Put Out into the Deep

‘Father’ – A Title Like No Other

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

Father’s Day is a secular holiday that draws our attention to the role of paternity in our own lives and in our society. It is said to have originated in 1908 in Fairmont, W.Va. Grace Golden Clayton is believed to have been inspired to celebrate fathers after a deadly mine explosion in nearby Monongah killed 360 men, many of them fathers and recent immigrants to the United States from Italy.

Another driving force behind the establishment of Father’s Day in this country was Mrs. Sonora Smart Dodd of Creston, Wash. Her father, a Civil War veteran, was forced to raise six children by himself on a rural farm in Eastern Washington State. It was only after Mrs. Dodd became an adult that she realized the strength and selflessness her father had shown in raising children on his own.

Perhaps we must take a deeper look at what fatherhood means in a theological sense. Divine Filiation is a theological way of describing how God makes us His children. The origin of speaking in this way about God’s paternity can be traced back to the work of Nicholas of Cusa, who wrote a treatise on Divine Filiation in the 15th century. He uses language somewhat alien to our age, but he forms a clear foundation of understanding how our relationship to God as Father brings us into relationship with the Blessed Trinity. In more modern times, St. Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, used this doctrine of Divine Filiation to explain how we become related to one another and to God as a family in the Church.

It is the Gospel of John and his letters that give us the scriptural foundation for understanding what the Divine Filiation is all about when we hear: “To all who received Him (the Word made flesh) He gave the power to become sons of God” (Jn 1:12). We are truly His children, as John’s Gospel also tells us, when we dare to call God our Father. We repeat these words in the Eucharist each time we begin the Communion Rite and the recitation of the Our Father.

Daring to call God our Father is certainly a part of Christian revelation. If we look back to our Jewish origins as Christians, we recognize that in the Hebrew mind, calling God by any name was avoided. They preferred using the term “Yahweh” in order not to offend God by taking His name in vain.

Jesus teaches us the true meaning of God’s paternity for us. He gives us the deeper understanding of the nature of God by recognizing His relationship to His Father. How many times in the Gospel does He tell that “the Father and I are one.” We, as the baptized, are invited into this union with Jesus and His Father, and we have the ability to cry out, “Abba Father,” because we are indeed His adopted sons and daughters.

Truly, Divine Filiation, or the ability to call God our Father and recognize our relationship to God, is a wonderful gift. I think this is why we recognize the great debt of gratitude we have to our earthly fathers and why the celebration of Father’s Day truly is an act of filial piety. The commandments tell us we must honor our fathers and mothers.

Perhaps before I speak more about our human fathers, I might speak about our priests as our fathers. Many times the phrase from the Gospel of Matthew, “call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven,” has been misinterpreted to mean that priests should not be given the title “Father.” Of all the titles that are given to priests, Father is the one that has the most meaning. Many times people feel they make a mistake when they call me Father and not Bishop. I immediately correct them and tell them that the best term that could ever be used in addressing a priest is Father.

Jesus, in giving this teaching, was really speaking about the hypocrisy of Pharisees and teachers of the law. He said that they sought the places of honor and titles of honor and loved to be called Rabbi. Jesus speaks in this way in order to expose their desire for position and not their willingness to become true fathers. In other places in the Gospel, Jesus refers to our earthly fathers as well as our heavenly Father. If the command to call no one on earth “father” was taken in the strict literal sense, similarly we would not be able to follow the commandment in Exodus, “Honor your father and mother.” Misuse of this text is unfortunate, but a close reading of the Scripture tells us otherwise.

As we come to Father’s Day, we recognize the challenge of fatherhood today in a world that does not recognize the true responsibilities of paternity. Several years ago in a Father’s Day article, I quoted from a book called “Fatherless America.” It was a sociological attempt to recognize that families in America are living without fathers in many different ways, with outright abandonment or the absence of a father, given the heavy responsibilities of work and other things that divert the father’s attention from his family. On Father’s Day, we have an opportunity to remember our fathers, be they living or dead, and to pray for them.

All fatherhood is an exercise of “putting out into the deep” since the demands of fatherhood are never clear and simple. They involve a total giving of self so that children become the motivating force in a father’s life.

Pray with me on this Father’s Day for our priests who are our spiritual fathers and for all fathers and father-figures in our lives. May they meet the challenges of life today and enjoy the fruits of their labors.

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