• Fran Maier reflects on fatherhood, how his relationship with his father continues in some sense even a half century after his father’s death, and what it means to be a father to a son. Excerpts:

    In my father’s tears were forty-two years of love, marriage, sacrifice, failure, and trying again; of never being able to tell my mother enough that he loved her; of struggling through the Depression together and then pouring out their lives for their kids; of having, at the end of it all, just each other. The story of two people is only really known by God and themselves. And every marriage sealed by love, whatever its mistakes and stumbles, is better than the best novel, because it’s real. …

    I’ve learned that father love is a hard love; hard because a father is rarely understood by his son until the son too is a father. So much of a father’s love can seem stern; so often a child sees no further than a father’s discipline. But ask around: The father who says he likes being tough on his kids is a liar. Fathers want to be loved, and too often they’re lonely. …

    The role of the father is to give; and through that giving to overcome, little by little, the selfishness and ingratitude that come so easily to every child.

    Like marriage, I’ve found fatherhood to be a bracingly real new state in life. The reality of God’s love is revealed to you in a way that is totally unearned every morning, when you wake up to the cries, smiles, and talk of your son. You savor the challenges of day-to-day in a way you couldn’t have imagined before. And this savoring comes from the awesome realization, repeated daily and very similar to waking up next to your wife, that—incredibly—I get to live this life.

    We’ll never be able to properly show the depths of our love to our spouse or to our children, but we can strive to live in a daily way that points to God and anchors our lives in our Lord’s promises. God is the author of goodness and the source of whatever strengths we have in this life. A strong father knows this and lives it.

  • St. John Chrysostom’s homily on Ephesians contains advice for fathers and sons:

    “Let everything be secondary with us to the provident care we should take of our children, and to our bringing them up in the chastening and admonition of the Lord (Eph 6:4). If from the very first he is taught to be a lover of true wisdom, then wealth greater than all wealth has he acquired and a more imposing name. You will effect nothing so great by teaching him an art [i.e. a profession], and giving him that outward learning by which he will gain riches, as if you teach him the art of despising riches. If you desire to make him rich, do this. For the rich man is not he who desires great riches, and is encircled with great riches; but the man who has need of nothing. Discipline your son in this, teach him this. This is the greatest riches. Seek not how to give him reputation and high character in outward learning, but consider deeply how you shall teach him to despise the glory that belongs to this present life. By this means would he become more distinguished and more truly glorious. This it is possible for the poor man and the rich man alike to accomplish. These are lessons which a man does not learn from a master, nor by art, but by means of the divine oracles. Seek not how he shall enjoy a long life here, but how he shall enjoy a boundless and endless life hereafter. Give him the great things, not the little things.”

    “This it is possible for the poor man and the rich man alike to accomplish.”

  • Philip Kosloski writes on Saint Charbel:

    St. Charbel was a humble Maronite hermit who died in 1898 and has since become well known for countless miracles attributed to his intercession. He was a holy priest who was closely united to Jesus on earth and possessed a rich wisdom that was the fruit of deep prayer.

    In his writings, some of which can be found in the book Love is a Radiant Light: The Life & Words of Saint Charbel, he writes about the family and its greatest enemy, the devil. … He explains that the devil has always focused his energy on the destruction of the family, as it so closely reflects an image of God. …

    St. Charbel highlights the need to “keep the roaring of the noise of the world away from your homes.” Living in the later part of the 19th century, St. Charbel would have never imagined how much noise has invaded homes during the past 50 or 60 years, and how difficult silence is to achieve. Yet, true to his word, the family appears to be deeply wounded from this invasion of noise.

    Saint Charbel writes about “the roaring of the noise of the world” in this passage:

    “Guard your families and keep them from the schemes of the evil one through the presence of God in them. Protect and keep them through prayer and dialog, through mutual understanding and forgiveness, through honesty and faithfulness, and most importantly, through listening. Listen to one another with your ears, eyes, hearts, mouths and the palms of your hands, and keep the roaring of the noise of the world away from your homes because it is like raging storms and violent waves; once it enters the home, it will sweep away everything and disperse everyone. Preserve the warmth of the family, because the warmth of the whole world cannot make up for it.”

    James Stenson, either in his book Father, The Family Protector or Successful Fathers, gives the example of electronic media (especially TV in practically any form) as a “rival” to the authority and role of parents and especially of the father. The idea is that children will either learn from their parents about truth and falsehood, time well spent versus poorly spent, the growth or absence of character, etc., or they will learn from rivals in any/all forms of media that the parents welcome into the home.

  • I grew up in a multigenerational home with my mother, my uncle, my grandfather, and my grandmother. I grew up experiencing the many gifts of a multigenerational home—which was the norm for most of American history—and only later came to realize some of the costs that friends or neighbors were bearing whose family life was either nuclear or solitary. Karen Swallow Prior writes on the “life-giving” nature of living with family:

    Multigenerational homes, which the U.S. Census Bureau defines as households consisting of two or more adult generations living under the same roof, were common in the U.S. through the 1950s. They declined through the ’80s but have slowly begun to rise again, even more since the pandemic. …

    In 2020, 12% of homes purchased were multigenerational. As some municipalities relax regulations to allow them, “granny pods,” small detached dwellings on the property of a main residence, seem to be growing in popularity as yet another option for extended families to live together. Indeed, a 2021 report estimates that more than 1 in 4 Americans are living in a multigenerational household.

    More than half of those living in a multigenerational household cite the pandemic as a factor in their housing arrangement, but the overwhelming majority of these (72%) plan to keep these living arrangements long-term.

    That was the case with Lisa Mathews and her family. Living alone since being widowed in 2017, Lisa moved in with her daughter, her husband and their two young boys after the pandemic began in March 2020.

    This new arrangement offered even more than just the expected community and support. Lisa’s grandsons have a rare kidney disorder, and the extra time and help Lisa brought alleviated some of their long-standing health challenges. Lisa’s presence also allowed her daughter to give more attention to her small business. Helping improve everyone’s quality of life and helping a working mother’s business flourish were both sources of real joy. …

    Indeed, if multigenerational living goes against the grain of the autonomous nuclear family that has become the paragon of American life, it doesn’t go against the general grain of human history. Worldwide, 38% of the population lives in extended family households compared with 33% living in two-parent households.

    I aspire to build a home and a life capable of welcoming our parents and our children (and if needed, their children) under either one roof or multiple nearby roofs. And a family spirit of adventure and courage as much as closeness and security, with different seasons calling for more of one than the other.

  • Focus on fathers

    Eric Sammons writes that the best way to build and sustain strong generations of Catholic young people is by building and sustaining strong mothers and especially fathers:

    The biggest influence on them is the parents. As a recent study by the Pew Research Center noted,

    “Among those who were raised in a single religious background…the family’s religious commitment is closely linked with retaining one’s religion into adulthood. Those adults who say religion was very important to their family while growing up and whose parents frequently discussed religion are more likely than others to continue to identify with their parents’ religion as adults.”

    For Catholics, if religion was “very important” in the family, then 73 percent of the time the kids remained Catholic after leaving the house. If it was “not too/not at all important,” only 38 percent remained Catholic. This shouldn’t be surprising to most people involved with youth outreach; they know it from experience. This is why many look for ways to involve parents in their youth activities. However, the model remains directed toward the kids, separate from their parents.

    Research also points to the vital role specifically of the father’s faith. A 2000 report in Population Studies magazine concluded that “it is the religious practice of the father of the family that, above all, determines the future attendance at or absence from church of the children.” More specifically, it states:

    In short, if a father does not go to church—no matter how faithful his wife’s devotions—only one child in 50 will become a regular worshipper. If a father does go regularly, regardless of the practice of the mother, between two-thirds and three-quarters of their children will become churchgoers (regular and irregular).

    Only 2 percent of kids whose fathers don’t practice the faith will end up practicing that faith! It’s clear, then, that fathers more than anyone dramatically impact their children’s future religious practice, and if parishes want children to retain their faith in adulthood (which is the purpose of youth ministry), they should focus not on the children but on the fathers.

    Even with data supporting this conclusion, it still seems counterintuitive that to reach kids we shouldn’t focus on them but on their fathers instead. Yet this is the biblical method of salvation.

    In the Bible, whenever God works with a group of people, He does not direct His energies toward the entire group, but toward a mediator. Think of Abraham, Moses, or David: each of these men represented a much larger group of people. God first influenced and converted the one man, then He allowed that individual to influence the group he led and represented. This is also the fundamental way in which the Catholic Church operates: we have bishops and priests who receive specific graces and powers that are then used to help the laity draw closer to Christ.

    The father is the “mediator”—the “priest”—of the family, the domestic church. Therefore it makes sense, both sociologically and theologically, to focus on fathers in order to save the children.

    At Penn State, we had a daily public affairs talk show on the campus radio station. At one point we had a conversation with a life coach/family counselor who made this point: if you want a strong marriage and a strong family, a husband and wife should be primarily in relationship with one another—and not primarily with their kids.

    “Kids generally take care of themselves,” was his message. “But if the man and the woman forget that their relationship is what holds the family together, then everything is likelier to fall apart,” was more or less his point.

  • State College and holy families

    We’re in State College today, heading back to Philadelphia shortly for New Years with family. I’m here with one of my brothers for a college visit, and it looks like he’ll be a Penn Stater, Class of 2024. We walked the campus last night, which was particularly special because it was as deserted as I’ve ever seen it due to Christmas break. It was like we had the place to ourselves for a private tour and the sort of conversation that flows in moments like that. It’s been a good trip and we’ve had good time to be together. I’m excited for him as he looks ahead to this.

    After waking up at the Hyatt Place downtown this morning, we checked out and headed to Our Lady of Victory for Mass. It’s still Christmas, and today is the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. I’m pasting some of Bishop Robert Barron’s Gospel reflection below:

    The family is, above all, the forum in which both parents and children are able to discern their missions. It is perfectly good, of course, if deep bonds and rich emotions are cultivated within the family, but those relationships and passions must cede to something that is more spiritually focused.

    A biblical prioritization of values helps us to see what typically goes wrong with families. When something other than mission is dominant—a son’s athletic achievement, a daughter’s success at university, etc.—family relationships actually become strained. The paradox is this: precisely in the measure that everyone in the family focuses on God’s call for one another, the family becomes more loving and peaceful.

    John Paul II admirably summed up what I’ve been driving at when he spoke of the family as an ecclesiola (a little church). At its best, he implies, the family is a place where God is worshiped and where the discernment of God’s mission is of paramount importance.

  • Since coming to Washington, I’ve become closer to Opus Dei and its focus on the sanctification of daily life, the universal call to holiness. This feature from Opus Dei on “seven keys” to a the happy marriage, written from the perspective of a son, is beautiful:

    Tomás and Paquita Alvira, two of the earliest married members of Opus Dei, strove to attain sanctity as a married couple and in their role as parents.

    Tomás Alvira was one of a group of young men who crossed the Pyrenees Mountains on foot with Saint Josemaría Escrivá during the Spanish Civil War, fleeing anti-Catholic persecution to escape to a zone where they could practice their faith. In 1939, Tomás married Paquita Dominguez, and together the couple sought to live their vocation to marriage to the full. They had nine children and were held in high esteem by those who knew them for their example of love and generosity. Their cause of canonization was opened in 2009.

    In what follows, their son Rafael Alvira describes seven ways his parents cared for their marriage and educated their children through their example. …

    1. Eagerness to love. My parents preserved their eagerness to love one another right to the end of their lives. A friend of one of my sisters told her that she was envious of my parents, because she would see them walking in the street and could tell that they still loved each other like when they were dating. As the years went by, my parents had the same eagerness that they had the day they got married, and their love was always increasing.

    2. Attentiveness to others. They had a great capacity to be attentive to others. For example, both of them would open the door for me when I arrived. My mother gave each of her children a kiss when we got home. We saw it as a normal thing.

    3. Teaching by example. My parents were convinced that the decisive factor in education is the atmosphere in which it takes place, and that the best pedagogy is indirect. The good example they gave us was very influential. This is how they passed on the faith to us. For example, they went to Mass and we saw them taking part with a devotion that left a mark on us. They showed us what God’s love means by winning us over with affection; they sacrificed themselves without saying anything in order to help us. And their spirit was contagious.

    4. Teaching the kids to love each other. Both of them encouraged us to love each other a lot as brothers and sisters. This is something that continues being true today. I have one brother and six sisters (my oldest brother died when he was 5 years old).

    5. Having a big heart. Both of my parents had a very big heart. Having a heart is not so easy. My father had a hard time correcting any of his children, but he realized that if he didn’t do it, it would cause us harm. He corrected us without offending us. To really love, you have to have a heart. And the same happened with my father’s students. They realized that he loved them; they felt loved and were grateful.

    6. Fostering friendship. My parents had many family friends, and we became very much a part of these families. They also invited our friends to our house a lot. They knew all our friends. They brought them into our home and let them experience our family atmosphere. It is not enough for parents to raise their children well: they also need to get to know their children’s friends. Otherwise, the good education they give can be ruined by bad friendships the children make.

    7. Respect for freedom. My parents always had a great respect for our freedom. They never pushed us to make a specific decision. For example, at home my parents prayed the rosary every day. But they never forced us to pray it with them. They prayed it attentively, and although they invited us to join them, they never imposed it on us or insisted that we take part.

  • “It’s a good thing, a vital thing, to consider what we’re willing to die for. What do we love more than life? To even ask that question is an act of rebellion against a loveless age,” said Archbishop Chaput in remarks at Notre Dame earlier this month. “And to answer it with conviction is to become a revolutionary; the kind of loving revolutionary who will survive and resist—and someday redeem a late modern West that can no longer imagine anything worth dying for, and thus, in the long run, anything worth living for.” Archbishop Chaput spoke to Notre Dame’s Constitutional Studies program:

    Family, friends, honor, and integrity: These are natural loves. Throughout history, men and women have been willing to die for these loves. As Christians, though, we claim to be animated—first and foremost—by a supernatural love: love for God as our Creator and Jesus Christ as his Son. St. Polycarp, for all his caution and prudence, eventually did choose martyrdom rather than repudiate his Christian faith.

    The issue at hand is this: Are we really willing to do the same; and if so, how must we live in a way that proves it? These aren’t theoretical questions. They’re brutally real. Right now Christians in many countries around the world are facing the choice of Jesus Christ or death. Last year the German novelist Martin Mosebach published an account of the 21 migrant workers in Libya who were kidnapped by Muslim extremists and executed for their faith. Twenty were Coptic Christians from Egypt. One was another African who refused to separate himself from his brothers in the faith.

    The murder of those 21 Christians is captured on video. It’s hard to watch—not just because the act is barbaric, but also because, in our hearts, we fear that, faced with the same choice, we might betray our faith in order to save our lives. Put frankly, the martyrs, both ancient and modern, frighten us as much as they inspire us. And maybe this reaction makes perfect sense. Maybe it’s a version of the biblical principle that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Fear of martyrdom is the beginning of an honest appraisal of our spiritual mediocrity.

    So I think we should consider this fear for a moment, rather than repressing it, as we so often do.

    The Christian men beheaded on the Libyan beach are not really so remote from us. The worry we naturally feel, that we might fail a similar test, is a concrete and urgent version of the anxiety we rightly feel when we think about coming before the judgment of God. If we’re honest about ourselves, we know that we’re likely to fail that test too. After all, we’re barely able to live up to the basic demands of the Ten Commandments. Many of us have trouble following even the minimal norms of a Catholic life: regular confession and Mass attendance, kindness to others, and a few minutes of daily prayer. If those very simple things are struggles, how can we possibly have the spiritual strength to face martyrdom? Or the judgment of a just God?

    The Catholic faith we hold doesn’t deny our failures. It highlights them to help us see that our hope is not in the strength of our own love, but rather in the power of God’s love. As St. Paul says in one of the most moving passages of Scripture, “I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).

    All of us, in all of our strengths and all of our weaknesses, are powerless to defeat God’s purpose in Jesus Christ. Our flaws, our mistakes and inadequacies, our spiritual mediocrity, and our self-sabotage are impotent in the face of God’s love. For this reason, the martyrs do not bear witness to the spiritual athleticism of remarkable men and women. Instead, they point to the relentless love of God in Jesus Christ. As the Preface for Holy Martyrs reads:

    For you [God] are glorified when your saints are praised;
    their very sufferings are but wonders of your might:
    In your mercy you give ardor to their faith,
    to their endurance you grant firm resolve,
    and in their struggle the victory is yours,
    through Christ our Lord.

    What that means is this: Those who are faithful to God will in turn have his faithfulness at life’s ending, no matter how extreme the test.

    Grace illuminates nature. The supernatural love of God in Jesus Christ that gives courage to the martyrs helps us better understand the natural loves of family, friends, honor, and integrity. The power of these loves—a power that can be so great that we’re willing to live and die to remain true to them—does not come from within the self. The mother does not conjure a love for her child out of her inner emotional resources. The same holds true for friends, honor, and integrity. Love’s power draws us out of ourselves. It comes from what is loved, not the one who loves.

  • Sam Guzman writes on J.R.R. Tolkien’s love of his wife, and on his letter to his son on true and lasting happiness in marriage:

    J.R.R. Tolkien was happily married for 55 years. In contrast, the modern divorce rate is shockingly high, and some are giving up on monogamous marriage altogether, claiming it simply isn’t possible or healthy. What did Tolkien have that many marriages do not? How did he make it work? The answer is simple: He understood that real love involves self-denial.

    The modern notion of love is pure sentiment, and it is focused primarily on self. If someone excites you, if they get your pulse racing, if they affirm you and your desires, then you can say you are in love with them according to modern definitions.

    While deeply attached to his wife, Tolkien rejected this shallow idea of love. He embraced instead the Catholic understanding of real love as focused on the other—something that requires a sacrifice of natural instincts and a determined act of the will.

    To illustrate Tolkien’s profound view of married love, I want to share an excerpt from a letter to his son, Michael Tolkien. It is a different side of Tolkien that many are unfamiliar with. To those with an overly sentimental view of love, his words may be shocking, even offensive. Yet, he articulates truths that, if understood and embraced, bring true and lasting happiness to marriage. Here is a truncated version of his letter:

    Men are not [monogamous]. No good pretending. Men just ain’t, not by their animal nature. Monogamy (although it has long been fundamental to our inherited ideas) is for us men a piece of ‘revealed ethic,’ according to faith and not the flesh. The essence of a fallen world is that the best cannot be attained by free enjoyment, or by what is called “self-realization” (usually a nice name for self-indulgence, wholly inimical to the realization of other selves); but by denial, by suffering. Faithfulness in Christian marriages entails that: great mortification.

    For a Christian man there is no escape. Marriage may help to sanctify and direct to its proper object his sexual desires; its grace may help him in the struggle; but the struggle remains. It will not satisfy him—as hunger may be kept off by regular meals. It will offer as many difficulties to the purity proper to that state as it provides easements.

    No man, however truly he loved his betrothed and bride as a young man, has lived faithful to her as a wife in mind and body without deliberate conscious exercise of the will, without self-denial. Too few are told that—even those brought up in ‘the Church’. Those outside seem seldom to have heard it.

    When the glamour wears off, or merely works a bit thin, they think that they have made a mistake, and that the real soul-mate is still to find. The real soul-mate too often proves to be the next sexually attractive person that comes along. Someone whom they might indeed very profitably have married, if only—. Hence divorce, to provide the ‘if only’.

    And of course they are as a rule quite right: they did make a mistake. Only a very wise man at the end of his life could make a sound judgement concerning whom, amongst the total possible chances, he ought most profitably have married! Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates. But the ‘real soul-mate’ is the one you are actually married to. In this fallen world, we have as our only guides, prudence, wisdom (rare in youth, too late in age), a clean heart, and fidelity of will…

    (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, pp. 51-52)

    I was speaking with a man I trust recently about love. I asked him how a man can properly love his wife. He pointed to a crucifix, and said, “Be prepared to do that, every day.”

  • Zoey Maraist writes on young Catholics living with hope, getting married, having kids, and embarking on the adventure of life together despite economic challenges that are shaping most of the Millennial experience:

    Brothers Brendan, 7, David, 5, Matthew, 3, and James, 2, smile and cheer as their father Daniel, 29, pushes them higher and higher on the swing in their front lawn. Baby Finn rests comfortably in his mother Mary’s arms as she watches her boys soar.

    The five brothers get a lot of family time. Mary, 29, homeschools the school-age children, and though he commutes from Herndon to Arlington, Daniel’s schedule allows him a good amount of quality time with his kids before their bedtime. They know many Northern Virginia families involve their kids in several different activities, but Mary and Daniel, parishioners of St. Veronica Church in Chantilly, try to prioritize family life.

    “These boys are like best friends and I hope that relationship continues even when they start going to a school where they’re in different grades,” said Mary, adding, “And that they have a really solid sense of being part of our family first.”

    Family was a big reason Daniel, who grew up in Vienna, and Mary, a Dallas native, decided to settle in Northern Virginia. “This family circle of community is definitely a part of why we’re able to be here,” said Mary. “If we moved to someplace cheaper, we’d be trading away the family relationships.”

    Mary and Daniel starting dating while attending the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. They were married in Texas and lived with Daniel’s parents after having their first son. “(Daniel’s mom) especially really encouraged me (to stay at home), (saying) since you’re already with family, just stay home with him and see how it goes, and that just rolled into the rest of our lives,” said Mary.

    Their first place of their own was a three-bedroom, one-bathroom co-op in Burke. “Because it’s sort of an unusual financial structure, especially for the area, it tends to be cheaper,” said Daniel. They slowly made improvements, and four years later, moved into their current home, which had more space but was still relatively close to Daniel’s parents. “When buying the house, we just had to accept that housing here is very expensive and our priority was to find some place we wouldn’t have to move out of,” said Mary.

    The other reason to return to the area was Daniel’s alma mater, The Heights School in Potomac, Md., where they hope to send their boys. The couple likes the school’s single-sex environment, the liberal arts education and the strong faith formation. The connections Daniel made at the school have served him well post-graduation, too. “All my jobs came through people I knew at The Heights,” said Daniel, who now works in government consulting in addition to serving in the National Guard.

    The couple’s current financial priority is to save for school, and for whatever else their growing family needs. “This would be a great time to be putting away as much as possible into retirement, but we also need to save for a new car because one more kid and we don’t fit in our minivan,” said Mary. “Secular peers would have more of a sense of what their family size will be, but we have a fuzzier sense of what that will be, so you have to plan for those contingencies.”