If you’re a father, congratulations. What a beautiful vocation—a role that should make you very proud. I suspect that most fathers can think back and remember the moment when they first learned they were fathers. I imagine it was a moment of exhilarating joy. I imagine it felt like having just received an awesome, precious gift.
In fact, I don’t have to imagine it. I experienced that tremendous sense of joy on the day of my ordination. That day, when the bishop laid hands on my head and prayed over me, I became a father. A spiritual father, not a human father—but a father nonetheless.
I confess that being called “Father” it is still a bit strange for me. I’m 26 years old, so, after Mass, there are people who are literally three times my age coming up to me, calling me “Father.” It’s strange, to be sure, but it’s not inappropriate. Spiritual fatherhood, after all, is not something less than human fatherhood.
We call God our Father because Jesus referred to Him as Abba and taught us to do the same. Does that mean that God is kind of like a human father? Does it mean that He might be able to identify with the experiences of all the fathers in the world?
No. It’s exactly the opposite! God is not “kind of like a human father.” Human fathers, rather, are kind of like God the Father. God the Father is the only true Father; true Fatherhood resides in Him. All of us who are fathers on Earth—whether natural fathers or spiritual fathers—participate in the Fatherhood of God. We are the shadow, and God is the reality; we are the imitation, and God is the real deal.
So, in God we see what it means to be a father. Being a father means to bring forth life. The moment a man becomes a human father is the moment when he and his wife conceive their first child. For me, as a spiritual father, the way in which I bring forth life is different. I bring forth life by baptizing children of men and making them children of God. I bring forth life by making present the Holy Eucharist. I bring forth life by binding up the wounds of sin in confession. I bring forth life by drawing people to Christ.
Spiritual fatherhood and natural fatherhood are not separate things. Nor is one better than the other. They are simply two different reflections of God’s own Fatherhood. So, when we say that Saint Joseph was the “foster father” of Jesus, I don’t think we should understand that to mean something less than a natural father, either. While Saint Joseph was not a biological father to Jesus, was he not an image of the Fatherhood of God? Imagine the Gospel scene (Matthew 1:18-25) in which Joseph found out that he was to be the foster father of Jesus. It may not have initially been a moment filled with great joy. Joseph and Mary were betrothed, but not yet married, and Joseph knew he was not the natural father of this Child. So this was what we would call today a “crisis pregnancy.”
But, as the same scene relates, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream to reassure him. The angel said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus.” The fact that the angel directed Joseph to name the Child is significant. It meant, indirectly, that Joseph was to be the father, since naming a child was the duty of the father in Jewish culture.
Saint Joseph, therefore, was really a father. He was commanded to be so by God, through an angel. And not only was he a father, but he was the best of fathers. Joseph taught Jesus many things. Together with Mary, Joseph taught Him to walk and to speak. He taught Jesus to swing a hammer and how to use a saw. I’ll even bet that Joseph taught Jesus how to play a few games.
But imagine some of the other things Joseph taught Him—some of the really important things. For instance, Jesus became a great leader. Joseph was the first to teach Him leadership skills. Jesus, we say, took the Church as His Bride. Well, it was Joseph who taught Him how to love a bride. Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice on the Cross. He learned that, too, from Joseph, who made many sacrifices as a family man in Nazareth.
Joseph was a good, strong, manly father. Our world needs many more fathers like him. It might be fair to say that there is a crisis of fatherhood in the world—among both natural and spiritual fathers. God is the only perfect Father, but Joseph was a good one. Joseph certainly had a unique situation. He was married to the Immaculate Conception, the only sinless woman in history, and his Son happened to be perfect, too, since He was divine. Can you imagine living in that house?
Joseph was the only sinner in the Holy Family, and that’s what makes him such a great model for all of us, who are sinners like him. What a wonderful thing it would be if young people would pray for their parents. They could pray for their mothers, that they might be like Mary. They could pray for their fathers, that they might imitate Saint Joseph. And parents could pray for their children, that they might be like Jesus. All of us, moreover, could pray for priests, that they might be good fathers—not perfect fathers, but good fathers.
With the prayers of Saint Joseph, may all fathers truly bring forth life, and may all of our families become holy families! Good Saint Joseph, pray for us!