Coming to you this week from the Memorial Garden at the rectory……
My father turned 80 this past weekend, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what fatherhood is and what it is not. Those of you who know me, know that my relationship with my dad is complicated at best, although in later years we have had some completely honest, unguarded conversations. In my own role as parent, I can think of ways I was just like him, and many other ways in which I intentionally chose to do the opposite of what he would have done. I ask myself, is this why I have always struggled with the authoritarian, imperious patriarchy of the Church?? I don’t know the answer, but I suspect my own personal experience of “dad” also influenced the way I experienced “Mother” Church–who is much more of a Father than a Mother, to be sure!
The idea of fatherhood, then, is probably both personal and universal. I have in my head the image of an ideal dad: someone who is there for me, who can spot me a loan in a financial crisis, who can love me without totally approving of me, who can teach me by example what it means to be a dad. The process of reconciling the ideal father that resides in my fantasies with the one I have in the real world is a valuable way of knowing more of who I am. Same is true of the Church. I have in my head an idealized notion of “Father” Church and the way the men who operate and manage it ought to behave–and then I have the reality that is often at odds with that. So, what do I do??
Back in the 1980s, groups of feminist Sisters, theologians and lay women began exploring the sacred feminine, which had been submerged culturally since we men first discovered that we had a role in creating babies. (It was fine to reverence women when we thought they alone controlled the mystery of hatching new humans and bringing life into the universe, but quite another thing once we realized that we had a role as well. I’m tellin’ you, guys, we’re not that bright sometimes….) These women insisted on inclusive language, total equality within the Church, and of course, ordination to priesthood. Initially this created dialogue within the larger Church, but then was stamped out as feminists were fired from their seminary teaching jobs and their books banned. For some of these women, this situation occasioned healing and a more nuanced approach to Church; for others the result was only anger and bitterness. Some even left the Catholic Church because they couldn’t reconcile the Father Church in their head with the way the real “fathers” behaved and treated them. But it’s never been an either/or situation, and therein lies the error. The truth is that any sound feminism will always redound to a deeper appreciation of the masculine, and vice versa. Any time we conceive of something as either/or, we have strayed from God’s dream for us.
Our relationship with our biological dad will affect our other male relationships; our relationship with the male dominated Church will also affect our relationship with religion, spirituality, and ultimately with ourselves. In our birth home, Dad behaved in certain ways and thought in certain categories; maybe we have inherited some of that. Certain traits might have been so unacceptable to us, that we have spent a lot of energy and time working to be the opposite of those things–giving energy and sustenance to resentment, bitterness and pain. Understanding how our relationship with Dad and with Father Church has influenced us has a direct bearing on how we will come to know ourselves and view the life we have chosen to make.
Pope Francis, in a series of candid remarks this week, indicated that he feels it is long overdue to explore a deeper theology of the feminine in the Catholic Church. Historically, the Roman Church is always a generation or two behind the culture, and this is no exception. Motherhood, the sacred feminine and women’s essential energy have been more and more explored and appreciated for decades. My own feeling is that as we proceed to explore either the masculine or the feminine, we will always end up honoring and enhancing our view of the other. As humans and as Catholics we need both masculine and feminine energy because that is how Our God has chosen to demonstrate wholeness to us in all of creation.
As we mature in our ideas and experiences of fatherhood and as we see the larger unity within the diversity of genders, we will no longer be threatened, fearful, angry or bitter. Each of us has women who have “fathered” us, just as we know men who have “mothered” us with all their heart. There is nothing static in the universe (ask a scientist if you think I’m just being poetic!) and as we open ourselves to embodying both motherhood and fatherhood, we will gain wisdom and balance. We can all probably benefit from thinking about our biological fathers as well as our spiritual ones, and consider how they have influenced our walk through this life. Honoring our fathers doesn’t have to be difficult or forced; it can be as natural as taking our next breath, with the goal always being to breathe deeply with both lungs.
I am proud and humbled to be YOUR Father; pray for me as I try to embody ideals I cannot ever live up to.