Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]
At the sight of the crowds, Jesus’ heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd. That sentiment, I feel is apropos today, as we see many flocks without their shepherd, and an epidemic of abandonment and troubled hearts in the wake of that absence.
The shepherds I’m referring to are fathers; and the flocks, their families. For any number of reasons, we seem to be living in an increasingly fatherless society, to the point where a father can almost be seen as an optional member of the human family, and masculine leadership itself vilified as a tyrannical patriarchy.
Today, we celebrate Father’s Day, a day where we can be reminded of the goodness of fatherhood: its strength, necessity, and relevance as an essential aspect of the human experience, modeled by the good example of the many loving fathers and father figures in each of our lives.
Our understanding and appreciation of fatherhood affects not only our civil society, but it also deeply influences our very capacity to worship. There’s a saying: grace builds upon nature. If natural fatherhood is not valued, then how can any spiritual fatherhood be held in high esteem? How can we trust in God the Father, if our natural father has broken our trust in some lasting way? With what fervor can we pray the Our Father if we’ve never known the love of a father? We need good fathers, both for our natural and our spiritual wellbeing.
I recall many years ago being at a conference on spiritual fatherhood, with many priests, deacons, and seminarians in attendance. During a question-and-answer period, one man noticed many religious sisters also in attendance. He asked if any of them could share a few words about spiritual fatherhood from the perspective of a spiritual daughter. After a brief silence, one mother superior of a religious order came forward most humbly and answered. I remember a few of her words:
“Men, do not be afraid to be fathers. The Church needs good fathers. When a man does not embrace his fatherhood, the family is left exposed to the enemy”. At that time, it reminded me of a few words from the fourth verse of the Star-Spangled Banner:
O thus be it ever when free men shall stand,
between their beloved home and the war’s desolation!
… Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
and this be our motto – “In God is our trust!”
That summons to fatherhood, even in our national anthem, reminds us that a man’s place, in this fallen but redeemed world, is ultimately between the enemy and his family… just like this [gesturing to Jesus crucified]. This is the mirror of authentic masculinity. This is the mirror of true fatherhood. This is the God-Man who placed himself between the enemy—Satan and all the fallen angels—and his bride, the Church.
That act reversed the first failing of Adam. Adam was not between the serpent and Eve. As I’ve mentioned before, some have speculated what might have happened had Adam interjected at the serpent’s advance. A battle would have ensued. But what chance does mortal flesh have against angelic powers? The man would have been slain. But if this image gives us any clue [again gesturing to the Crucifix], God would have raised him from the dead, and the resurrected man would crush the serpent’s head.
There is an essential link between natural and spiritual fatherhood. Newly ordained priests often honor that connection. When a man is ordained a priest, it’s not long afterwards that he hears his first Confession. In Confession, a priest wears a purple stole. It’s this long scarf-like accessory worn whenever a priest celebrates a sacrament. You don’t see it at Mass since a chasuble—this garment—is worn over it during the Mass.
After a priest hears his first Confession, he gives that purple stole to his father as a sign of his gratitude. He’s grateful to his father for shaping his priesthood by his own good example of fatherhood. The mercy that a priest offers in the sacrament of Confession is a lesson first learned from his father. As a man, he first received mercy from his father, and as a priest he shares that mercy in sacrament.
In our gospel today, we again see this connection between natural and spiritual fatherhood. Our Lord summoned the Twelve. And he sent them out as priests—as Church fathers—to cast out demons, cure the sick, raise the dead, and proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
That need is still present with us today, both naturally and supernaturally. In a world where many feel troubled and abandoned, we need fathers to defend their families, and we need priests to defend the flock against any number of wolves. We need them: to cast out the demons that prey on human weakness; to cleanse the culture from the leprosy of sin; to bring healing to societal brokenness; to bring life again to the family and home; and to be Godly men of good Christian example.
Our Lord said to his disciples: “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.” And so, that is our prayer. We beg God to send us men who have embraced their masculinity and fatherhood at every level, who have refined those gifts through sacrificial service until they’ve come to look like this [gesturing to the Cross].
May God send us fathers and priests after his own heart.
The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1773, by Pompeo Batoni, oil on canvas, Kunsthistorisches Museum [Public Domain]