John Paul and Francis at Yad Vashem

As that familiar parody of bad fiction has it, “it was a dark and stormy night” – March 21, 2000, to be precise – when I made my way from the Jerusalem Hilton to the Notre Dame Center, to meet a Senior Vatican Official who had promised me a diskette with the addresses John Paul II would deliver during his epic visit to the Holy Land. The diskette was duly handed over, and back in my hotel room I browsed through the upcoming speeches, paying particular attention to what the Polish pope would say when he came to the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem – a meeting about which there had been considerable controversy, involving considerable yammering.

The text, which could only have come from John Paul’s own pen, ended that untoward blather in four perfectly-crafted sentences:

“In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. Silence in which to remember. Silence in which to try to make sense of the memories which come flooding back. Silence because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah…”

Later, I got a phone call from an Israeli friend, a distinguished soldier-scholar who knew the world of power well, and who had worked to find a realistic path to peace in situations where too many people were only interested in more murder. “I just had to tell you,” he said, “that my wife and I cried throughout the pope’s visit to Yad Vashem. This was wisdom, humaneness and integrity personified. Nothing was missing. Nothing more needed to be said.”

John Paul’s visit to Yad Vashem had a singular impact for any number of reasons: the fact that he was the first Bishop of Rome to visit the Holocaust Memorial; the fact that he had lost friends in the Shoah; the fact that so many of the deaths took place in his native Poland; the unique moral authority he had earned by his own witness to religious freedom and other fundamental human rights, for which he, too, had suffered grievously.

Still, while John Paul’s Yad Vashem pilgrimage was unique, Pope Francis’s visit to the eternal flame in that same Hall of Remembrance was not without its own extraordinary resonance. For in a remarkable address, too little reported in a world press obsessed with Mideast politics, Francis dared to take on the voice of God in the third chapter of Genesis, asking, “Adam, where are you? Where are you, O man? What have you come to? … Adam, who are you? I no longer recognize you. Who are you, O man? What have you become? Of what horror have you been capable? What made you fall to such depths?

“Certainly it is not the dust of the earth from which you were made. The dust of the earth is something good, the work of my hands. Certainly it is not the breath of life [that] I breathed into you. That breath comes from me, and it is something good.

“No, this abyss is not merely the work of your own hands, your own heart…Who corrupted you? Who disfigured you? Who led you to believe that you are the master of good and evil? Who convinced you that you were god? Not only did you torture and kill your brothers and sisters, but you sacrificed them to yourself, because you made yourself a god.”

Pope Francis’s profound sense of the mystery of evil continues to elude those who imagine him a papal powder puff. Yet the Holy Father’s constant preaching of the divine mercy is linked to his persistent reminders that the Evil One is at work in the world, and that his effects are all around us. Only when we recognize that can we say, as Francis did at Yad Vashem, “Remember us in your mercy. Grant us the grace to be ashamed of what we men have done, to be ashamed of this massive idolatry, of having despised and destroyed our own flesh…to which you gave life with your own breath of life.”

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.