Fatherlessness has become an epidemic in our society: 43% of our kids grow up without fathers (US Census), approaching a catastrophe rivaling the 1918 flu pandemic when an estimated 56% of the world was infected. Fatherlessness is devastating—legally, morally, psychologically, and spiritually. A shocking snapshot of our fatherless youth shows they comprise 63% of youth suicides (US Dept. Of Health/Census)–5 times the average; 90% of all homeless and runaway children–32 times the average; 85% of all children who show behavior disorders–20 times the average (Center for Disease Control); 80% of rapists with anger problems–14 times the average (Justice & Behavior, Vol 14, p. 403-26); and 71% of all high school dropouts–9 times the average (National Principals Association Report).
Fatherlessness is a Catholic problem in two ways: 1) because God is father, it creates a crisis of faith and is partly responsible for the rise of the religious “nones” (70% are millennials, 23% are adults, and 57% are men) and 2) it challenges how we evangelize the fatherless.
The antidote is men fully living out their faith as spiritual fathers by informally adopting our lost generation. Our faith calls us to care for the “least” and the vulnerable (Mt. 25:40) and to “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19)—that’s spiritual fatherhood; that’s the summit of being a man, and St. Joseph is our prototypical model.
How is St. Joseph a Spiritual Father?
St. Joseph took two roads to spiritual fatherhood: 1) through the incarnation, and 2) through participation in a new order of family.
God the Father, our real prototype of spiritual fatherhood (Eph. 3:14), asked St. Joseph to be Jesus’ father. John Paul II says that even though his fatherhood is not biological, he is not just an “apparent” or “substitute” father. Rather, he “fully shares in authentic human fatherhood and the mission of a father in the family“ (RC, 21). How is this so? As the Incarnation, Jesus’ whole purpose is to reveal the Father and true fatherhood (Jn 14:9). And John Paul II explains that the Holy Family is inserted directly into the mystery of the Incarnation. And so, though St. Joseph is not Jesus’ biological father, when he reveals, relives, and radiates the very fatherhood of God, he becomes Jesus’ authentic human, and I would add spiritual, father. His masculinity is fully expressed in his spiritual fatherhood, as it should be for all men, first and foremost, even if they are not biological fathers.
A New Order of Family
“Who are my mother and brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Mt. 12:46-50; cf., Mk. 3:31-35; Lk 27-28). Is Jesus trying to escape a stereotypical overbearing Jewish mother? I don’t think so! Instead, John Paul II believes Jesus is establishing a whole new order of family and parenthood based on obedience. And who is more obedient than Mary? Jesus is preparing her for the crowning event of her new spiritual motherhood at the foot of cross: “Son, behold your Mother” (Jn 19:26-27). In the new order, Jesus gives us and the Church his own mother.
“Joseph did.…” These two words and their variants, “he took the child…and went…” define St. Joseph’s role in salvation history. He is not known for what he said in the Gospels—he said nothing! But he listens to God in his inner life—his dreams—and then does the hard thing! He protects the Son of God and his mother through many obstacles and threats—spiritual fatherhood is always an adventure! He cares for and educates a child who is not his own in obedience to God’s word. And as a just and generous man, he is willing to sacrifice much. He is a good spiritual father to Jesus, and to us.
Spiritual fatherhood, as the summit of masculinity, is open to any age. For years I watched the 5th and 6th grade boys at my local parish mentor or shepherd the younger boys during Mass. When men or boys live out who they are created to be as spiritual fathers, they become more themselves, more masculine; they follow St. Joseph, our model, in revealing, reliving, and radiating God’s fatherhood to others. In Part 2 I will explore more of the practical side of St. Joseph’s spiritual fatherhood as priest, prophet, and king.
The fatherlessness of this generation will spread like a cancer if unopposed. Catholic men must be a witness, exercising their God-given gender and masculinity as spiritual fathers. Our Church and culture depend on us! We must imitate our father St. Joseph in revealing, reliving, and radiating God’s fatherhood to spiritual children who are not our own. To whom can you be a spiritual father in your neighborhood or parish today?