Sunday, June 18, 2017

TO NEVER BE CALLED "DAD". (Ruminations on Generativity, Fatherhood, and Jesus' Command to Peter to "Feed my sheep", on Father's Day 2017)

"Simon, son of John, do you love me?... Feed my sheep". (John 21:17)

These past couple of months, yet another group of my former students were  ordained, some to the transitional diaconate, the rest to the priesthood. They're all  solid, extremely generous and kind young men who, even as students in seminary, showed a tremendous love and care for the church, the People of God.  Those who have now become priests will find themselves addressed, for the rest of their lives, as “Father”.

A couple of years ago, while back home in Manila, I had the opportunity to get together with some grade school classmates whom I haven’t seen in years. Over dinner, and after recounting old stories about ourselves as students, the teachers we had and some of the silly and crazy things we did as kids, we shared stories of what we’ve been doing since we parted ways after graduation: our line of work, the relationships we’ve had, family, plans for the future.

At one point the conversation turned to the topic of children. (They were all married and had kids.) One of my friends has a daughter who’s already in her twenties, another just had a baby (whose photos he and his beautiful wife posted online just a few weeks before), another spoke of how proud he was about his very bright daughters, still another told us his young boy was going to school at our own alma mater. 

Eventually of course—and I knew it was bound to happen—one of my friends looked at me and said, “Hey, you and Dick (a classmate who wasn’t present) are the only ones who aren’t married yet!” And then they started laughing. “What’s it like?” one of them asked. “You know, being a priest…not having a wife, not having kids…” he continued.

“What’s it like?” There we were, five men, four who were proud fathers, dads, and one whom each of the four fathers called “father” yet had no biological children of his own. I probably could’ve asked each of them the same question, “What’s it like? Being married…having children?” But I didn’t have to. There was no need. It was enough to just sit there with these good friends, and for just a few brief seconds, to allow the depth, but also the humor of the moment to sink in. They were fathers; but so was I. They had children, and so did I. They were proud of their kids; I’ve always found joy in the students and people whose lives, even briefly, cross mine.

Yesterday, at the gym, one of the guys working out had two of his young children in tow, a boy who was probably eight or nine, and a little girl who I’m guessing was five or six. His daughter he left in the play area where a lady takes care of the little tykes who tag along with their parents; but his son, he took along with him, and both father and son got on two adjacent treadmills. At one point, the little boy pushed the stop button and said, “Dad, I’m done”, then he got off and sat on the edge of the machine, waiting for his father to finish.

"What a beautiful sight", I thought, “a dad and his son, doing something fun together”. Then, out of nowhere, came a thought that’s crossed my mind on many occasions: “I’m never going to be called ‘dad’. No one’s ever going to call me ‘dad’.” [But then I suddenly remembered I was halfway through a rep with a 120-pound curl bar - which I almost dropped. Reflecting or even thinking too much during workouts is never a good idea; that’s how injuries happen. You don’t think; you just lift.]

One of the Sunday Gospel readings after Easter, records what is perhaps one of the most moving exchanges between Jesus and the disciple who was to eventually lead the apostolic band that was to be left behind. Peter who, in many places in each of the four gospels is portrayed as someone who seemingly opens his mouth only to put his foot in it, is shown in that particular reading as someone whose journey towards a deeper understanding of his response to Jesus’ call, takes a more profound and significant turn. 

"Do you love me?” Jesus asks Peter three times. And three times Peter answers, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you”. (Some scripture commentators have said that the three questions and the three accompanying replies whereby Peter professes his love for Jesus are meant to signify, on the one hand, Jesus’ forgiveness of Peter for the latter’s threefold denial, and on the other hand, Peter’s overcoming of the very fear, weakness, and lack of faith that had led him to deny Jesus in the first place.)

After each of the questions, of course, and after each reply, Jesus gives Peter the same commission given to everyone who seeks to be a shepherd of God’s people—we who are priests, and those who have the great privilege to have sons or daughters call them “dad”: “Feed my sheep”. 

Years ago, as a seminary student, I remember telling my spiritual director that I thought I could be a good dad, and that part of me wishes I could in fact have children of my own. Whenever I see former seminary classmates who have eventually discerned a call to married life, who happen to have a son or daughter in tow, or guys who have their kids along with them, like at the gym yesterday, I couldn’t help—to this day—but remember what I said to my spiritual director.

But I also recall, quite vividly in fact, what his reply to me was. “It’s good to feel that way. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with such thoughts or feelings. They’re normal. In fact, if you didn’t feel or think that way, I’d be really concerned”. 

Then Father John spoke those words that I’d hear, again and again, spoken—albeit in different ways—by many good and amazing priests I’ve encountered both as a student and later on  as a priest myself: “A good priest is one who would also be a good dad. And a good dad is really much like a good shepherd of God’s people”. 

A father is the shepherd of his family, the provider, protector, model and guide to his children and his wife. A priest—one who is himself called “father”—acts and serves in very much the same capacity, performs the same role, and is tasked with not much different a responsibility, not to a wife and biological children of course, but to Christ’s flock briefly entrusted to his care, protection, and guidance. “A good priest is one who would also be a good dad”. 

What’s a good father like though? Over the years, as I’ve journeyed with students and other men and women who have come to see me either for spiritual direction or counseling, I’ve jotted down some thoughts they’ve shared with me about what they thought a good father would be like. On a number of occasions these individuals have in fact struggled with their own difficulties and challenges with their own fathers, and so a good portion of what they’ve shared actually involves what they “wished” their fathers could have been.

Last night, before going to bed, with the memory of that dad and his kids at the gym still lingering in my mind, I pulled out my file (Yes, I have files on my computer going all the way back to 1991 when I was still a college seminarian) and read through some of the notes I’ve written. There were pages and pages of them, so I thought I’d simply include a few of the significant ones; the rest I’ll share later, in a book perhaps, if I find the time to write one:

A good father is one who sets the vision for his family, orients his relationship with his wife as well as his children towards everything that is good, materially, physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. And the highest good of course is God himself—who must be a father’s pattern of steadfastness, strength, care, and love.

This isn’t always easy, and the challenges one building a family may encounter can be immense. But a good father remains strong and steadfast. He must possess a focus and determination so fierce and a commitment and dedication so unshakeable that his wife and children will know that with him by their side, “all shall be well”.

A good father strives to be the primary role model and guide—bar none—after which his sons and daughters can pattern their own lives. He must be their rock of certainty, their source of clarity, amidst the confusions and uncertainties of life, their pillar of strength when weakness assails them, their fortress in times of distress, and their ever-present source of courage.

His wife and his children must therefore know that they can always trust him and rely on his presence. He must be a man of his word, who not only keeps his promises but is likewise willing and ready to stand by the values and principles upon which he has built his own life.

A good father learns to be a good communicator, with his wife and his children. “Learns” – because this isn’t always easy for us men, especially when it comes to what we feel. I’ve had a number of people, both men and women, who have, during spiritual direction or counseling, lamented the fact that they’ve never heard their fathers tell them he “loved” them. It’s an all-too common thing unfortunately; especially since we men believe that “actions speak louder than words”.

A good father though is one who is brave enough to let his children know, not only what he thinks, but what he feels. This in no way detracts from our masculinity; in fact it intensifies it even more given that it involves conquering something we often dread doing. To speak our minds clearly and open our hearts to our children, encourages them to do the same. It gives them confidence and strength, and teaches them that there is power even in vulnerability.
 
A good father never raises his hand in anger. He may reprimand, admonish, at times even reproach and punish in order to keep his children on the “straight and narrow”. While on occasion, he may even find a need to seriously consider the scriptural warning about “spoiling a child” when one “spares the rod”, he will never allow his anger or a bad mood to cloud either the reason for reprimanding his child, or the love he has for him, which led him to impose punishment in the first place.

A good father knows when and how to say he’s sorry, both to his wife when he has offended her, and to his children, when he has made a mistake, has been too harsh towards them, or fails them in any way. There is perhaps nothing sweeter to a child, nothing more helpful in teaching him true humanity, especially the young whose minds are at the early stages of growth and maturity, than sincere and heartfelt words of apology from a father.

For in admitting his mistakes, whatever these might be, a father shows not weakness, but a profound strength which becomes a lesson to his children in being realistic about life. Apologizing for a mistake allows a child the opportunity to know that no matter how lofty one’s ideals might be—and they should be—one can fall short. But that’s alright; because one can admit one’s failing, survive the fall, pick up the pieces, and still look forward to something better.

Similarly, there is perhaps nothing more hurtful and confusing to a child, nothing more detrimental to his growth as a well-adjusted human being, than a father’s awkward silence or, worse, defensiveness, after having committed a mistake.

A good father is always present; he must always be “there” for his children. There is nothing more helpful in building a child’s inner resources of strength, courage, and confidence in taking the risks that are necessary for a happy and fulfilled life than the awareness of his or her father’s presence. There are two types of ‘presence’ of course: physical and spiritual. While a father may not always be physically present to his children (there are many demands placed on the shoulder of a provider), he must be “present” to them nonetheless, i.e. they must know and feel that they are secure, cared for, loved, and most of all, protected, even if he isn’t actually around.

Similarly, there is nothing more harmful to a child than that lack of a sense of security, that feeling that things aren’t going to be alright, that he or she has to somehow fend for himself because that “storehouse” of courage, strength, determination, and confidence—which a father ought to be—is simply not there.

A good father does his best to become a true “friend” to his children without at the same time, losing sight of the fact that he will always be more than that; for he is the head of his family, its guide, its shepherd.

A good father must never cease to learn, to grow in wisdom, to mature, to expand his horizon, to enlarge his consciousness and awareness of the world, especially the world which his children inhabit, and which they are to inherit. His care for his family must therefore extend to a care for others, for society, and for the world. This, after all, is the legacy he shall be leaving behind. As such, he is his children’s first and foremost teacher, and the single greatest lesson he can teach them is the lesson of growth, of expansion, of enlargement, of transcendence, and of courage in the face of all these.

With the grace of God, my dad is alive and well; last night, as I put my thoughts on this piece in writing, I said a prayer of thanks to God, for him, for all the priests who have been “fathers” to me, for all my friends and former classmates who are now fathers themselves, for all the fathers in the world, and finally, for my group of students (on both sides of the planet) who are about to be ordained priests and who shall, every single day of their lives, be asked by Jesus the same question and given the same task he gave to Peter: “Do you love me?” “Feed my sheep”. 

For nineteen years now, people have addressed me as “father”; but I shall never be called “dad”. That is a fact, an unchangeable reality of the life I have chosen, a life I continue to believe God has desired for me. And there is tremendous joy in knowing that one’s life is offered for something one believes in, with every fiber of his being. But such faith, confidence, and trust, do not in any way erase the thoughts nor the gentle sting that sometimes accompanies them, whenever I am among friends who are fathers, or whenever I see a dad with his son or his daughter.

I shall never be called “dad”. But does it really matter? On the 19th of September, 1998, during my doctoral defense at the University in Louvain, my dissertation moderator, a wonderful philosophy professor and a truly great and dedicated priest, Professor Jan Van der Veken, who was set to retire that year, spoke words that I made certain I wrote in my journal as soon as the defense and the activities that followed were over, for I knew even back then that they would be a source of strength for me in this path I have chosen to take. 

Before he introduced me and my work to the assembly gathered for the occasion, Jan Van Der Veken said: 

"Ferdinand’s doctoral work is one of the last ones I shall be directing. This is my final year as a professor here at the university, I am set to retire. I have taught for almost four decades, I have taught hundreds of students. I do not feel ready to retire; but I have to, even if I do not feel that old. It is rather difficult to think about. But I console myself with the thought that wherever Ferdinand goes, I shall go. Wherever he is, I shall be. Whoever he teaches, I shall teach. Whose lives he touches, I shall touch. I shall live on in my students. I shall live forever in those whose lives I have touched and whose lives have crossed and touched mine". 

I shall never be called “dad”, but like Jan Van der Veken, like the many teachers, professors, and priests whose lives have formed and touched so many, I too shall live on in those whose paths shall cross mine. Such is the reality of this life, this good, amazing, wonderful, joy-filled, and truly blessed and happy life, this life of a priest, this life of someone who shall never be called “dad”.  

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)