I remember a young man coming to my house several years ago with marital problems. He wanted my advice, or so he said. “She won’t listen to me!” he complained. “Isn’t she supposed to submit to me? Don’t the Scriptures say that I am the head of my wife? What’s her problem!?” I knew the relationship well enough to know that his view of himself was seriously skewed. So I replied, “Well, what does St. Paul say again?”:
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. So (also) husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. (Eph 5:25-28)
“So you see,” I continued, “you are called to lay down your life for your wife. To serve her as Jesus served her. To love and sacrifice for her the way Jesus loved and sacrificed for you. If you do that, she likely won’t have any problems ‘submitting’ to you.” Well, that outraged the young man who promptly stormed out the house. What he really wanted was for me to give him ammunition to go home and continue treating his wife like a doormat. No, this is not what St. Paul meant then or now, cultural differences aside. What Paul was referring to was a relationship based on Christ’s example. But that model of true manhood has been pilloried…
One of the greatest attacks of this past century has been against the spiritual head of the home, the husband and father. These words of Jesus could very well apply to fatherhood:
I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed. (Matt 26:31)
When the father of the home loses his sense of purpose and true identity, we know both experientially and statistically that it has a profound impact upon the family. And thus, says Pope Benedict:
The crisis of fatherhood we are living today is an element, perhaps the most important, threatening man in his humanity. The dissolution of fatherhood and motherhood is linked to the dissolution of our being sons and daughters. —POPE BENEDICT XVI (Cardinal Ratzinger), Palermo, March 15th, 2000
As I have quoted here before, Blessed John Paul II wrote prophetically,
The future of the world and of the Church passes through the family. —Familiaris Consortio, n. 75
One could also say to a certain degree, then, that the future of the world and the Church passes through the father. For just as the Church cannot survive without the sacramental priesthood, so too, the father is an essential element of a healthy family. But how few men grasp this today! For popular culture has steadily whittled away the image of true manhood. Radical feminism, and all its offshoots, has reduced men to mere furniture in the home; popular culture and entertainment has turned fatherhood into a joke; and liberal theology has poisoned man’s sense of responsibility as spiritual model and leader who follows in the footsteps of Christ, the sacrificial lamb.
To give just one example of the powerful influence of the father, look at church attendance. A study conducted in Sweden in 1994 found that if both father and mother attend church regularly, 33 percent of their children will end up as regular churchgoers, and 41 percent will end up attending irregularly. Now, if the father is irregular and mother regular, only 3 percent of the children will subsequently become regulars themselves, while a further 59 percent will become irregulars. And here is what is stunning:
What happens if the father is regular but the mother irregular or non-practicing? Extraordinarily, the percentage of children becoming regular goes up from 33 percent to 38 percent with the irregular mother and to 44 percent with the non-practicing [mother], as if loyalty to father’s commitment grows in proportion to mother’s laxity, indifference, or hostility. —The Truth About Men & Church: On the Importance of Fathers to Churchgoing by Robbie Low; based on study: “The demographic characteristics of the linguistic and religious groups in Switzerland” by Werner Haug and Phillipe Warner of the Federal Statistical Office, Neuchatel; Volume 2 of Population Studies, No. 31
Fathers have a significant spiritual impact on their children precisely because of their unique role in the order of creation…
THE FATHERLY PRIESTHOOD
The Catechism teaches:
The Christian home is the place where children receive the first proclamation of the faith. For this reason the family home is rightly called “the domestic church,” a community of grace and prayer, a school of human virtues and of Christian charity. —Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1666
Thus, a man could be considered a priest in his own home. As St. Paul writes:
For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body. (Eph 5:23)
What does this imply? Well, as my story illustrates above, we know that this Scripture has seen its abuses over the years. Verse 24 goes on to say, “As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.” For when men are living out their Christian duty, women will be submitting to one who shares in and leads them to Christ.
As husbands and men, then, we are called to a unique spiritual leadership. Women and men are indeed different—emotionally, physically, and in the spiritual order. They are complementary. And they are our equals as co-heirs of Christ: cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2203
Likewise, you husbands should live with your wives in understanding, showing honor to the weaker female sex, since we are joint heirs of the gift of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. (1 Pet 3:7)
But remember Christ’s words to Paul that “power is made perfect in weakness.” 1 Cor 12:9 That is, most men will admit that their strength, their rock is their wives. And now we see a mystery unfolding here: holy matrimony is a symbol of Christ’s marriage to the Church.
This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church. (Eph 5:32)
Christ laid down His life for His Bride, but He empowers the Church and raises her to a new destiny “by the bath of water with the word.” In fact, he refers to the Church as foundation stones and Peter as “the rock.” These words are incredible, really. For what Jesus is saying is that He desires the Church to co-redeem with Him; to share in His power; to literally become “the body of Christ”, one with His body.
…the two shall become one flesh. (Eph 5:31)
Christ’s motive is love, an unfathomable love expressed in a divine generosity that surpasses any act of love in the history of mankind. Such is the love that men are called to toward their wives. We are called to bathe our wife and children in the Word of God that they may someday stand before God “without spot or wrinkle.” One could say that, like Christ, we hand the “keys of the kingdom” to our rock, to our wives, to enable them to in turn foster and nourish the home in a holy and healthy atmosphere. We are to empower them, not overpower them.
But this does not mean that men should become whimps—little shadows in the corner who default every responsibility to their wives. But that is in fact what has happened in many families, especially in the Western world. The role of men has been emaciated. It is most often the wives who lead their families in prayer, who take their children to church, who serve as extraordinary ministers, and who even run the parish such that the priest is merely a signatory to her decisions. And all of these roles of women in the family and Church have a place so long as it is not at the expense of the God-given spiritual leadership of men. It is one thing for a mother to catechize and raise her children in the faith, which is a wonderful thing; it is another for her to do this without her husband’s support, witness, and co-operation out of his own neglect or sinfulness.
THE MAN’S ROLE
In another powerful symbol, the married couple are essentialy an image of the Holy Trinity. The Father so loves the Son that their love begets a third person, the Holy Spirit. So too, a husband loves his wife so completely, and a wife her husband, that their love produces a third person: a child. A husband and a wife, then, are called to be reflections of the Holy Trinity to one another and to their children in their words and actions. Children and wives should see in their father a reflection of the Heavenly Father; they should see in their mother a reflection of the Son and Mother Church, which is His body. In this way, the children will be able to receive through their parents the many graces of the Holy Spirit, just as we receive sacramental graces through the Holy Priesthood and Mother Church.
The Christian family is a communion of persons, a sign and image of the communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. —Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2205
What does fatherhood and husbandry look like? Unfortunately today, there is barely a model of fatherhood that is worth examining. Manhood today, it seems, is merely a proper balance of vulgarity, alcohol, and regular television sports with a bit (or a lot) of lust thrown in for good measure. Tragically in the Church, spiritual leadership has mostly disappeared from the pulpit with clergyman afraid to challenge the status quo, to exhort their spiritual children to holiness, and to preach the undiluted Gospel, and of course, live it in a way that sets a potent example. But that does not mean that we don’t have any examples to go by. Jesus remains our greatest and most perfect example of manhood. He was tender, but firm; gentle, but uncompromising; respectful to women, but truthful; and with His spiritual children, He gave everything. As He washed their feet, He said:
If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. (John 13:14-15)
What does this mean practically? That I will address in my next writing, everything from family prayer, to discipline, to manly behavior. Because if we men don’t begin to assume the spiritual headship that is our obligation; if we neglect to bathe our wife and children in the Word; if out of laziness or fear we don’t assume the responsibility and honor that is ours as men… then this cycle of sin that is “threatening man in his humanity” will continue, and the “dissolution of our being sons and daughters” of the Most High will go on, not only in our families, but in our communities, placing the very future of the world at stake.
What God is calling us men to today is no small thing. It will demand of us great sacrifice if we are to truly live out our Christian vocation. But we have nothing to fear, for the leader and perfecter of our faith, Jesus—the Man of all men—will be our help, our guide, and our strength. And as He laid down His life, so too, He took it up again in everlasting life…
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