaver, pg. 85).

There needs to be a general recovery of the priesthood — even the episcopacy — of fatherhood. Bishops — spiritual fathers — teach, govern, and sanctify. So must all fathers. While respecting the difference between the laity and the ministerial priesthood, fathers of families should not make priests do all the priesting.1 Doing this undoubtedly takes time. But fathers who don’t take time to be with their children — especially their sons — may one day sing the sad line from the Harry Chapin song in their old age: “my boy was just like me.”

  1. By the grace of God, I am no Lutheran! So what do I mean by this? I mean that fathers cannot outsource their own work of forming their children to the Church’s sacred ministers. This might be best illustrated by an example: If, to carry out the duties of his state in life, Saint Thomas More had completely relied on the counsel and example of the clergy, he would not have been a saint, but a schismatic.