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Three Father’s Day Lessons from Pope Francis

By Mike Jordan Laskey

June 14, 2019 — ¡Papa Francisco bendice a sus hijos! Pope Francis blesses his children!

The Spanish chants rung out throughout Independence Mall in Philadelphia as Pope Francis stopped his popemobile to kiss a baby who had been handed up to him by a security detail.

That could’ve been our baby being blessed, I thought, a bit envious. My wife and I were there for the pope’s address on immigration and religious freedom thanks to very generous friends who had extra tickets. But our two-month-old infant wasn’t with us. It was the first time we had left her with a babysitter for a whole day. (Some parents are bolder than we are when it comes to hauling babies to super-long, overcrowded events.)

Pope Francis greets a baby in St. Peter's Square. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

I hoped the pope’s blessing of his spiritual hijos might extend across the Delaware River to reach our own hija a few miles away in New Jersey. Heck, maybe the blessing from el Papa could help make me a better, less-worried-about-everything papá. His witness of vibrant, joyful Christian faith that reaches out to everyone had a lot to offer me as a dad.

Now, a few years and an additional kid later, on the precipice of my fourth Father’s Day as a dad, I’m still inspired by Pope Francis in my vocation as a father. He’s not a biological father, but “papa” and “pope” share the same Greek root, and I think he has lots of good fatherly advice to offer. Here are three tips I find from his words and actions.

Reframe how you think about and respond to pressure.

Last month, I visited Rome for the first time for meetings with fellow Jesuit communicators from around the world. Walking around the city, I was struck by the physical and metaphorical heaviness of the place: Stunning churches everywhere with master artworks and innumerable relics; marble pillars and statues inside buildings and on bridges and streets; the names of various popes carved into buildings each respective pontiff had constructed.

Imagine being Pope Francis. It’d be easy to suffocate under all that tradition and pressure! But the Holy Father has used the tradition as a starting point to do new things, from reforming the structure of the Roman Curia to issuing a radical call to all people to care for the poor and for the Earth. “The tradition of the church is not a museum,” he said recently. “No, tradition is like the roots that give you the sap in order to grow.”

What does all this have to do with fatherhood? Well, being a parent is another job that’s packed full of pressure and expectation. Here are just a few of the questions my wife and I have wrestled with recently: Where should we live? Where should we send our older kid to school? What do you do when another kid doesn’t want to play with our very earnest daughter on the playground? How do we get the older sister to stop squeezing her younger sister so hard? Sometimes, it’s enough to make me want to curl into a ball and quit. Like Pope Francis, I need to reframe the pressure and think of it as a sign that there is an opportunity to do something great. Will I mess up along the way? Over and over, yes. But there’s so much beauty in the work and the chance to make real differences in people’s lives.

“Sometimes, plates can fly!” 

The day after my wife and I saw Pope Francis in Philly, he addressed a massive crowd assembled there for the Festival of Families. Like he often does, the Holy Father ditched his prepared remarks for an off-the-cuff speech.

Pope Francis blesses family members at the Festival of Families in Philadelphia in 2015. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

“Families have difficulties. Families, we quarrel, and sometimes plates can fly,” he said, imagining himself in the shoes of a mom or dad. “And children bring headaches. I won’t speak about mothers-in-law.” It wasn’t the first time Pope Francis had used the plates flying image when describing family life. It’s one of his go-to jokes that always delights the crowd.

The line is a bit silly, but I love it. Pope Francis isn’t naïve. He understands from his pastoral experience that family life comes with tension and conflict. I hear that line and I feel seen. But that’s not the end of the story. The Holy Father goes on to call the family a “factory of resurrection,” where little acts of forgiveness and compassion can be churned out day after day, year after year. That’s not unlike the cycle presupposed by the sacrament of reconciliation: sin, confession, forgiveness, penance, rinse and repeat. The key is to not let my frustration or impatience take the factory totally offline.

Take kids seriously and treat them as real people.

One of the joys of parenthood has been discovering the universe of incredible kids’ books and TV shows. My favorite stuff, like books by Mo Willems and the shows “Daniel Tiger” and the great-as-ever “Sesame Street,” doesn’t talk down to kids, but takes them seriously and engages them as real, actual people. Pope Francis does the same thing in the children’s book “Dear Pope Francis,” in which he replies to real letters with accompanying drawings sent to him from children all over the world. Emil, a nine-year old from the Dominic Republic, sent in a picture of angels flying around Pope Francis’ head, with the question, “Our deceased relatives, can they see us from heaven?” Tough question.

Pope Francis’ answer reads in part: “You can imagine your deceased relatives this way: they are smiling down on you from heaven. The way you have drawn them, they are flying around me. But they are ‘flying’ next to you. They are accompanying you with their love.” He responds on Emil’s terms, with clarity and consolation. I aspire to this disposition as a parent. I don’t want to be “friends” with my kids, exactly, on some sort of faux-equal footing, but I don’t want to be a distant authority figure or a patronizing know-it-all, either. I simply want to try to see them and love them the way Jesus does, which Pope Francis models so warmly.

From "Dear Pope Francis" (Loyola Press)

No, the Holy Father doesn’t have kids of his own, but like many of the holy priests I have known in my life, he has loads of wisdom to offer about the human experience. God the Father and Pope Francis both bendice a sus hijos. Bless all the dads, grandpas, uncles, godfathers and other father figures, too.

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