Since I blog about the men the Church calls “Fathers,” I should, for the sake of full disclosure, tell you a thing or two about my own early experience of fatherhood.
I grew up the seventh child in a busy Catholic household. Our family was close. We had to be, since the nine of us lived in a tiny, two-bedroom apartment. And we were noisy. My parents never had a child they could call “the quiet one.” We had schoolyard nicknames like “motormouth.” In the middle of the mix was my oldest brother Charlie, who celebrated the mid-1960s by purchasing an electric guitar and a large amplifier.
One of the great mercies God showed my father was that Pop started to go deaf when he was very young. By the time I was born, he couldn’t hear much more than he needed to hear, in order to play Tonka Trucks with me on the floor. So he was able to smile through much of my childhood and adolescence.
People were always telling him: “You should get a hearing aid. You don’t know what you’re missing!” And my dad would just smile and thank them … and go back to reading his newspaper, or playing trucks with us on the floor. I suspect he knew what he was missing.
Pop was a man of great virtue and great love, but very few words; he was an almost silent man. When he spoke, you knew it meant something. But he almost never spoke about himself.
So we kids grew up loving him, respecting him, and even revering him. But we didn’t really know much about his history, his own childhood.
Then, one brilliant summer day, when I was almost thirty and Pop was almost eighty, I had a chance to spend a long day out on an errand with him. Amazingly, he was talkative that day, and, as he drove along, he told me many stories — about his childhood, about his father’s early death from tuberculosis, my Uncle Leo’s paternal care for the family after Grandfather died. These were stories I had never heard in our three decades of casual conversation at home.
I took in every word — and when we got back to the house, I wrote down all I could recall, as near to Pop’s own words as my memory would allow.
Years went by, and my father died. And suddenly all his children felt the loss, and the corresponding need to feel our roots. Within two weeks of my father’s death, my brothers and sisters, one by one, called to ask if I still had those notes about Pop’s childhood lying around, and could I pass a copy their way.
The words of our natural fathers are precious to us. Our fathers are key to a mystery we spend a lifetime trying to solve: ourselves. Their past is our own, given to us in so many silent ways as they guide our childhood steps. The paths we walk are paths to which they led us, or drove us. Their words and deeds are critical details in the story of our own lives.
And if all that is true of our natural fathers, how much more is it true of our fathers in Christian faith — the Fathers of the Church that gave us new life in baptism?
Why do I blog the Fathers, and why do you visit me here? Primarily because we are the Church and the Church Fathers are our true fathers in our everyday life of faith. We want to seize on those rare words of theirs that have been preserved for us. We want to learn from their sainted example. We want to count on their intercession for us in heaven. Visit them today, in their writings and in your prayer. They’re truly fatherly. They’ll listen to you. Where they are — where I trust my Pop is with them — no one needs a hearing aid.