A father’s prodigal love and approval fill the space carved into our being by the finger of our Creator. Boy or girl, man or woman, all, and no matter the age, thirst for it. Our household knows this well.
After a period of infertility, physical deterioration, and loss, when we were told never to expect children again, God gave us two boys—two sons and future fathers. It’s not unusual in our home to hear the boys say: “Mom, you are my mommy, you are not my daddy, daddy is my daddy,” as the four year old likes to remind me. Or: “Dad, when I grow up, I’m going to be just like you,” as the 8-year-old often tells my husband. These are the articulations of boys who sense that fatherhood is just as life creating as motherhood. The boys are friends and brothers; my husband is father and friend. And when the 8-year-old plays “teacher and pupil,” with his 4-year-old brother, the life-giving prodigal love and approval he receives from my husband he in turn pours into his little brother.
Not everyone in today’s culture is so blessed. Father famine is pervasive. Sons and daughters of all ages go about their lives wounded by father famine. Here in Phoenix, a sagacious man of God is addressing these wounds. This past year, Bishop Thomas Olmsted wrote and put forth Into the Breach, an Apostolic Exhortation to the men of the Diocese of Phoenix. One of Bishop Olmsted’s primary concerns in this document is for men to become aware of how extensive the attacks on fatherhood have become.
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The first attack against fatherhood was in the Garden. St. John Paul II wrote in Crossing the Threshold of Hope:
Original sin is not only the violation of a positive command of God but also, and above all, a violation of the will of God as expressed in that command. Original sin attempts; then, to abolish fatherhood … placing in doubt the truth about God who is Love and leaving man only with a sense of the master-slave relationship.
Expounding on this, Bishop Olmsted says, “in original sin, we find a primordial rebellion against God’s fatherhood, a desire to remove fatherhood itself.” Fatherhood has been under attack from the beginning. A great blow was dealt during the Sexual Revolution, expanding the rebellion against being fathers as much as it did against honoring our fathers. And as our current society bears within itself the marks of absent fathers, detached fathers, wicked fathers, and weak fathers, Bishop Olmsted has an answer which goes beyond forming yet another program aimed at rehabilitating and reenergizing men.
Bishop Olmsted himself is at the head leading a line of men out of their wounds and darkness. He lavishes his love and approval on the men and women God brings his way. What the bishop has done in Into the Breach is unique in that he stays away from categorizing men (e.g. single, married, married with children, religious, priests, elderly). All are men, all undergo trials, and all are living in a father hungry culture. This is not to say that he doesn’t address the variety of life situations men find themselves in, he does so, and well. But something happens to men when addressed qua men—the potency which comes from camaraderie described so well by C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves when he wrote about how friendships begin:
“What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”…. it is then that Friendship is born. And instantly they stand together in an immense solitude.
Bishop Olmsted’s Into the Breach creates this type of togetherness and solidarity between men because it addresses all men equally—breaking the categories, isolation, and shame our culture uses to triangulate men.
The key to our bleak father famine is the spiritual fatherhood of priests—the vicars of Christ on earth. What I found powerful in this letter of exhortation is the imbedding of an exhortation to his diocesan priests in a letter that is meant for every man in the diocese. It’s his prerogative to give his priests private recommendations, and he very well may do so. But this bishop understands the power this will have on all the men. Thus, he writes:
I call upon my brother priests to awaken the sense of transcendence in the hearts of men through reverent and beautiful liturgy, helping men to rediscover Jesus in the Eucharist each and every Sunday… Teaching men to understand the fullness and power of the Mass must be a top priority…. What a joy it is for men of God when they are led by priests who have a confident sense of their own masculinity, their call to participate in Christ’s spousal love, and their generous, life-giving fatherhood!
He is publicly calling every priest in his diocese to take their spiritual fatherhood seriously, and through them, the men in the parishes will be aroused from their spiritual complacency. Even the godliest wife is not a man, and no matter what mendacious radicals say, men need men qua men. This is a very real war that has been waged against men, and in a time of war men need a comrade in arms. Men need men to show them how to be a faithful spouse, an attentive merciful father, a hard worker, a selfless friend. A man has to be told by another man: “You’re working too much, you need to spend more time with your family,” “No, you can’t have an affair,” “No, you may not abuse your child,” “No, you may not leave your pregnant girlfriend,” “No, you shouldn’t cohabitate,” and so forth. And in a culture which despises and twists the love of men, holds up foolish bumbling fathers as the norm, and does everything in its power to pull men into sexual depravity, who has been and continues to be—in spite of past scandal and failures—the avenue for absolution and spiritual love? The priesthood! Who takes vows to be a servant of Christ, a spouse of Christ, and a nurturer and protector of Christ’s Bride? Priests!
Let not the priests and bishops be afraid! Let them not be afraid to lavish spiritual love on their sons and daughters. We need it so. It is the priests and bishops who must step first into the gap, leading the men of the Church and of the culture.
Bishop Olmsted understands this well. He is a father who has stepped into the breach and is calling for his priests to follow him, and for the men in the diocese to follow them. He knows that spiritual fathers can lead the way in exemplifying God’s prodigal love and approval, which will in turn heal the wounds of the men in the parishes, and like leaven will work its way into the culture of men and fathers here in the Phoenix area, and beyond. Into the Breach is an important read for all men and women. One need not be within the Phoenix Diocese to profit from it.
Editor’s note: The image above, titled “Joseph and the Infant Christ,” was painted by Baciccio between 1670 and 1685.