While Father's Day for many is a time to remember the blessings of fathers and family, for many it brings to mind memories of pain. This piece explores the complex dynamics of the father-child relationship and that even when an earthy father lets us down, nothing can compare to the love our Heavenly Father has for us. 'You will seek and me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, says the Lord.' (Jer 29:13–14)
Sometimes the sight of a mother gazing with wonder at the child within her arms takes my breath away. It’s a simple act, repeated countless times and, yet, remains so intimate, so full of promise and love.
Even more breathtaking is the sight a father with his daughter. Perhaps it’s a tender smile, his strong arms wrapped around her, or her cheek resting on his. Whatever it is, I must admit to feeling a level of poignancy and awe. For these small expressions of love were not something I experienced from my own father.
I grew up in what appeared from the outside to be a typically suburban home. Yet, in many ways, my family life was anything but normal. While my mother loved us deeply, my father was abusive and life at home was often lived in fear. Needless to say, my relationship with my father was fraught.
However, my understanding of fatherhood has not been fraught, for I have always known of another father’s deeply personal and infinite love for me. Throughout my life, God has been a constant presence, from whom my faith has been an incredible gift. At Mass, I always felt free and treasured. When things were particularly bad at home, I would go to my room and pray. Those times of prayer strengthened me, giving me a deeply personal knowledge of His love. I knew I could turn to Him in every situation. He gave me peace that no one else could.
Looking back, I am able to feel great peace in the suffering experienced because I also know the deep joy that such hardship brought to my life. Even though my relationship with my earthly father was severely lacking, I was being drawn into a deep relationship with the Heavenly Father. It has been a continual source of mercy, strength and joy and has taken me down the necessary path of forgiveness and healing.
My parents separated when I was a teenager. My father left our home and cut off contact with us. For me, it was a huge relief. For the first time I felt an absence of fear. However, over time, I also came to the uncomfortable realisation that I hated my father for what he had done to us.
At first I despaired over these feelings. However, through prayer I was shown the need to forgive and let go of the past in order to begin healing. I knew I could not fully receive the loving mercy of God if I could not forgive my father.
When I was 17, I attended a youth retreat where confession was available. It was the first time I went to confession of my own volition. I remember it clearly—the time of day, the church, the priest. But most of all I remember how I felt afterwards; in a word, free. While I knew that forgiving my father was a conscious choice I had to make, without the grace of God, it would have been impossible.
Although I forgave my father that night, the pain from my childhood was not healed instantaneously. It has taken many years of continually surrendering it to God and trusting in the knowledge that His healing love is far greater than any wounds I have.
Ten years after my father left the family home my younger brother died. Having not spoken to my father for a number of years, I called to tell him the news. He declined to come to the hospital or attend the funeral.
Anger and pain I thought I had long dealt with stirred up inside me. I struggled with not only the grief of losing my brother but also the realisation that the wounds of my childhood were still present. I struggled in prayer and repeatedly asked God why my father was like he was.
A year later, I was living in a house that had a chapel with the Blessed Sacrament. One night sitting alone in the chapel, I again asked God why my father was like he was, why things had happened as they had. That night, God spoke to me within the depths of my heart.
He told me I did not need my earthly father—that I had Him. He told me that His love for me was enough. He told me that His love for me could never compare to anything my father felt for me.
That night is still vividly clear in my mind. I received such incredible healing. I felt at peace and able to forgive my father once again. At the same time, I felt so completely loved by God that everything experienced prior paled in comparison.
Today, this love propels me forward and allows me to see my earthly father in a different way—to love him through prayer and desire great things for him.
God never tires of giving us His mercy and healing. We need only seek Him and trust in His love. He knows our deepest needs and the great longings of our heart. Nothing is beyond His power. Nothing is impossible to Him.
Much of my life would not make sense without this powerful experience of the Father’s love for me and for us all. It is a love that is beyond this world that seeks us first and can always be found.
This Father’s Day, although I may not have an earthly father to spend time with, I know that my Heavenly Father is waiting for me.
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli27 January 2021