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Fathers and the future of the Faith


Thomas L. McDonald - published on 07/21/16

When the father makes a point of going to church, there is a better chance that the kids will remain

I remember two things about my father’s Catholicism: he never missed Mass and he never, not once in my memory, spoke about faith. He was an usher from the time he was 14 until age 90, when the cancer made him too weak to pass the basket. Every Sunday and Holy Day, my father was there. He never sat with us during Mass because he had ushering to do. I don’t recall him ever saying the name of Jesus or reading the Bible. I never saw him pray anything other than grace at dinnertime.

Since childhood, I’ve known dozens of men exactly like him. They were as likely to show up at Mass without pants as they would without a jacket and tie. Unless you’d lost a limb, skipping Mass wasn’t an option. They volunteered their time. They made the annual picnic possible (dad was a mean oyster-shucker) and helped clean and maintain the church. Dad worked the soup kitchen into his late 80s, until the state of New Jersey said the parish could no longer deliver meals to shut-ins because of some idiot rule.

One of the great failings of the post-conciliar era was to make men like my father feel as though their simple faith was unworthy of this new Church. Catholics who talk about how essential it is to have a “personal relationship with Jesus” make me cringe because they’re reading men like my father and millions like him right out of the Church. It’s nice, and perhaps even preferable, to have a deep understanding of the faith and everything that goes with it, but the sacraments of the Church work with or without our full understanding and “active participation.” They respond to the simple piety of the average man. That’s part the genius of Catholicism: a simple, lived faith in Jesus and the practice of the sacraments is enough. No one is left out because they don’t grasp a subtle theology or feel a deep emotional response. By believing and doing, the doors of the Kingdom are open to them too.

More to read:The Mass of the Very Old Men

Worshiping God, trusting the Church, participating in the sacraments, performing works of mercy, and maybe whispering the odd Hail Mary or prayer to St. Anthony when the car keys go missing—things you do—were enough for these men.

And then they started hearing that it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t about what you did, it was about what you felt. That was a product of the times rather than of the Council, but the two coincided to make the Church feel less like a place men like my father belonged. And when men start leaving—as they certainly have—their children eventually follow.

Fathers determine the future of the Faith

In 1994, the Swiss discovered what, for the time, was a surprising fact about church attendance: the practice of faith into subsequent generations was determined overwhelmingly by the participation of fathers. If a mother is a regular churchgoer and the father is not, only 2% of their children will attend church regularly. If, however, both parents practice the faith, that 37% of children will grow up to be regular church-goers and 41% will become irregular church goers. Bizarrely, when the situation is reversed—father practices and mother does not—the exact opposite happens: the number of children who grow up to become regular church-goers rises to 44%.

The plain truths of traditional roles can’t be squeezed from the psyche or papered over with political correctness. A father may nurture or a mother may provide, but we still look to our parents for certain cues. If it makes you feel better, we can call those cues socially conditioned, but that doesn’t make them less ingrained. However we choose to live out our parenting roles (and my household is anything but conventional), there’s a sense that the image of Mother relates to the home and childhood and the image of Father to the world and adulthood. If the Father doesn’t participate in worship, then worship becomes associated with the Mother alone, creating a lingering sense that it’s part of the home and youth left behind when we transition to adulthood.

Contemporary western society has struck at the foundations of civilization by dispensing with fixed concepts like family, marriage, parenting, and sex (cannily altered to “gender” by the manipulators of language). In the process, the role of men in the raising of children is debased, and the ideal of simple masculinity becomes a punchline. Generations of men are deftly summarized in the idea of a Gary Cooper Type: strong, silent, dedicated to the right and helping the down-trodden, sensitive and capable of love without being ostentatious or verbose about it. Now we’re supposed to consider that kind of manhood “toxic masculinity,” a vicious term deployed to re-engineer masculinity to remove its distinguishing characteristic. It’s not about “feminizing” men, one writes claims, but about “humanizing” them, as though traditional masculine traits were subhuman.

It should be no surprise, then, that shifting ideals about masculinity and fatherhood find expression in the Church.

There are men who would live out their faith, but they probably don’t want to talk about it too much. They are also the men who pass on the faith to their children. Of course our understanding can widen to encompass men with a deeper sense of the faith, but it can’t abandon the simply pious in the process.

Modeling fatherhood and faith

I know a woman, we’ll call her Anne, who comes from a mixed marriage. Her mother is Catholic and her father was raised Presbyterian, but did not persist in his faith. Before their marriage, her parents agreed that the children would be raised Catholic.

Her father had several courses of action open to him. He could have resisted, leading to conflict in the marriage and the family. He could have insisted on a dual-faith upbringing, creating confusion. He could have stayed home while his family went to Mass, leading to a weakening of the faith as children wondered “Why doesn’t daddy have to go?”

More to read:Fathers and the Domestic Church: Don’t be afraid to write a holy rule

He chose another option: while the children were growing up, he attended Mass with his family without receiving communion. For the good of the children, he showed how a family worships together. It couldn’t have been easy, but he honored his promise to raise his children Catholic, and two of those three children remain practicing Catholics, while a third is an evangelical.

This is a father who was not even Catholic, and yet by his mere presence he modeled a faithful behavior that led, against the odds, to all of his children becoming active Christians and two-thirds being faithful Catholics.

I was out of the Church for 15 years before returning. Both fatherhood and a religious experience upended my life at roughly the same time, and led me to reconsider the Church of my youth. I wanted to be an example for my children. I wanted to give them what my father gave me: a childhood in which the family lived and practiced their faith together.

There’s a poverty to raising children without it. It’s part of what we pass on to them, along with our genes and traditions and family stories and values. The faithful family is a bulwark against the darkness eternally pressing at the edges of civilization, a darkness exalted by modern man. And without the faithful father, the darkness wins.

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