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There is a serious crisis in the exercise of fatherhood in today’s world. One becomes a biological father when his child is born. But fatherhood is a different matter. Fatherhood is more than just being a biological father, but exercising the fatherly love of God our Father. We need to learn how to exercise fatherhood and perfect it over time. Some fathers are the source of misery for their children, causing them to be dysfunctional and emotionally wounded because they were too harsh and dictatorial. Others are abusive, verbally, and physically, in some cases even sexually, towards their children. Some reduce fatherhood to being a disciplinarian master, or a financial provider. Some are often absent from home, busy at work, business, and social engagements. Worse still, some are irresponsible, lazy, refuse to work, get drunk, take drugs, and get involved in illegal and immoral activities.
In such a situation, we are called to turn to St Joseph who is the model for all fathers, both biological and spiritual fathers. Joseph too had to learn how to be a father and, most of all, to be the father of the Messiah. He felt completely inadequate when he was asked to be the adoptive father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The gospel, recounting his intention to divorce Mary informally, could be read in two ways. The first interpretation is often posited as Joseph not wanting to judge Mary’s pregnancy. But it could also be that when he was told that Mary “was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit”, he found himself completely inadequate to continue to be the spouse of Mary and the father of the child. Hence, it was only when the angel confirmed in a dream that God was calling him to cooperate in His divine plan of salvation by taking Mary as his wife and assuming the role of father by naming the child Jesus “‘because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins” that Joseph “did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do” when he woke up.
As fathers, we must learn humility like Joseph. We too must face our inadequacies. We learn how to be fathers by recognizing our short comings. So long as we are humble and ready to learn, we will become better fathers. This is why fathers must imitate Joseph who did not react to situations, especially in complex situations where the decision requires careful discernment. We need to be prayerful and reflective. Whether it was the case of accepting Mary or fleeing to Egypt when under persecution, or when it was time to return to Nazareth, he was always attentive to the voice of God and submitted in obedience. We too must not allow our responsibilities, fears, and anxieties in taking care of our family to make us react rashly, saying words or making decisions that we regret.
St Joseph as a father was a teacher more by his life and examples than by his words. He taught us by living out his faith in daily life. The gospel tells us that he was a just man. Of course, in the bible, we are told that the just man lives by faith. (cf Habakkuk 2:4) St Paul also reminds us that we are justified by faith in Christ. (Rom 1:17; Gal 3:13) Joseph was a righteous man. He was obedient to the Law and just in his dealings with his fellowmen. He was not just a good father but also a good worker, being responsible as a carpenter. Jesus must have observed the life that Joseph led and certainly would have been inspired by the way his adopted father lived out his faith in charity and in his life. Indeed, there is no better way to teach our children than to be a mentor to them by the way we live our lives, by our commitment to our work and profession, and how we relate with family members, relatives, friends, and colleagues. We must inspire our children so that they too would want to walk in our footsteps. What we say is less important than what we do. More so in today’s generation, children are looking for mentors and witnesses. We must live in such a way that our children do not despise us in their hearts. Rather, we want them to look up to us and imitate us in life.
Indeed, we can learn from Joseph the way he related with others. Although he was a just man, he was not judgmental. He was more concerned about himself living a righteous life than to pass judgements on others. He was always positive in his relationship with others. He did not complain and lament about individuals. As a father, he guided Jesus by journeying with Him, walking by His side and allowing Him to learn the trade from him. He took the necessary risks to protect Him and to guard Him from His enemies. He provided the financial and moral support for the family. Imagine how difficult it would have been for Mary if she had to bring up the child alone without the help and the leadership of Joseph, just like many single parents today. Being a parent is difficult enough, but being a single parent is even worse because of the lack of support, common discernment, and encouragement.
Mary and Joseph were conscious of their roles. Joseph knew that Jesus did not belong to him but to God. So too Mary was aware that Jesus belonged to His Father. When Jesus was apparently lost in the Temple, our Lord reminded Mary, “‘Did you not know that I must be busy with my father’s affairs?” Both of them knew that they were taking care of Jesus on behalf the heavenly Father. So too for us as well. Children are not our own. We do not possess them. We are merely raising them as our own on behalf of our heavenly Father. When the time came for Jesus to leave home for His ministry, Mary never stopped Him or made life difficult for Him by being overly dependent on Him or seeking to control His life, unlike the relatives. Since she had consecrated to Jesus when He was born at the Temple to God, it was right that Jesus must serve the will of His heavenly Father. This is what we should do as parents as well. This is what every father must do, to help their children to find their vocation and let them go when they are ready to start life on their own. We must be ready to let our children follow their vocation and leave us when the time comes. They do not belong to us but God who wants to make use of them for the building of the kingdom.
Above all, the most important lesson we can learn from Joseph is the necessary love and support he gave to Mary and Jesus. This is the key to true parenthood. God does not expect a man or a woman to look after the children on his or her own. Spouses are given to each other so that they can truly support each other in providing a safe, nurturing ambience for their children so that they can grow up to be holistic in development with the care of a father and a mother. For this to happen, husband and wife must love each other before they love their children. Many couples make the mistake of loving and caring for their children above their love and care for each other. Rather, parents must experience mutual love from each other first, so that from the strength of that love, they can jointly share their common love with their children. In this way, their children will not receive just love from one parent but from both parents. This is the key to building a loving and caring family.
But such fatherhood is possible only if we experience the Father’s love ourselves. Without experiencing the Father’s love, it is difficult for us to love the way the Heavenly Father loves us. Indeed, we know that the Father’s love is one that is faithful, forgiving and affirming. The Father does not condemn us. He is patient with us when we make mistakes for this is part of the process of growing. As fathers today, we too must learn a new approach to helping our children. The way of harsh discipline does not work very well today. What our children need is our support, patience, care and affirmation. When we try to understand the struggles of our children, and journey with them to find the will of God for them in life, they will find courage and strength to persevere in their vocation without giving hope when they make mistakes or fail.
So today as we celebrate the Solemnity of St Joseph, let us reflect on our fatherhood, whether as biological parents or spiritual fathers. Let us never forget that we are the face of the Heavenly Father. We must reveal the Father’s heart and love for them so that they can have a healthy and intimate relationship with the heavenly Father. If we do not project the Father’s love and mercy in our lives and relationship with our children, it will impact their self-confidence and capacity to love God and their fellowmen. So let us lead them to the Heavenly Father by following the exemplary life of St Joseph. Let us lead them to the Heavenly Father by leading them to Jesus who is the Face of God our Father.
Written by His Eminence, Cardinal William SC Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved. The contents of this page may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission from the Archbishop’s Office. This includes extracts, quotations, and summaries.
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“ If you love me, you will keep my commandments. ”
Diaconate: 15 Jan 2023
Ordination Date: 14 September 2020
Ordination Date: 7 July 2001