I have an unusual family background. My late father and his wife had eleven children. In the 1950s, his wife died of cancer, and so my dad left his sporting goods store in Kankakee, Illinois and moved most of the family to Southern California. Not too long after that, he met and married my mother.
A decade earlier, my mom's husband had been killed in World War II, leaving her with two babies. I am the only child of my parents' marriage. Even so, I'm very much the product of a large family. I don't even try anymore to stay on top of the number of nephews, nieces, great-nephews, and great-nieces I have, because they're so numerous and dispersed.
From time to time growing up I was asked, “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” I would innocently respond that I was the youngest of fourteen children. However, when the questioner learned more of the details of my family history, he would inevitably ask the follow up question: “So how many real brothers and sisters do you have?” Being fairly good with numbers back then, I did the math. Since I had seven half-sisters and six half-brothers, I responded, “Six and a half.”
As I grew older, these questions began to bother me. Perhaps they reminded me of the disturbing reality that the two step-families that my mom and dad brought together were never fully integrated into one family. These questions also revealed the emphasis our society puts on biological paternity and maternity apart from the realities and responsibilities of family life. To all my siblings whom I love I am merely a ”half-brother.” The term is biologically accurate, but being a “half” never quite sat well with me.
Something to Celebrate
Many years later, I was doubly blessed. I married a wonderful woman who already had a daughter named Brenda. I didn't want to force the situation, but I truly desired to adopt Brenda and make her in every sense my daughter. How thrilled I was when she came to me and told me she'd like to be adopted. We went through the adoption process together, and when our court date arrived, it was time to celebrate. We had a party for friends and family. We had a cake that said, “It's a girl!” and Brenda was handing everyone her autograph bearing her new and difficult to spell last name.
One interesting aspect of the adoption process even in the case of a step-parent adoption is that the government issues a new birth certificate, identifying the adoptive parent as the “real” father or mother. I used to tease Brenda about her now being French-Canadian (my nationality). But I never refer to her as my “step-daughter.” As an attorney, I handled Brenda's adoption proceeding myself. While family law was not my area of practice or expertise, I ended up handling other adoptions on occasion, usually step-parent adoptions. Working with adoptions was a singularly joyous experience for me, even more so because it was so different from the usual experience of our legal system. Judges are typically asked to referee disputes that reflect our sinfulness, frailty, and brokenness (see Catechism, no. 1264), knowing full well that awarding one party some money or giving another party jail time while administering “justice” on one level isn't going to undo the effects of original and actual sin.
Adoptions are different. Here I'm not talking about the nasty controversies that arise (and tend to get reported in the media) when there are conflicting claims, which bring other issues into play. Where all sides consent to the adoption, the atmosphere in the courtroom is downright jovial. The child gets to sit on the judge's desk. The judge smiles and even laughs. The family gets someone to take photos of the event. The bottom line is that everyone senses that there's something fundamentally good and restorative happening.
Coming to Grips with Fatherhood
In an age of “absent fathers” and radical feminism, here's a family (i.e., husband and wife) who are willing to accept the responsibilities of parenthood. Our experience of human family life provides us glimpses of God's fatherhood. After all, God's fatherhood is the source of fatherhood and motherhood within the family (see Catechism, no. 2214). Yet even in the most faithful of families, the reflection of God's perfect, familial love is imperfect. And in our society, the loss of a sense of the divine and sacred has gone hand in hand with the loss of an authentic sense of family, so that even fundamental truths such as the reality of marriage as a lifelong, monogamous bond between a man and woman are called into question. This situation has brought much confusion and pain in family relationships, and has made it more difficult to approach God as “Father.” Yet if we are to really come to know and love God, we must come to grips with the fact that God is our Father, and we are His children by adoption. St. Paul teaches us:
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Gal 4:4-6; cf. Rom 8:14-17)
Three of my children are adopted. With each adoption, I've come to a more profound appreciation of God's life-giving love. I know how much I love all my children, who by birth or adoption have miraculously found their way into my family. Yet, our Heavenly Father loves us so much more than that. I challenge all us married Catholic men to embrace and faithfully live out our vocations, and in a particular way to be open to the singular gift of adoption. In doing so, let's turn to St. Joseph, patron of the Universal Church and patron of fathers. He who never had relations with Mary teaches us how to be the best of husbands, and he who was not Jesus's biological father teaches us how to be the best of fathers.
© Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange
Leon J. Suprenant, Jr. is the president of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF) and Emmaus Road Publishing and the editor-in-chief of Lay Witness magazine, all based in Steubenville, Ohio. He is a contributor to Catholic for a Reason III: Scripture and the Mystery of the Mass and an adviser to CE’s Catholic Scripture Study. His email address is email@example.com.
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