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On Becoming a Genuine Dad: Pray, Play, and Don’t Worry

“Frankly, this song scares me to death.”

Harry Chapin explaining his song “Cat’s in the Cradle”[i]

At the school where I teach, I routinely take my baseball glove and go to the grade five playground at recess. In doing so, I have drawn the interest of several boys. These boys have started bringing gloves to school as well (many of them newly purchased). And so, I have a little group of boys with whom I daily play catch.

If you were to watch these boys in action, you would first notice how terrible they are at throwing and catching. I will often attempt to coach them: “Here, you need to step with your non-throwing side,” or “don’t just wave at the ball with your glove…it’s not my fault the ball hit you in the face.” The boys take the tips seriously, and slowly, they are improving. They don’t say much while we play. They just smile blithely.

If you were to know these boys personally, eventually, you would realize that they all have something in common: they hardly see their fathers (because of a divorce), or they do not even know who their fathers are. Though I try to portray a positive male influence, I make a poor replacement for the father-son relationship these boys deserve but will never receive. “One father is more than a hundred schoolmasters,” according to the poet George Herbert. Nevertheless, as each school day ends, the boys approach me and ask, “Can you please bring your ball glove tomorrow?” Then they head home, a lonely evening of videogames and illicit Snapchat time awaiting them.

Where are the fathers of these boys? Why does our insidious secular culture scorn, attack, and reject fatherhood so maleficently? Why can we not just have good and genuine dads?

I pondered these questions as I walked home from work, my ball glove still in my hand. More personally, I reflected on how I am as a father. How exemplary am I to my own children? What does the ideal father even look like? Do I really know what I am doing? These questions needed sorting.

I thought of how, in my younger more naïve years, well before I got married, I might have considered an ideal Catholic father as follows: he would be the patriarch of ten wonderful children, successful in his work, a generous mover and shaker in the parish, respected, and “Man” personified. To see such a man drive by on the highway, one would surely notice his athletic and broad shoulders, intellectual gaze, chiseled jaw, and confident handling of the large passenger van — with the rear-view mirror rosary hanging boldly. One would murmur, “There is a real man.”

As I reached my more judgmental university years, what I noticed in real-life Catholic fathers contrasted greatly. I remember well serving at Mass as a university student far away from home and seeing the local dads attend Mass. We are talking about the dads of those families — where all the kids come pouring into Mass (perhaps late), with the dad slogging in last, wearing his tired shoes and unzipped jacket, holding a kid, or two, or three, plus a diaper bag, car seat (with another kid), and some random articles of clothing picked up along the way. The dads would appear tired, unshaven, and wearing Mass clothes with still soggy Cheerios clinging. One or two of the younger children would then start misbehaving, and the next hour would be busy and stressful.

Back then, I would look at the spectacle, unsympathetically, and shake my head with disdain. Not too hard, mind you. I would not want a hair to come out of place as I looked all spiffy and proper in my altar boy attire. Thoughts of “I thank you, Lord, that I’m not like them…nor ever will be” entered my mind. In charity, as I would march by these families at the beginning of Mass, my hands folded angelically, I would be sure to walk with great confidence and zeal, with professionalism and apostolic purpose. “Perhaps,” I would muse, “these men will be inspired by my proper display of how to carry oneself at Mass. One does forget things when one gets older.”

In my youthful “wisdom,” I believed that the ideal Catholic father would have every aspect of life ordered and perfect, all the time. In hindsight, I believe I judged such dads erroneously. Truth be told, these dads were heroic in leading their families in the pursuit of holiness, for these dads were bringing their families to Mass every single day. Not every Mass was perfect, as I was eager to notice, but it was clear the children knew how to pray, and that they esteemed the comforting presence of Jesus in the church.

I also distinctly remember seeing one of those same families frequently at a local park. The dad would pull up confidently in his large passenger van — with the rear-view mirror rosary hanging boldly. Children would file out eagerly. Baseball gloves were taken out, and many hits, throws, catches, and smiles ensued. The family that prays together plays together. “Hmm,” I conceded, “maybe they’re not so bad after all.”

Life has sped by since those university days. I subsequently married and settled down in small-town Saskatchewan, where a father at Mass is a rare sight, much less a father of idyllic appearance. Therefore, I was a little surprised to notice a spaced out dad at Mass one week night in my town, the kind I used to judge harshly.

This dad was the prototypical disheveled man, right down to the unshaven face and food-stained clothes, who clearly was being taken advantage of by his young sons. The dad seemed to be struggling mightily that evening. Then, I distinctly remember one of the boys asking the dad a question. The boy said, “Dad, are you happy that I’m at Mass with you?” As my eyes focused in a little closer, and I brushed some food off my shirt, I noticed something peculiar: the boy was asking me.

* * *

Slowly I walked home from work, pondering all these thoughts on fatherhood. It is humbling to know that I, too, am probably not the ideal dad, chiseled jaw and all. It is also a relief. It is best just to be me, or at least a holier version of myself.

As I reached the backyard, I saw my boys playing baseball. They noticed me and ran up and asked, “Dad, do you want to play catch?” My sons and I threw the ball back and forth — a sacred ritual needing no explanation. “Make sure you step out with your other foot when you throw,” I told the younger one.

We stood there, throwing and catching. Just two boys and their dad. I may not understand what it truly means to be an ideal and exemplary dad. I am most certain that I do not give off the appearance of one. But I yearn for these boys to become saints — for that, we pray together. And I long for them to grow into upright men — for that, we play together. These two ideals, perhaps, contain whisperings of what it means to be a genuine and loving father. My apologies to Harry Chapin, but frankly, these thoughts fill me with anything but fear and worry.

With each throw and catch, the boys smiled contentedly. All of us boys.

[i] “Cat’s in the Cradle” is a song about a father who is so busy with life that he fails to be a true father to his son. A key verse has the dad explaining that he is too busy to play baseball with his son.

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