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GUEST COLUMN: Why Father’s Day still matters

At some point this week most dads will get asked “The Question.”  I know it’s coming, so I’ve been pondering what to ask for.

During my 43 years of fatherhood I’ve been regaled with all the traditional Father’s Day gifts — ties, slippers, wallets, coffee mugs — so I really don’t need any more of those material things. Please. No more. Maybe I could suggest a nice home-cooked meal, but that would deprive my wife of another opportunity to eat out.

All I really want this year is the admiration and affection of my wife, daughters, and grandchildren. But how will they react when I tell them?  Will they take me seriously?  Will they be disappointed at missing a shopping trip? What if one of them says I’m asking too much? On the surface my request seems like a modest one, but the more I think about it, maybe I am going too far.

After all, admiration and affection have to be earned. When I was a young father, there were many times when I didn’t deserve those gifts — too caught up in the career trap, too wrapped up in myself, too little attention paid to the needs and wishes of my family. But with age comes wisdom. With maturity comes more awareness of familial responsibilities.  It took years for me to realize that my life was not all about myself. My family has been exceedingly patient with me. Maybe this is the year when I can ask for these much desired non-tangible presents.

Deep down, these are the things all fathers want, but how many are worthy of them? My daddy certainly was. A member of “the Greatest Generation,” he worked several jobs at one time in order to provide for the family. Somehow he still managed to catch some of my ballgames, and he always asked me about the ones he couldn’t attend. Daddy taught me Basic Morality 101 and passed along to me his love of books and reading and an appreciation for what philosophers call the life of the mind and the spirit.

I thank God and my parents that I was raised in a traditional Christian home setting. Some of my fellow Baby Boomers who didn’t grow up with the advantages I had are now approaching 70 and still searching for the meaning of life.

Why do some men succeed at fatherhood while others fail miserably? Why do writers seem more fascinated by failures than successes? The diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus, a 20th-century Brazilian slum dweller, provides unique insight on this subject.

Carolina was a single mother living in abject poverty in one of the worst favelas of São Paulo, South America’s largest city.  Despite being poorly educated and unemployed, this courageous woman of color managed to raise three children, each fathered by a different man. Considering how she suffered through a series of bad relationships with irresponsible men, all “deadbeat dads,” it’s not surprising that she wrote in one of her diary entries: “Father’s Day. What a ridiculous day!”

In terms of this discussion William Bennett’s distinction between the two Latin words for “father” — pater and genitor — can be instructive. The genitor is the biological father, but the pater, the term used in the Latin version of the Lord’s Prayer, the Pater Noster, refers to the man who assumes his responsibilities, provides for his children’s needs (“Give us this day our daily bread”), and guides and protects them (“Lead us not into temptation”). Obviously, in order to carry out these duties, he has to be present and visible in the home.

In the not-so-distant past a father and a mother, married and living at home with their children was the norm. Needless to say, that model no longer holds true. Today, too many young men eagerly play the part of the genitor; that is, they father children, but then they abandon the little ones and their mother without offering to provide any help, financial or otherwise. We are all familiar with what the statistics tell us about children who don’t have a father or father figure in their lives.

Any healthy male is physically capable of becoming a genitor, but it takes a mother and a real father to raise a family. Some may prefer the saying “it takes a village,” but the true starting point, in keeping with the concept of subsidiarity, one of the foundational principles of Catholic social teaching, is the smallest unit, the lowest level, which in this case is the family.

Can the strengthening of families bring about a renewal of society?  es, and here’s how. If we’re ever going to break the cycle of poverty and its concentric circles of functional illiteracy, crime, and unemployment, and if we have any hope of solving our pressing social problems, absentee fathers are going to have to experience an internal reformation, a change of heart. Only transformed individuals can transform society.

This task will not be easy. Many will say a proposal of this sort is old fashioned and unrealistic, but to paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, the ideals all fathers should strive to emulate (the Beatitudes, the Fruits of the Spirit in Galatians, the Seven Virtues) haven’t been tried and found wanting; they have been found difficult and not tried.

So men, if you’re a genitor, but not a pater, it’s time to step up and take responsibility. Aim high and finish strong.

I hope I get my wish for Father’s Day this year.

Melvin Arrington retired from the Modern Languages Department at Ole Miss in 2015.  He can be reached at marringt@olemiss.edu