This past week I was asked to give a talk on the role of the Catholic man in the modern world. My message was simple: commit to being good husbands and good fathers and take the reins of making sure that your families walk in the footsteps of Christ. This is after all what St. Joseph did in the life of Christ. He was a good husband for he took Mary into his home and was a good father for he raised the Son of God as is his own. During the talk, we agreed that the commitment part always trips men up. We live in a culture where men avoid commitment, where men want to be unattached and independent, so having to care for a wife and children isn’t high on the list for most men. Yet, it is so necessary when you look at our culture, at our young people and at our family. This isn’t a misogynistic statement, just something that Pope Francis has been preaching about the last two months: we need to recover the sense of strong fathers in our society. The father has his role. The mother has hers. That is how God created it, and it has gradually been deteriorating and being redefined. We need men, real men, real committed men, to follow the example of St. Joseph and lead their families and form their children to walk with the Lord. Real men who won’t shy away from the responsibilities of fatherhood, but take on the challenge to reshape their families in the image of the Holy Family. We need good fathers, and the events of the past week showed us the importance of having strong families in our country.
A sermon was preached in a courtroom in Charleston, South Carolina on Friday afternoon. I want to move beyond the tragedy though to focus on the love and mercy that followed. Nine families were given the opportunity to confront the young man who took their loved ones from them, and their responses were far more powerful than any words that I can preach today. They were words of forgiveness. Forgiveness! In a town, a state, and a region where this happens way too often and in a time where vengeance and violence is the response to violence. These families came into courtroom armed with the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. Here are the words they directed at the young man:
A daughter said: “I just wanted everybody to know, to you, I forgive you,” “You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. May God forgive you. And I forgive you.”
Another family member said: “I forgive you and my family forgives you, but we would like you to take this opportunity to repent . . . confess, give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so that He can change it—can change your ways no matter what happens to you, and you will be OK. Do that and you will be better.”
A mother said: “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms,” she said. “Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same. . . . But as we said in Bible study, we enjoyed you, but may God have mercy on you.”
These are strong families that go to Emmanuel EAM Church in Charleston. Our church is united in prayer with their church this morning because I cannot fathom the pain of what they must be going through this morning as they go to church without a sense of normalcy. And no, it is not lost on me that their pastor was taken from them. He was leading them in the study of the Bible. Heroism indeed. Being a good father. And this pastor taught his flock so well. He taught them the power of the mercy of Christ. He taught them that it is far better to live in love than to live in hate. He ingrained in them the last verse of today’s second reading: “So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold new things have come.” New things have surely come, and this goes beyond that blessed pastor. These new things were preached by the families of that community who stood united in offering forgiveness to a young man who society probably thinks deserves no such thing.
We need strong families who continue to spread this message of mercy. And we need strong fathers who will teach their children how to love and forgive. So I want to finish on this Father’s Day with something beautiful we all witnessed here last month. There’s a new tradition that has begun among our newly ordained priests of presenting the stole from their first confession to their fathers. Last month we saw Father Bryan give it to his father during his First Mass. The reason behind this gesture, Father Bryan explained and Father Michael said the same thing the night before, was because their fathers were the first men who taught these two would-be priests how to forgive: something so necessary for their ministry. You come to your father when you need forgiveness whether it be you biological or spiritual father. You come to your father when you need shelter, security, and a steady hand. It’s what the disciples did in the gospel. In the midst of the storm they cried out not knowing that God himself was in that very boat riding with them in storm. Jesus calmed the storms and reassured them. Lessons he no doubt learned from St. Joseph and from his Father in heaven. We need the steady hands of our fathers to take our families back to Christ. We need them to teach us forgiveness. We need them to not shy away from commitment, for a real man, a real God-fearing man, realizes the gifts that God has given to him and realized the importance of leading his wife and children to Christ. And if you are blessed to be called a father, may you be blessed this day and every day by our Heavenly Father, and by the intercession of St. Joseph, patron of fathers, may you be a holy example of leadership, love and forgiveness for you family and for a society who is in dire need of strong fathers and strong families.