Theology of the Body and Spiritual Fatherhood



At the end of the movie “Saving Private Ryan”, Captain Miller (played by Tom Hanks) lies dying and says quietly and profoundly to Private Ryan (played by Matt Damon), “earn this.” Of course, he speaks of the sacrifice that he, Captain Miller, and the other members of his special team of soldiers have given of their lives to save the life of Ryan.  As men, we are moved by both the sacrifice of others in valor as well as the challenge to “earn” such commendable recognition of valor ourselves.  We want to be seen willing to lay it all down for a noble cause, even to die if necessary.  St. Peter once said, “Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you” (Mt 26:35).  Yet, as we all know, if we look a little further into the example of St. Peter we will see how this desire to make the ultimate sacrifice may be in the male heart by nature, but the strength to carry it out is not.

Nevertheless, this gives us a key into the essence of male spirituality and indeed into the spirituality of fatherhood.  If you could say it in a phrase you might say that in her nature, woman “gives life to others,” while in his nature, man “gives his life for others.”  Of course both of these lines can be spoken in reference to either sex, but there is a difference between woman and man that can be essential to their gift and these two phrases seem to capture that difference at its core.

St. John Paul II clearly called on the man to be the first to lay down his life for the woman and her children by putting to death his desire to dominate.  He is to submit his life for her just as she is then offered the chance to respond by a similar submission of her life for him (see TOB 33:2).  Further, the man is called to offer this gift even if there is no recognition of it on her part.  Like Captain Miller it is offered long before she responds to it or “earns” it.  This is what Christ did for his Bride and her children from the cross even though they did not know at the time what he was offering and would need more time still before they could appreciate it.  Nevertheless, if Christ would have spoken to us men from the cross in the manner that Captain Miller did to Ryan, he would probably have said it a little differently.  Rather than, “earn this’’ which is an impossible directive, he may have said, “imitate this.”  In fact, he did say this in many ways to his disciples as he says the same to each of us today.

While what we are exploring today is spiritual fatherhood, the fact is that men are fathers, because they beget children with a bride and therefore, as we have already been doing, we must first address his relationship with the bride who in our case is the Church.  Bishop Carl Mengeling, the Bishop emeritus of Lansing, often quips that “the best thing a man can do for his children is love their mother.”  Pope St. John Paul said it this way, “in the mystery of creation the woman is the one who is ‘given’ to the man, he on his part, in receiving her as gift in the full truth of her person and femininity, enriches her by this very reception, and, at the same time he too is enriched in this reciprocal relationship.” (TOB 17:6)   To love the Church is not an option for a Catholic man and is all the more important for a man who is consecrated to the Lord in priesthood.  We do well to remember that we have been offered his Bride and her children to care for as a gift.

Imitation of Christ in fatherhood can be seen in a threefold effort: to provide, to protect, and to challenge.  So let us explore these three ways of laying it all down as they particularly apply to fatherhood and more specifically to spiritual fatherhood.

It is easy to relate the work of providing to material goods and this is true and necessary.  We read in Genesis that man will till the soil by the sweat of his brow to provide for the fruits of the earth for the woman and her children (see Gen. 3:19).  However, providing for the bride and her children must be understood in a deeper and much more significant way than just by means of material goods.  God the Father certainly gives life and provides the means to sustain that life, but more important still, he provides necessary affirmation of that life and this gives life its deepest value.  We are also charged with affirming our children with acceptance.  One of my deepest childhood memories was that of my father finally taking an interest in our playing basketball one day by actually coming out and joining us.  He was a terrible basketball player, but that didn’t matter at all.  He was affirming our interest in basketball and more importantly he was affirming his interest in us by his participation.  That was what mattered.  This affirmation of the Bride and her children assures them of their value.  They need to know from their father that they are acceptable and one of the greatest ways we do this is by being present.  St. John Paul II’s whole life was one of affirming the Bride and her children by his presence and interest in them.

We are also called as men to protect the bride and her children.  Whenever I am presenting on Theology of the Body to a younger crowd and ask the young men in the crowd who they think men need to protect the bride from first, their initial answer is inevitably, “Satan.”  However, St. John Paul II reminds us that the first one we need to protect her and her children from is ourselves (see TOB 33).  I must realize that I am the one being that I have the most influence over and so controlling myself is the biggest immediate impact that I can make in protecting the Church.  I must put the needs of the Church and her children ahead of mine if I am to be a man of valor.  I can berate the flock or use them to my advantage ever so easily and this is what I need to put completely to death.

Only after I have accounted for myself first (which is an ongoing task), is it then my duty to protect the Church from harmful outside influences.  I am not to remain silent when something should be addressed, but I should also be careful not to do more harm when addressing it.  This task is mine to do no matter what the outcome.  I am to address the bully even if what I do has no effect or even if I get humiliated and/or destroyed in my attempt.  Certainty of success is never a prerequisite for defending the Bride and her children.  A spiritual father should provide everything the family needs to accomplish their tasks while giving them the freedom to do such tasks for themselves without undue interference.  The family is counting on him to be watchful and to be confident enough to step in when there is a threat to their security and peace.

Finally, Emily Stimpson in her book “These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body,” states that it is man’s work as a spiritual father to challenge others.  Often when I talk with my seminarians about homiletics I remind them that each and every homily should have some form of challenge to it.  It doesn’t have to be a great challenge (though there are times to offer greater challenges), but no homily should leave the children of God comfortably where they were before they heard it.  It is the father’s job to prepare the children for battle in a fallen world.  This outward orientation is indeed intrinsic to masculinity.  Man’s whole being is oriented outward to give himself away and to be focused on the world beyond and this outward trajectory is ultimately oriented towards God.  St. John Paul II says in Mulieris Dignitatem that “Although man is created in God’s likeness, God does not cease to be for him the one ‘who dwells in unapproachable light’ (1Tim 6:16): he is the ‘Different One’, by essence the ‘totally Other.’” As fathers we are ultimately to be the spiritual guides “leading others to Christ,” as Stimpson also says in her book.

To be a spiritual father is to be a man of valor.  It is to imitate Christ in the laying down of one’s life for what is most precious to him.  This desire comes naturally to men and to priests, but to love as He loved requires tremendous grace.  Though we never earned the title “father” before we received it, through his gift of grace, we can imitate that love which endured the Cross and therefore offer to the Bride and her children a worthy and valiant example ourselves.  In this way we can care for the gift by being a gift.


To Download a PDF Version of this reflection, Click Here: TOB & Spiritual Fatherhood

Ordained in 2007, Fr. John Linden enjoyed three years as a parochial vicar at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Ann Arbor before becoming the Chair of the Formation Department for the Diocese of Lansing as well as the Director of Seminarians.  Fr. John travels throughout the diocese giving presentations on topics including vocations and vocational discernment as well as Theology of the Body and its connection to both marriage and consecrated life. 

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