In a world “without fathers” – in which fatherhood seems to be increasingly more fluid and difficult to exercise – Pope Francis proposes looking at a father figure who today’s society greatly needs. It is well-known that the Pope announced (on December 8th, 2020) that 2021 will be a special year dedicated to St. Joseph, concluding December 8th, 2021. His reasoning was clear: St. Joseph “is not a holy card to keep in your pocket,” but rather a constant example of love and dedication and a true source of inspiration for all parents.
The Father Figure Nowadays
The image of the father in society and in the family is quite different now than it was in the past. Many scholars agree that various difficulties of modern society are due to the fact that we live in an era without a father (with both capital and lowercase letters). The father no longer represents a role model, and indeed often, even in children's cartoons, he is represented as incapable, clumsy, and unable to manage familial dynamics. In short, over the years we have witnessed a progressive “paternal disintegration” where the father is considered, at best, the symbol of a patriarchal society that must be destroyed (Recalcati). So, we find ourselves having to deal with a continuous and persistent “devaluation” of the father figure that results in many familial problems and difficulties, risking the healthy, stable development of children.
Studies and research in this regard speak for themselves. Statistics show the importance of the father figure in children’s lives and the damage that the absence of the father can cause: from the more extreme example of criminal track records, as shown by Jerrod Brown’s study, founder of the American Institute for the Advancement of Forensic Studies (AIAFS), to various difficulties in learning (Does Living in a Fatherless Household Compromise Educational Success?). The latter study concludes that, on average, children whose fathers are present and actively involved in their lives tend to have fewer problems with school performance, behavior, and social interaction than children whose fathers are absent or not effectively present ( (Institute for Research on Poverty).
St. Joseph represents a model of authentic fatherhood and reminds every father of a few very important things: first of all, the importance of presence, love, patience, and discretion. Sent not to be the “hero father,” nor the “master of the house father,” but a real father – a true testimony of authentic love. That is the kind of father we all really need.
The Figure of St. Joseph: A Fatherhood of Great Relevance
"With a father's heart: that is how Joseph loved Jesus, whom all four Gospels refer to as ‘the son of Joseph’," begins the apostolic exhortation that, in a certain sense, brings the figure of Saint Joseph up-to-date. The letter presents us with a figure of a modern father, who is also firm in timeless principles and values. Justice, obedience, perseverance, and humility make Joseph a special father, but not an unattainable role model. On the contrary, a “dreamer with his feet on the ground,” as he has been defined, who makes mothers and fathers understand the importance of the formative task they take on when they receive the extraordinary gift of parenthood. When we speak of Saint Joseph and fatherhood, it is not possible to do so without considering motherhood and vice versa. Actually, if it were possible, it would be ideal if the beautiful words of the Patris Corde would resonate in the minds of mothers, even before that of fathers – that today’s men and women would reflect on its words and refer daily to Joseph’s "creative courage" which helped him overcome difficulties his Nazarene family faced.
Joseph is not a super hero; he is a caring, affectionate father, and he also helps us to understand the importance of our own frailties. "The evil one makes us see and condemn our frailty whereas the Spirit brings it to light with tender love,” we read in the letter. It continues: “Tenderness is the best way to touch the frailty within us. Pointing fingers and judging others are frequently signs of an inability to accept our own weaknesses, our own frailty.” A father teaches us to hope, to trust, and to serve with joy. Pope Francis proclaims: "Being a father entails introducing children to life and reality. Not holding them back, being overprotective or possessive, but rather making them capable of deciding for themselves, enjoying freedom and exploring new possibilities.” This is what Joseph did more than two thousand years ago, and this is what we parents should do today for the good of our children, as studies in this field have amply demonstrated.
Finally, a very useful piece of advice: "A father who realizes that he is most a father and educator at the point when he becomes “useless,” says Pope Francis, “when he sees that his child has become independent and can walk the paths of life unaccompanied. When he becomes like Joseph, who always knew that his child was not his own but had merely been entrusted to his care.”
Returning to the proper role that the father figure deserves – for the good of the children and the family unit – is a cultural and educational duty of extreme importance. A guiding light can be that of the “model” of Saint Joseph, an ordinary man, removed from the limelight – like so many people that the pandemic introduced us to. These people succeed daily, showing humility, courage, and strength through small gestures of love and service, instilling deep hope in us all.