Let Father Sit Down

Ireland in the 1980s, a young Father Odran Yates can’t contain the respect, which his clerical collar garners. Boarding a train, walking through all of its cars, he resigns himself to standing near the door.

“Anthony,” said a middle-age woman with an old-fashioned beehive hairdo who was sitting in a four-seater berth. She beckoned toward the little boy sitting across the aisle from her. “Anthony, come over here and sit on my lap and let Father sit down.”
 
“Don’t want to,” said the boy, placing his little finger inside his left nostril. I glanced in their direction, praying that he would be left in peace.
 
“It’s fine,” I said. “Sure it won’t do me any hard to stand for awhile. The train will probably clear out a bit after Kildare or Tullamore anyway.”
 
“Father, come here and take this seat,” called a man old enough to be my grandfather who was seated three more rows along. He stood up and started gathering his possessions—the peeled skin of a banana and a copy of that day’s Irish Independent.
 
“No, no,” I said quickly, waving my hands at him. “Not at all. Stay where you are, there’s a good man. I’m grand here.”
 
“Father, will you not take the weight off?” This time, a heavily pregnant woman seated near the doors.
 
“I offered the seat to Father first,” insisted the first woman, raising her voice now so everyone could hear, as if her initial question had given her a propriety interest over me. “Anthony, get up right now or you and I are going to have a conversation.” And this time boy leaped to attention as the heads of the passengers turned to see what kind of terrible child would refuse to let a priest sit down, let alone what sort of mother would permit such disrespect. “Anthony can sit on my lap. We’re only going as far as Athlone, Father,” her tone changing in an instant from fury to obsequiousness. “He’ll be perfectly comfortable until there.”
 
“Really, there’s no need, I protested, but the child had moved now, dragging himself across the aisle and leaving me with no choice but to take his vacant seat, blushing furiously, embarrassed by this attention, wanting nothing more than to retrieve my case from the rack and run back through the carriage to the opposite end of the train (62-63).

 

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John Boyne’s novel, A History of Loneliness(2015) is a story of the clerical sexual abuse crisis. Father Yates isn’t guilty of the crime, but his priesthood pays a heavy price for it. Respect evaporates; he is later maligned and maltreated by law officials when he sincerely, if ineptly, tries to help a lost child.

We call a priest, “father,” a term of respect, offered to one who gives life itself, whether biological or spiritual, but now the title flounders a bit on the tongue. For several decades, the priesthood and paternity have been on parallel tracks of decline. Sadly, church leaders must largely blame themselves for the erosion of their moral authority, but patriarchy of every sort has been on the wane in Western societies.

Father Knows Best was both a title and a theme of 1950s television. But contrast Robert Young’s Jim Anderson with the blustering buffoon that Bill Crosby played in the 1980s. Doctor Cliff Huxtable became a template for subsequent fathers on television commercials. Mom and all the kids are smarter than Dad. Why should he choose the family calling plan?

Does the Bible support patriarchy? God seems to chide Job for questioning his authority:

Who shut within doors the sea,
when it burst forth from the womb;
when I made the clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling bands? (38: 8-9)

 

Yet no one’s paternity is less assertive than God’s. God is so gentle in divine authority—urging us to choose the good in love rather than compelling our response—that many have come to doubt the very existence of the deity.

St. Mark presents a Christ who calms the storm, filling his disciples with awe. They ask, “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?” (4:41) Yet this same Jesus will open himself on the wood of the cross, dying with such self-emptying love that the Roman Centurion, an outsider who watches, will confess, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (15:39).

Priests, bishops and the fathers of families are still needed to guide and to govern, but they mustn’t assume a divinely sanctioned arbitrariness. God doesn’t govern that way. How can man? Opening the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII sought to wean a new generation from the arbitrariness of past patriarchs. “Nowadays however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations” (“Gaudet Mater Ecclesia”). That others, in love, offer respect doesn’t mean that love need not strive to earn it.

John Boyne’s novel closes with Father Yates begging his nephew’s forgiveness. The boy was sexually abused by a priest, a friend whom his uncle had brought into the home. Father Yates didn’t know, but he must fearfully ask himself if he should have.

 I did bring him into your house. And I did leave him alone with you. You were my nephew and I should never have let anything bad happen to you. I have nothing to say to you, Aidan other than that I am sorry and that it is the greatest regret of my life. “I’m sorry,” I repeated.
 
“Yeah, he said. “I know you are.”
 
A look passed between us then, a moment of tenderness, and I knew that he did not want to be angry with me any longer, but it would be impossible for him to bury the pain entirely or to forgive me completely. But there was hope for us, perhaps (314-15).

 

Perhaps there is hope. Fatherhood is a gift from God, but those honored with the name of Father must model themselves after the Good Shepherd, the one who laid down his life for his sheep. Paternity can’t presume upon itself. No, to the contrary, it must selflessly expend itself, protecting and loving.  

Job 38: 1, 8-11  2 Corinthians 5: 14-17  Mark 4: 35-41

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