Friday, February 4, 2022

Fatherhood: Love Always Creates Freedom

Parenthood involves many sacrifices (as well as joys, of course). It is an ongoing journey of self-giving, attentiveness to others, and different kinds of suffering that are hard to grasp concretely until one experiences them. One can only be a good parent insofar as one is willing to die to one's self with trust that the value of one's efforts is beyond one's measure. Patience, purity of heart, and "poverty of spirit" are necessary in parenthood, as they are in all authentic ways of loving persons.

Nevertheless, I have long struggled with the temptation to regard my fatherhood within the context of our Western culture’s dominant mentality of “success,” external achievement, self-assertion, and wealth-as-possession-of-thingsAfter all, I haven’t had much worldly success to brag about. But at least I’m the father of five (four young adults and one teenager still at home). Now I'm a grandfather too, right? Congratulations to me! And they are all "good kids." In fact, we often hear that they are remarkable and exceptional young people. 

I recognize that it's appropriate to find satisfaction in my family, and to be immensely grateful and joyful for them - not so much because they represent a "job well done" overall (thus far), but above all because I love them

Love is a gift and a mystery that calls forth much human effort - much work, responsiveness, attention, cultivation, openness, and vulnerability - but it’s never reduced to something we “produce” and “control.” Love is personal and interpersonal. Human love is always a gift, a source of wonder, a vocation, a sign of the transcendent Mystery for whom we were all made.

Most of my kids have grown up during the course of this blog, and I have begun to grow "old." The relationships are still real, personal, and woven-together, flawed, and "complicated" in ways that only family relationships can be. Still, their modality has changed (and continues to change). It used to be noisy around this house. Now it has become much quieter ... except when Maria is here!😉 Perhaps, in the future, it will be noisy again (at least sometimes) with the rumble-tumble of numerous grandchildren - siblings and cousins - running all over the place. 

In any case, life will continue to change. Things can only grow by changing, and human persons can only grow in love by changing freely, by using their freedom to deepen their own relationship to goodness, by opening up to embrace their destiny.

Pope Francis commented vividly on these points - in the context of the meaning of fatherhood - in some recent reflections about Saint Joseph. He sheds light here on the inherent dynamic of genuine fatherly love in particular, in a way that is true for all love, and that points also to the centrality of freedom for the fulfillment of every person. Here are some of Francis’s words that I found especially significant and helpful:

"One of the most beautiful aspects of love, and not only of fatherhood, is indeed freedom. Love always creates freedom. Love should never become a prison, a possession. Joseph shows us his ability to take care of Jesus without ever possessing him, without ever wanting to manipulate him, without ever wanting to distract him from his mission. 

“I think that this is very important as a test of our capacity to love and also our capacity to know how to take a step backwards. A father is good when he knows how to remove himself at the right time so that his child can emerge with his beauty, with his uniqueness, with his choices, with his vocation. In this sense, in every good relationship, we have to give up wishing to impose from on high, an image, an expectation, indeed a visibility, completely filling the scene with excessive protagonism. 

“The wholly ‘Joseph-like’ characteristic of knowing how to step aside, the humility that is the capacity also to slip into second place, is perhaps the most decisive aspect of the love that Joseph has for Jesus. In this sense Joseph is a very important character, I dare say an essential one, in Jesus’ biography precisely because at a certain point he knows how to step away from the scene so that Jesus can shine in all his vocation, in all his mission. 

“Faced with the image of Joseph, we have to ask ourselves if we are capable of knowing how to take a step back, to allow the other, and especially those entrusted to us, to find in us a reference point, but never an obstacle."