Pope: Parents who face challenges for their children's sake are heroes
By Andrea Monda and Alessandro Gisotti
The Special Year dedicated to Saint Joseph ended 8 December 2021, but Pope Francis’ attention and love for this Saint have not ended and indeed are further strengthened in the Catecheses which he has been devoting to the figure of the Patron of the universal Church, since 17 November.
On our part, L’Osservatore Romano [in Italian] has published a monthly feature throughout 2021 which was also covered by the Vatican News website, on Patris corde, focusing on each chapter of the Apostolic Letter on Saint Joseph. This feature which dealt with fathers, but also with children and mothers in an ideal dialogue with the Bridegroom of Mary, prompted in us the desire to discuss with the Pope the theme of paternity and its various aspects, challenges and complexities.
The following interview thus resulted in Pope Francis answering our questions, showing all his love for families, his closeness to those experiencing suffering, and the Church’s embrace of the fathers and mothers who today have to face thousands of difficulties in order to give their children a future.
Q: Holy Father, you announced a Special Year dedicated to Saint Joseph, you wrote the letter Patris corde, and you are carrying out a series of Catecheses dedicated to him. What does Saint Joseph mean for you?
I have never hidden the closeness I feel towards Saint Joseph. I think that it comes from my childhood, from my formation. I have always nurtured a special devotion for Saint Joseph because I believe that his person represents what Christian faith should be for each of us, in a beautiful and simple way. In fact Joseph is a normal man and his holiness consists precisely in making himself a saint through the beautiful and ugly things he had to experience and face. We cannot, however, deny the fact that we find Saint Joseph in the Gospel, especially in the accounts of Matthew and Luke, as an important protagonist of the beginning of the story of salvation. Indeed, the events that saw the birth of Jesus were difficult events, filled with obstacles, with problems, with persecution, with darkness; and that, in order to come towards His Son who was being born into the world, God placed Mary and Joseph at his side.
If Mary is the one who gave birth to the Word-made-flesh, then Joseph is the one who defended him, who protected him, who nourished him, who made him grow. We could say that in him, there is the man of the difficult times, the concrete man, the man who knows how to take on responsibilities. In this sense two characteristics are joined in Saint Joseph. On the one hand, his marked spirituality, is translated in the Gospel through the stories of dreams; these accounts bear witness to Joseph’s ability to know how to listen to God speaking to his heart. Only someone who prays, who has an intense spiritual life, can have the capacity to know how to distinguish God’s voice in the midst of many other voices that dwell in us. Beside this aspect, there is another one: Joseph is a concrete man, that is, a man who faces problems with great practicality, who never assumes the position of being a victim when faced with difficulties and obstacles. Instead, he always places himself in the perspective of reacting, of responding, of trusting God, and finding a solution in a creative way.
Q: Does this renewed attention to Saint Joseph in this time of great trials have a special meaning?
The time in which we are living is a difficult time, marked by the coronavirus pandemic. Many people are suffering, many families are facing difficulties, many people are hounded by the anxiety of death, of an uncertain future. I felt that precisely in this time that is so difficult, we needed someone who could encourage us, help us, inspire us, in order to understand which is the right way to know how to face these dark moments. Joseph is a bright witness in dark times. This is why it was right to make room for him at this time, in order to find our way again.
Q: Your Petrine Ministry began on 19 March, the feast day of Saint Joseph…
I always considered it a kindness from heaven to be able to begin my Petrine Ministry on 19 March. I think that in some way Saint Joseph wanted to tell me that he would continue to help me, to be beside me, and I would be able to continue to think of him as a friend I could turn to, whom I could trust, whom I could ask to intercede and pray for me. But certainly, this relationship which comes from the communion of Saints is not reserved for me alone. I think that it can be of help to many. This is why the Year dedicated to Saint Joseph, I hope, made the heart of many Christians rediscover the profound value of the communion of Saints which is not an abstract communion, but a concrete communion that expresses itself in a concrete relationship and has concrete consequences.
Q: In our newspaper’s feature on Patris corde, on the Special Year dedicated to Saint Joseph, we intertwined the life of the Saint with that of fathers, but also of today’s children. What can today’s children, the fathers of tomorrow, receive from a dialogue with Saint Joseph?
One is not born a father, but we are certainly all born as children. This is the first thing we have to consider: that is, that each of us, aside from everything that life has reserved for us, is first of all a son or daughter, entrusted to someone who comes from an important relationship that made them grow and that influenced them for better or for worse. To have this relationship and to recognise its importance in one’s life means understanding that one day when we will have the responsibility over someone’s life — that is, when we will have to exercise fatherhood — we will carry with us first of all the experience that we have personally had. And it is important then to be able to reflect on this personal experience in order not to repeat the same mistakes and to treasure the beautiful things we have experienced. I am convinced that the relationship of paternity that Joseph had with Jesus influenced his life so much, to the point that Jesus’ future preaching is filled with images and references taken precisely from paternal imagery. For example, Jesus says that God is Father and this statement cannot leave us indifferent, especially when we think about his personal human experience of paternity. This means that Joseph was such a good father that Jesus found in this man’s love and paternity the most beautiful reference he could give to God. We could say that today’s children, who will become tomorrow’s fathers, should ask themselves what fathers they had and what fathers they want to be. They should not let the role of fatherhood be a fruit of chance or simply of the consequences of a past experience, but rather they should decide with awareness how to love someone, how to take on the responsibility of someone.
Q: The last chapter of Patris corde speaks of Joseph as the father in the shadows. A father who knows how to be present but lets the child grow freely. Is this possible in a society that seems to reward only those who take up space and visibility?
One of the most beautiful aspects of love, and not only of fatherhood, is indeed freedom. Love always creates freedom. Love should never become a prison, a possession. Joseph shows us his ability to take care of Jesus without ever possessing him, without ever wanting to manipulate him, without ever wanting to distract him from his mission. I think that this is very important as a test of our capacity to love and also our capacity to know how to take a step backwards. A father is good when he knows how to remove himself at the right time so that his child can emerge with his beauty, with his uniqueness, with his choices, with his vocation. In this sense, in every good relationship, we have to give up wishing to impose from on high, an image, an expectation, indeed a visibility, completely filling the scene with excessive protagonism. The wholly “Joseph-like” characteristic of knowing how to step aside, the humility that is the capacity also to slip into second place, is perhaps the most decisive aspect of the love that Joseph has for Jesus. In this sense Joseph is a very important character, I dare say an essential one, in Jesus’ biography precisely because at a certain point he knows how to step away from the scene so that Jesus can shine in all his vocation, in all his mission. Faced with the image of Joseph, we have to ask ourselves if we are capable of knowing how to take a step back, to allow the other, and especially those entrusted to us, to find in us a reference point, but never an obstacle.
Q: Several times you said that fatherhood is facing a crisis today. What can be done, what can the Church do to strengthen again the father-son relationship that is fundamental for society?
When we think of the Church, we think of her as a Mother and this is certainly not wrong. In these years, I too have very much tried to highlight this perspective because it is a way to exercise the motherhood of the Church which is mercy, that is, that love that generates and regenerates life. Are forgiveness and reconciliation not a way by which we are put back on our feet again? Is it not a way by which we newly receive life because we receive another chance? There can be no Church of Jesus Christ if not through mercy! However, I think that we should have the courage to say that the Church should not only be maternal but also paternal. She is called to exercise a paternal, not a paternalistic ministry. And when I say that the Church has to rediscover this paternal aspect, I am referring precisely to the capacity that is wholly paternal of placing children in the condition to take on their responsibilities, to exercise their freedom, to make choices. If, on the one hand, mercy heals us, cures us, comforts us, encourages us; on the other, God’s love is not limited simply to forgiving and healing, but rather, God’s love spurs us to make decisions, to go out to sea.
Q: Sometimes fear, even more during this time of pandemic, seems to paralyse this leap…
Yes, this time in history is a period marked by the inability to make big decisions in one’s life. Our young people are often afraid to decide, to choose, to take a risk. A Church is such not only when she says yes or no, but above all when she encourages and makes big choices possible. And every choice always has some consequences and some risks, but sometimes due to fear of consequences and risks, we are paralysed and we cannot do anything or make any choices. A true father does not tell you that everything will always go well, but rather that even if you may find yourself in a situation in which things are not going well, you will be able to face and live with dignity even those moments, those failures. A mature person can be recognized not by their victories but by the way they know how to experience a failure. It is precisely in the experience of falling and weakness that a person’s character can be recognized.
Q: Spiritual paternity is very important for you. How can priests be fathers?
We were saying earlier that fatherhood is not to be taken for granted: we are not born fathers. At best one becomes one. Equally, a priest is not born already as father, but rather has to learn it a little at a time beginning first of all, by recognizing himself as a son of God, but then also as a son of the Church. And the Church is not an abstract concept. She is always someone’s face, a concrete situation, something to which we can give a precise name. We received our faith always through a relationship with someone. Christian faith is not something that can be learned from books or by simple reasoning. Instead, it is an existential passage that passes through our relationships. Our experience of faith thus always arises from somebody’s witness. We must therefore ask ourselves in what way do we experience gratitude towards these people; and above all, whether we keep this critical capacity to know how to distinguish what was able to pass through them that was not so good. Spiritual life is not that different from human life. If a good father, humanly speaking, is such because he helps his child to become himself, making his freedom possible, and spurring him towards the big decisions, then a spiritual father is equally such not when he substitutes himself for the conscience of people entrusted to him, not when he answers questions that these people carry in their hearts, not when he dominates over the life of those entrusted to him, but rather when in a discreet and at the same time firm way, he is able to show the way, provide different interpretations, help in discernment.
Q: What is needed most urgently today to strengthen this spiritual dimension of paternity?
Spiritual paternity is very often a gift that arises especially from experience. A spiritual father can share not so much his theoretical skills, but above all his personal experience. Only in this way can he be useful to a child. There is a great urgency in this moment in history, of meaningful relationships that we could define as spiritual paternity, but, allow me to say, also of spiritual maternity because this role of accompanying is not a male prerogative or only that of priests. There are many good religious women, consecrated women but also many lay men and women that have a baggage of experiences that they can share with other people. In this sense, a spiritual relationship is one of those relationships that we have to rediscover with renewed effort in this historical moment without ever confusing it with other paths of a psychological or therapeutic nature.
Q: Among the tragic consequences of Covid, there is also the loss of work of many fathers. What would you like to say to these fathers experiencing difficulty?
I feel very close to the suffering of those families, of those fathers and mothers who are experiencing particular difficulty, worsened above all due to the pandemic. I think that not being able to feed one’s children, feeling the responsibility for the life of others, is suffering that is not easy to face. In this regard, my prayers, my closeness but also all the support of the Church is for these people, for these least ones. But I also think of many fathers, many mothers and many families that flee war, who are rejected at the borders of Europe and elsewhere, who experience situations of suffering and injustice and who no one takes seriously or willingly ignores. I would like to say to these fathers, to these mothers, that for me they are heroes because I see in them the courage of those who risk their lives for love of their children, for love of their family. Mary and Joseph too experienced this exile, this trial, having to flee to a foreign land due to Herod’s violence and power. Their suffering makes them close precisely to these brothers who are suffering the same trials today. May these fathers turn with trust to Saint Joseph, knowing that as a father, he too had the same experience, the same injustice. And I would like to say to all of them and to their families, do not feel alone! The Pope remembers them always and as far as it is possible, will continue to give them a voice and will not forget them.