The fact that cinemas have been unable to open during the pandemic meant that many regular cinema goers may have missed the award-winning performance of Anthony Hopkins in the film The Father. The film is a poignant account of the relationship with his daughter (Olivia Colman) and their struggles to cope with his rapidly encroaching dementia. In a very real and raw way it captures the essence and reality of the relationship, love, the challenges along with the sadness of the loss that is part and parcel of the father-child relationship. I’ve always enjoyed Hopkins, be it as Hannibal Lecter, C.S. Lewis, Pope Benedict, but arguably he reserves one his best and most versatile performance for the complexity and subtlety of this masterclass in giving an insight into the gift that fatherhood is to our world.
On Sunday next we celebrate Father’s Day, an occasion in which we honour, mark and celebrate the contribution and role of fathers in our world. In recent years the occasion has taken on a bigger profile. This has been assisted by associated commercialism and also driven by our commendable need and desire for a family celebrations, an excuse for what had become almost as extinct as the dinosaurs in Covid times to have a party, family gathering or a day out.
In advance of the big day it is worth taking stock of where attitudes to fatherhood and things associated might be. One might observe that along with a number of other conventional or traditional institutions fatherhood is in somewhat of a crisis in our modern world. We live in a time that is wary or weary of pillars of society that once commanded such respect; political, educational, religious, defence, legal to name but a few. The reality and trappings of what might be loosely termed the legacy of ‘patriarchy’, a reality once revered and respected in ancient tribal and biblical cultures now has connotations of sexism and exclusion and justifiably needs to work hard in contemporary culture in order to have a legitimate voice.
Around the turn of the millennium Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the great biblical scholar writing in a work called Return to the Father maintained that there was then a feeling that the father figure of our society had been rejected. For some the experience of fatherhood has not been entirely happy and for some it has been entirely negative. Many felt that the cold wind of a negative experience or portrayal of fatherhood had done serious damage to something that has so much that is good to offer. In recent times there has been somewhat of a kick-back in terms of seeking to re-establish what is seen the rights of fathers, that in some circumstances may have been lost and this has made its way into bitter custody battles in family courts.
According to Martini – it is at our peril that we might lose the true sense of the gift and treasure of what a balanced expression, understanding and respect for fatherhood has to offer us in our societies and in our religions. The traditional understanding we have of how God relates to us and we speak of God is through the medium of understanding God as Father. For us, to encounter God through this human paradigm is good for us and needs to be maintained and even developed more. This approach in my view need not be incompatible or exclusive of the feminine view and nature of God expressed in Henri Nouwen’s book on the Prodigal Son, an account of the masterpiece of Rembrandt’s painting in which the complementary hands of the Father are one male and one female.
As Father’s Day 2021 approaches, I salute the gift that fatherhood is in it’s expression in our society, religious thought and world today. There is a Prayer for the occasion from Rev. Chuck Currie and it runs:
We give our thanks, Creator God, for the fathers in our lives.
Fatherhood does not come with a manual, and reality teaches us that some fathers excel while others fail.
We ask for Your blessings for them all – and forgiveness where it is needed. This Father’s Day we remember the many sacrifices fathers make for their children and families, and the ways – both big and small – they lift children to achieve dreams thought beyond reach.
So too, we remember all those who have helped fill the void when fathers pass early or are absent – grandfathers and uncles, brothers and cousins, teachers, pastors and coaches – and the women of our families.
For those who are fathers, we ask for wisdom and humility in the face of the task of parenting. Give them the strength to do well by their children and by You. In Your Holy name, O God, we pray. Amen
Fintan Monahan is Bishop of Killaloe