Saturday, June 17, 2006

John Paul II: A Father Who Gave His Best

John Paul II, exercising his 'fatherly' role.

(Corpus Christi 2006: This homily was given on June 18, 2006 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Hebrews 11: 9-15; Mark 14: 12-16, 22-26.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Corpus Christi 2006]

About a week after John Paul II died last year, Kathleen Parker, a syndicated columnist from Florida, wrote an op-ed piece that appeared on the opinion page of USA Today. The purpose of her article was to reflect on our former pope’s incredible popularity, which extended far beyond the visible bounds of the Catholic Church. As she rightly noted, John Paul II was deeply admired and deeply respected by many non-Catholics, and even by some who would classify themselves as “non-religious”.

Ms. Parker then attempted to explain this surprising phenomenon. And she summed up her reasoning in one very simple word: Father! In her view, John Paul II was loved and respected by so many people of various backgrounds, because of the way he exercised his spiritual fatherhood.

Please hear that, dads, on this Father’s Day!

She wrote:

[John Paul II] was, of course, the ‘Holy Father.’ Il Papa. But he was more than that. He was the transcendental father figure. The symbolic Man. Adam in 21st-century flesh. Leader, teacher, disciplinarian, protector of hearth and home, he embodied all the traits of the uppercase Father.

(By the way, I should mention at this point that Ms. Parker herself is not a Catholic, which only makes her comments more noteworthy and more extraordinary.)

She went on to say that the very things that would seemingly make John Paul unpopular—his position, for instance, on contemporary moral issues—actually made him more attractive, especially to the young!

Listen to her words:

The pope’s orthodoxy is at least partly why he was so revered. His commitment to principle—his standing apart from and above the fickle passion of the human flock—earned him admiration. We’re not like him, most easily concede. But do we want a pope who is like us? No more, I suspect, than we want a president who is just a guy.

John Paul’s allegiance to principles related to marriage, sex, birth control, homosexuality and other topics that keep the cultural machinery in perpetual spin cycle wasn’t his flaw, but rather his strength. Whether some of us might disagree individually was not his concern. He didn’t rely on focus groups or polls. In his role as quintessential father, the pope was willing to lay down the law even if it meant listening to the foot stomping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth from the little darlings. As the Lord did not say, “If it feels good, do it,” neither did John Paul II.

Her theory as to why all this would be attractive to the youth of today is, I would say, both true and tragic at the same time. She wrote:

Today’s younger generation . . . has grown up . . . notably within divorced families, often without fathers, in a coarsening culture awash with sexual hookups, pornography, unwed parenthood and family disintegration. In the USA today, half of all children will witness the breakup of a parent’s marriage. Forty percent do not live with their father. Before age 18, more than half will spend part of their childhood away from their father. . . .

In such an environment, it is not surprising that a symbolic father figure should have an estimated 2 billion people riveted by his life and death, including throngs of young people, some of whom trekked across oceans and continents to bear witness to his funeral and burial.

The bottom line is this: John Paul II, in his life and in his ministry, reflected the fatherhood of God. Remember what Kathleen Parker said earlier in her article? She wrote, “Leader, teacher, disciplinarian, protector of hearth and home, [John Paul] embodied all the traits of the uppercase Father.”

That “uppercase Father” in heaven, incidentally, gave us his “best” 2,000 years ago when he sent us his only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that all who believe in him might not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3: 16)

A good earthly father makes every effort to do the same thing—whether his children appreciate it or not! A good earthly father is someone who strives—like God—to give his best to his children. And that “best” includes much more than money and possessions (in fact, in many respects, money and possessions are only secondary).

To give your best as a father means to be a moral and spiritual leader of your family, and to lead primarily by example. Like John Paul II did. He taught the truth clearly in encyclicals and in other official documents, but first and foremost he lived it!

In this our former Holy Father was a real though imperfect reflection of God, our perfect and eternal Father.

And here’s a point that definitely needs to be highlighted on this feast of Corpus Christi: God the Father gave us his best in giving the world his Son, Jesus Christ. But that’s NOT where it ended. Jesus, in turn, gave us his best—and he continues to give us his best.


First of all, he gave us his “best” 2,000 years ago by offering his life on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. As today’s second reading reminds us, “He entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9: 12)

But Jesus continues to give us his “best”—his very self—sacramentally at every Mass, in and through the Holy Eucharist. We heard about the institution of that gift in today’s Gospel reading: “While they were eating, [Jesus] took bread, said the blessing, broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take it; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.”

Today, Catholics throughout the world say, “Thank you, Lord, for this incredible gift. Help us to appreciate it more (because we all need to appreciate it more than we do!).

This great gift, of course, really shouldn’t surprise us. Here we simply have a ‘son’ imitating his ‘father’. God the Father gave us his best, and now his divine and only-begotten Son is doing the very same thing by giving us his Body and Blood.

Let me conclude today with a word to the young people, because this has a very practical application to you and to your future . . .

First to the young men here present, some of whom may be called to be spiritual fathers like me, others of whom will be called to marriage and natural fatherhood:

If you want your children to be good, make sure you are a good father, because the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree! The children God blesses you with in the future, for better or for worse, will tend to follow your example. So if you don’t like what you see in the mirror these days, then change—now!—for their sakes, as well as for yours! Becoming a good father begins at this moment; it doesn’t begin when your wife first conceives a child, or when you get your first parish assignment as a priest. If you want your children to give their best, then you need to be prepared to give them your best—and that means becoming a faith-filled, godly man in the present moment! It means working hard to become a man of good spiritual and moral character—like Pope John Paul II.

And finally, to the young women here present who may feel called to marriage:

Do yourself a big favor: In your search for ‘Mr. Right,’ don’t settle for just anybody. Set your standards high—very high! Look for the kind of man who embraces the spiritual and moral values that will make him a good father. Look for those qualities in him NOW! Don’t think you’re going to “change” him after you’re married, because you probably won’t. Very rarely does that happen, so you shouldn’t count on it. When you date a guy one of your first thoughts should be, “What kind of father will this man make? What will he be able to teach my sons and daughters about God, and truth, and right and wrong? What kind of example will he give? Do I want my children to be just like him someday?”

Because chances are they will be—if he’s their dad.

And perhaps it would be a good idea for all of you—young men and young women alike—to say a little prayer to John Paul II every day. Ask him to pray and to intercede for you, that you will either become a good father—or someday marry one.