Kevin O’Brien, a cofounder of Men of Christ, has always wanted to bring a woman to speak at the annual conference that draws thousands of men — including many husbands and fathers — to explore how they can grow in holiness and their Catholic faith.
Because ultimately, said O’Brien, it’s women that have a message men need to hear the most, especially those men called to the vocation of family life. That message is one of affirmation — “we need you, we love you, we want you to stand up and be a leader,’” said O’Brien, himself a parent of seven children with his wife, Leslie.
Generations ago, the role and impact of fatherhood, both in the confines of family life and in the larger community, was considerably more prominent — but it was also something often taken for granted. Men were almost always the primary breadwinners for their families while professional and educational opportunities for women were limited, and historical social norms placed fathers in a position of prestige and leadership.
All that has changed now — some of it for the better: women have more access to education and work opportunities outside the home, whether out of necessity or desire. But, conversely, expectations of and reverence for fathers seems to have taken a dip. Marriage rates have steadily declined in recent decades in favor of cohabitation with a romantic partner. Contraception has divorced the procreative aspect of sex from its unitive aspect, demoting parenthood from a sacred responsibility that results from a sexual relationship to a kind of chosen hobby for individuals who possess the inclination for it. According to the US Census Bureau, one in four children live without a father figure in their home. Men in general are often portrayed in the media as immature and self-serving.
There certainly isn’t much in the secular world to inspire heroic fatherhood, and it can all be terribly discouraging to those men who are seeking to be leaders in their families, said O’Brien. “Fathers aren’t being lifted up by the world — they’re being beat down,” he said.
“We certainly read and hear a lot of information about how fathers have not been successful in supporting their families, from a lot of different perspectives,” acknowledged Joe Kmiec, who is a co-chair of this year’s Catholic Father’s Day Eucharistic Procession in Kenosha.
But if the secular world doesn’t have the answer for this problem, the Domestic Church certainly does: mothers have an amazing ability to help reverse this crisis of confidence, said O’Brien. Far from pitting the attributes of women against those of men, Catholic marriage and family life requires the cooperation and complementarity of femininity and masculinity.
“If you look at who was the greatest human being ever created — she was a woman,” O’Brien pointed out. “It was Mary. Looking at that, femininity is something men will lay their lives down to protect, to provide (for), to preach and teach as a father in the home, if the mother lifts him up.”
A simple gesture of gratitude or admiration from his wife can not only lift up her husband, but it can set an important example for the children about respect for fatherhood.
“Men need to be inspired. Fathers have the cross of leadership, and they will acquiesce this cross and let it go unless their wife is lifting them up,” said O’Brien. “There’s so much going on in a man’s head. You’re trying so hard — trying to protect (your family) from the evils of the world while engaging in the world itself to provide for them. But if you treat (a man) like (he’s) your hero, you’re elevating him in his role as a father, and lo and behold, the kids will follow, and it’s amazing.”
It doesn’t have to be an elaborate show or a huge undertaking, said O’Brien. A simple kiss on the cheek, a “How was your day?” and a “Thank you for all that you do” can be transformative, he said. “This is something men are yearning for.”
Mothers, especially those whose primary work is raising the children at home, are often the ones who instruct and model faithfulness to the family. It’s important for moms to make a conscious effort to share that duty, and to show that religion and love of God isn’t just a feminine undertaking, but a mission entrusted to fathers as well.
“We really want to help give men confidence to step up and be the leader of the Catholic faith in their family,” he said. “We want to encourage the fathers to stay up on their Catholic faith, to live it fully, get the grace from the sacraments and bring those to their families as a strong leader.”
It may be the case that a father isn’t as well-versed in the faith as his wife, or isn’t accustomed to taking initiative when it comes to the sacramental life of the family. Here again, gentle encouragement and an invitation to lead can be incredibly impactful, said Kmiec. “Men can be easily frustrated and discouraged, and so it is helpful to have the wife ask, ‘Well, what do you think we should do? Let’s talk about the faith of our family and how important it is, and what it is that you think we can do to make sure that we’re leading our children on a path to heaven.’”