The latest Star Wars series was recently released, and, as The Mandalorian did, Obi-Wan Kenobi heavily focuses on the theme of fatherhood. What is fascinating is that, for a culture so obsessed with downplaying gender differences, both of these shows portray the fatherhood that all men are called to in an authentic way.
Namely, the show focuses on – guardianship, safety, and the concern for a child who is lost. In examining these themes in the show, we can reflect on the nature of manhood and fatherhood in the Catholic worldview. (note: Spoilers ahead.)
A Father as Guardian
As the Mandalorian before him, Obi-Wan Kenobi (who goes by “Ben”) finds himself the appointed guardian (and rescuer) of an essential, littler person. In this case, he finds himself pivoting from being the self-appointed protector of little Luke Skywalker to the reluctant rescuer and guardian of little Leia Organa. He is unprepared for the fierce, precociousness of little Princess Leia (just as an father is unprepared for the strength of their daughter). Yet, with Ben watching over her, we are allowed to glimpse Leia’s heart. Although only ten years old, we can already see the beginnings of her maternal heart – fiercely loyal to others, and bringing out the best in those who she takes into her heart. But what enables that female strength to flourish in her is the guardianship of Kenobi, who stands in as a sort of spiritual father in her dad’s absence.
A father as guardian and protector does not prevent his children from flourishing and growing strong. Rather, his protection of them enables them to grow and flourish. A father uses his strength to protect those more vulnerable than himself.
A Father as a Place of Safety
Little Leia displays tremendous courage when she is separated from her family and from Ben – but as a child, she is ultimately incapable of keeping herself safe from the evil forces of the Empire. Each time she and Ben are separated and reunited, her relief is palpable. He makes her feel safe. And, although she does not trust him at first, his commitment to her safety makes it possible for her to trust him. In the touching final scene of episode four, she puts her little hand on his, and he holds it reassuringly.
Children can only thrive when they know they have a safe place to return to. Separated from her adoptive parents, Leia finds safety in the fatherhood of Ben.
A father is meant to be a place of safety – a hand for his child to hold, and arms for his sons and daughters to shelter in.
A Father’s Concern for the Child Who is Lost
Each time little Leia is lost, Ben is concerned for her. At first, it is a sense of his responsibility to her father – to whom he promised her safe and sound return. But, as he becomes better acquainted with Leia, his concern is one of true fatherly compassion – he doesn’t want her to suffer or be alone.
But the more poignant example of this is found in Kenobi’s concern for his former student, Anakin Skywalker (now Darth Vader). I was recently talking to a rector of a seminary, and he described his own fatherly gaze towards his spiritual sons as being akin to the father of the prodigal son – one who watches for his child from far off and delights to see him arriving, safe and sound. For this priest, that was his spiritual fatherhood at play – his deep desire that each of these men come to know God and truly, freely discern God’s vocation for them.
In the case of Kenobi, it is the ongoing sense of grief and regret. Anakin was extremely promising, and like Lucifer and his self-determined fall from being one of God’s greatest angels, he could have been destined for true greatness had he not fallen into the deepest darkness. Anakin chose the dark side of the force over the light, and Kenobi can’t help but wonder if there wasn’t more that he could have done.
And so, we see in Ben’s gaze towards Anakin, one that is much like that of the father of the prodigal son – a searching, longing gaze, tinged with regret and sadness…but also with hope. Although Ben will not live to see Darth Vader’s deathbed conversion, he would surely have rejoiced over it in the way the prodigal son’s father did in his return.
There are fathers in the world who refuse to receive their children who have wandered astray, fathers whose eyes are not searching the horizon, awaiting their child’s return. There are even fathers who have rejected their children, refusing to care about their well-being.
But the vision of fatherhood that we see in this latest Star Wars series is neither of these – it is a vision of a father who embodies love, safety, compassion, and mercy.
One father serves as the exception – Anakin Skywalker. Although it is assumed that at this point in the story, he doesn’t know that Leia is his child, he is nonetheless the image of a cruel, heartless, uncaring father. He leaves Leia and the Jedi vulnerable, attacks them (or allows them to be hurt), and only seeks them so that he may punish them.
The reality is that there are many fathers like that in the world, and I would wager that (whether or not it was consciously done) the writers of this series were drawn to the image of fathers who cared, and of those fathers winning in the end.
But what about those of us not living in the Star Wars universe? What is the solution for fatherless children (or at least children and adult children without healthy or safe fathers) in the real world?
Spiritual Paternity and the Vocation of Man
All men, regardless of their vocation, are called to mirror the fatherhood of God the Father. They are called to be guardians and defenders of the vulnerable, to be a safe place for others to come to, to show compassion and mercy towards their children and spiritual children. But, as has been shared previously on this site, the spiritual fatherhood of priests exemplifies this most poignantly. Like the fictional characters of Mando and Ben, priests care for children (and adult children) that are not their own – providing them safety, compassion, and mercy through their pastoral care. (There is a reason why the priest scandals were so upsetting to so many – they were a distortion of what it truly means to be a priest. ) Deep down, people yearn for that sort of healthy fatherhood, because deep down we are all yearning for the love of God the Father.
God the Father is there – right there, always there. He is there in a particular way for those yearning for or needing a father.