In the course of the long history of the human race, there has only been a comparatively brief period in which fatherhood has been celebrated with a holiday. In the United States, the first modern Father’s Day celebration was held on July 5, 1908 in Fairmont, West Virginia. The celebration took place at a Methodist Episcopal Church at the suggestion of a parishioner. She had been inspired to celebrate fathers in some way by the deadly mine explosion which had recently taken place. In that explosion 361 men, many of them fathers and recent immigrants from Italy, had died while working to support themselves and their families. Although many celebrations have taken place in different ways since then, it is interesting to note that Father’s Day was not officially recognized as a holiday until 1972, during the Presidency of Richard M. Nixon.
Fatherhood as a part of creation
Although we [were] pleased to honor fathers in a special way [last] Sunday, we know that the role of fatherhood was established at the very creation of the human race, long before any civic celebration. In the Book of Genesis, we read: “God created man in his image, in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them, saying: ‘Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it’.” Genesis goes on to describe the intimacy of the union between man and woman, which brings about this fertility, in this way: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body” (Genesis 1:27‑28 and 2:24). The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of the Second Vatican Council, comments on God’s command to His creatures in Genesis 1:28: “(God) wishing to associate them (man and woman) in a special way with his own creative work, blessed man and woman with the words ‘Be fruitful and multiply’. Without intending to underestimate the other ends of marriage, it must be said that true married love and the whole structure of family life which results from it is directed to disposing the spouses to cooperate valiantly with the love of the Creator and Savior, who through them will increase and enrich his family from day to day” (Gaudium et Spes, 50).
God’s revelation of Himself as Father
Among our Jewish ancestors in the faith, God was called “Father” with a unique sense of familiarity. To Him was attributed the fatherly role of protector and of one who provides for His Chosen People through creation, by giving them His Law and by fulfilling the promises He made to their father, Abraham (cf. Hosea 11:1). In the New Testament, we find the word Abba, the Aramaic word for father, used three times: Mark 14:36; Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6. It is a very intimate term of affection, which Jesus uses when He prays to His Father and which He encourages us to use as well. In teaching about prayer, Jesus uses the loving image of a father, saying: “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” He goes on to teach what we know as the Lord’s Prayer, by saying: “This is how you are to pray: Our Father in heaven …” (Matthew 6:8‑9).
In his Letter to the Ephesians, Saint Paul draws a connection between God as Father and human fatherhood. He writes: “For this reason, I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (3:14‑15). Pope John Paul II elaborated on this text, writing: “When they become parents, spouses receive from God the gift of a new responsibility. Their parental love is called to become for the children the visible sign of the very love of God, ‘from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named’” (Familiaris Consortio, 14).
The irreplaceable role of the father
The order of nature, which was established with the creation of the human race, has given to men and women the ability to continue the human family. It is clear that this is meant to be done in the context of an act that involves not only the intimacy required of a man and woman to participate in this great work of creation but also the stability of these parents in continuing to love and provide for the children they have conceived in such a marvelous way.
Although there are burdens attached to this responsibility, it has not been given to the human race as a burden but rather as a gift. God does not will us to be robots, who are automatically good or bad and so He gives us a free will so that we have an actual say in our decisions. Since He has created us to be members of a human community, He has also paid us the compliment of allowing us to help Him and one another to bring about the happiness and peace of individuals in this life and even in the life to come. This is most especially true in the responsibility, and privilege, given to parents.
In 1943, while the Second World War was raging, Pope Pius XII wrote one of his greatest encyclicals. With great courage and wisdom, even in the midst of war, he wrote this letter on the subject of the Mystical Body of Christ, in order to recall the intimate union between Christ and the Church He founded for the salvation of the world and the union of each individual with Christ and with one another. In speaking of the fact that Jesus actually calls upon us to assist Him in the work of Redemption and salvation, he specifically mentions the role of parents. Here is what he wrote: “…this too must be held, marvelous though it appear: Christ needs His members. …This is not because He is indigent and weak, but rather because He has so willed it. …Dying on the Cross Christ left to His Church the immense treasury of the redemption. Towards this she contributed nothing. But when those graces come to be distributed, not only does Christ share this work of sanctification with His Church, but He wants it, in a way, to be due to her action. Deep mystery this, and subject of inexhaustible meditation, that the salvation of many people depends on the prayers and voluntary penances which the members of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ offer for this intention, and on the assistance of pastors of souls, and of the faithful, especially of fathers and mothers of families, which they must offer to our Divine Savior as His associates” (Mystici Corporis, 44).
As with the celebration of Mother’s Day, we do not celebrate Father’s Day in a spirit of mere sentimentalism. We use it as yet another opportunity to recall the marvelous dignity with which the human person has been created. A dignity which enables a person not to share a gender-because God does not have a gender-but to share a role that God has fulfilled Himself. Man and woman have been called upon to cooperate together in the continuation of the human race in an act which, from the very beginning has also called them to intimacy and unity. It is an act which does not have a merely momentary purpose. In the conception of children, God also calls for the cooperation of parents in the work of salvation.
It is not by accident that in some countries fathers are honored on March 19, the feast of Saint Joseph. Like other fathers, Saint Joseph was called upon to participate in the work of salvation. Although his role as foster father was unique, he provides a model for all fathers in their responsibilities. In fulfilling his responsibilities with quiet and obedient fidelity, Saint Joseph fulfilled a role that God saw as indispensable to the work of our salvation. God also sees as indispensable the role of all fathers in the conception, continuing care and guidance of their children and even, in a mysterious way, in their very salvation.