Yesterday Father’s Day was celebrated. Often seen as a late-coming American appendage to Mother’s Day or Mothering Sunday, it is nonetheless a very important day in its own right. This is particularly true since we have learnt to our cost that giving state support to single mothers, and thus enabling their fathers of their children to evade their paternal responsibilities, has unwittingly given rise to a fatherless generation of disaffected young men who have lacked a strong and positive male role model in their formative years.
We all know that mothers matter, as psychological studies by people like John Bowlby have shown. But fathers are also crucial in providing a complementary male influence – or indeed, stepping in to fill the gap when a mother dies or is absent. This was true of the father of St Therese of Lisieux, who parented his five daughters on his own after their mother died of breast cancer when Therese was only four. By all accounts he fulfilled his role in an exemplary way.
I am just reading about another father. This was Karol Wojtyla senior, father of the future John Paul II, and the book is “John Paul II, Man of Prayer” by Clare Anderson and Joanna Bogle, published by Gracewing. Sub-titled “The spiritual life of a saint”, it shows how the young boy’s spiritual formation began with the devoted care of his father, widowed when the boy was only nine. Whenever I have read accounts of the late Pope’s early life in Wadowice, Poland, such as the reminiscences of his boyhood Jewish friend, Jerzy Kluger, I have warmed to the portrait that emerges of the quiet, upright, retired soldier and former tailor, known as “the Captain”, who made his young son’s clothes himself, did the cooking and cleaning and encouraged his son in his friendships, his studies and his sports.
Above all, he formed the boy’s early faith. He set, and was himself, an example of prayer. The future Pope was to describe their modest apartment as a kind of “domestic seminary”, in which his father taught mainly through his own deep yet unselfconscious piety. A man of complete integrity, the older Wojtyla did not simply follow the culture of Catholic life in Wadowice which it would have been easy to do in a country steeped in the traditions of the faith. The book puts it that “Prayer was a constant in their lives; the Captain prayed often during the day, on his knees. The two read the Bible and prayed the rosary together.” It includes the significant detail, “Sometimes the young boy would wake in the night and see his father kneeling in the dark, praying silently.”
The book also includes a moving anecdote. Once, when his son told him he was worried about a maths exam the following day, his father gave him a prayer to the Holy Spirit (included at the end of the book), directing him to pray it every day. The Pope did this faithfully to the end of his life. Speaking in 1979 to a conference of Catholic charismatics, he told them “I have remained obedient to this order that my father gave nearly fifty years ago…This was my first spiritual initiation, so I can understand all the different charisms.” It says a great deal about the close bond the father and son shared, that the young boy never forgot his father’s advice.
Long before it became de rigueur for fathers to be hands-on parents, in a simple apartment in a provincial Polish town an unknown father was giving his own son the loving paternal guidance he would need to become a man – and what a man as well as spiritual father the young Karol Wojtyla was to become in his turn.