A Father Remains Forever

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was once asked how he was going to treat the rebellious southerners once they had returned to the Union. The interlocutor expected that Lincoln would exercise supreme vengeance upon them, but Lincoln answered him

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was once asked how he was going to treat the rebellious southerners once they had returned to the Union. The interlocutor expected that Lincoln would exercise supreme vengeance upon them, but Lincoln answered him saying, “I will treat them, as if they have never been away.” In this, we have a glimpse into the heart of true fatherhood. 

Fatherhood is something dear to me as a married priest and father of seven, as pastor of two parishes, and as spiritual director. I am often asked to comment on these two aspects of spiritual and biological fatherhood which I have been blessed with over the course of these many years. They are not at variance with one another like wasps and foxes, but are in symbiosis like bees and flowers. With a busy household and the messes which accompany it, having my own children reminds me as priest that my spiritual children are better served by my lived example rather than by an exemplary lecture. Pick up the mess and others will more likely imitate your lead, rather than guilting them into it by lectures, or worse, by church committee! Just be like Christ! 

At the same time, as a priest, who was inspired from the beginning of my formation by Fr. Brian McColl to be in the “pulpit as a lion and in the confessional as a lamb,” I am reminded to be as patient with my own children in their small scrapes as I am in the confessional with the bitter grapes of my spiritual family. Few things are more self-incriminating than that wretched realization that I have been more strict with my children over petty things than I have been with strangers over far greater things. The two “children” inform and form me, as I them. Truthfully, a man in my place cannot help but to exclaim “ ‘Tis a happy thing to be the father of many children.” 

Surrounded as I am with such constant reminders of fatherhood, it has brought me to a deeper love of God the Father. It is the wonder of the love of God that He treats us like this, and we get glimpses of this in the words of Jesus. His parable on the “Prodigal Son and the Merciful Father” is the icon of spiritual fatherhood in the gallery of the world’s various teachings on the meaning of fatherhood. God is the father in this parable, and he must have been waiting and watching for the son to return, for he saw him quite a ways off. Upon his arrival, the son was forgiven by the magnanimity of this loving father. Now there is a way of forgiving, which is measured and bestowed in a condescending, grudging manner. There is also a way of forgiving the sin in which it is still held over the sinner’s head, and the recrimination from that sin could fall at any moment like a guillotine. Yet, Jesus teaches us about the fatherhood of God in this parable, and in it we see that the truly prodigal character in this parable is not the son but the father. It is his prodigal love and mercy which overflows beyond all human expectation.

I have learned as a priest, and as a dad, that a man has a choice to attempt fatherhood, but not to end it. It is a vocation which is ever-growing in scope. Should God bless that attempt, then a man will forever remain a father. He may be a lousy father, a lazy father, a late-in-coming father, a lion-hearted father, but a father he will remain forever.


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