The theme for the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy is “Merciful like the Father.” What does this mean in particular for the father of a family?
Lent is a good time to reflect on this as it is a time for mercy. “Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Rom 2:4). We reflect on God’s merciful kindness and perform more intense penance as a sign of our repentance. We can never take God’s merciful kindness for granted. Jesus exhorts us: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36). Even more difficult: “Forgive, and you will be forgiven . . . for the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Luke 6: 37-38). God makes it clear that it is the state of our heart, especially our humility and mercy, which will make a Lenten sacrifice acceptable to Him.
We have an extraordinary opportunity to reflect on the reality of mercy this Jubilee Year. Pope Francis links the Jubilee to Lent in his Bull, Misericordiae Vultus: “The season of Lent during this Jubilee Year should also be lived more intensely as a privileged moment to celebrate and experience God’s mercy. How many pages of Sacred Scripture are appropriate for meditation during the weeks of Lent to help us rediscover the merciful face of the Father” (17).
We want the Father to be a merciful Father to us. This should be our model so that we can receive the same measure. What are some practical ways to be a merciful father to your children (whether you are a father now or will be in the future)? As a Benedictine oblate, my answers are somewhat influenced by the Rule of St. Benedict and his description of the abbot, which has challenged me to try to become a strong and gentle leader for my family.
First, it is important to remember that our children have been entrusted to our care by the Father. The father of a family is never the ultimate authority, but a temporary guardian or custodian. Even though the father may be the biological source for the life of his children, God is the one who directly creates the immortal soul, which will last far beyond the roles of our earthly life. I have been struck a number of times by the realization that my children do not belong to me. They are not a possession, but belong directly to God as they are made in his image and likeness in the depth of their soul, even if they bear an outward resemblance to me.
Because our children our not simply our own, but belong to God, we will have to account for our stewardship over them. God has already told us that the measure we use will be measured back to us, which is a stark warning for our parenting tactics. What is the goal by which we should measure our parenting? A father should want his child to grow to maturity as a child of God, which is to say to grow to become more like God. The goal is not simply to follow the rules that we set (and enforcing them can become a matter of pride). Many times I have put my foot down, insisting that my children will bend to my will, though this easily becomes an ego trip (even though teaching obedience is crucial). If the goal is not enforcing my own will, but the will of the true Father, it frees us, giving us a fresh perspective on parenting, which is more profound and more challenging, but less about ourselves.
How will our children grow to become more like God? We must provide a compelling witness and example. If our parenting focuses mostly on rigidly enforcing roles and creating outward conformity, there is a risk that we will cut our children off from the real source of life in the bosom of the Father—his merciful love. We have to model His love and affection by showing our children that we care primarily about them and their good, which is why we’re teaching and leading them. Conversely, I know that my kids copy my behavior exactly when I do not show a good example, and they remind me often of my mistakes!
What can we learn from the true merciful Father? Even when we rebelled against Him, He sought us out. He sent His Son to reconcile us to Him. He was patient, He forgave, and He accepted His prodigal sons back into His life, bestowing rich gifts upon them. The Father provided us with a perfect model of His merciful love in His Son. To love and care for others, to be a good shepherd of the flock entrusted to us, entails that we lay our life down for their good. To be a merciful father is to be a servant, who sacrifices time and energy for the good of his family.
Now back to Lent. It is a perfect time to reflect on being a merciful father. Lent should help us to be more self-sacrificing, giving up not only distractions that keep us from loving our family more, but also giving up our self-will. One of the main temptations of the father is to want control. Can we give up always wanting to have things our own way? Can we endure the problems and difficulties of our children with patience? Can we forgive our children seven times seventy times? Do we have the courage to release them into the hands of their true Father, praying and offering ourselves for them, knowing that their journey to into the bosom of the Father may be rocky and take a lifetime?
Being a merciful Father is about love and sacrifice. It requires us to take up our cross in the midst of our family life and to endure patiently the challenges of our parenting with an eye to our Father in Heaven, who we hope will be merciful to us in turn!