Thursday, February 2, 2012

"Courageous" Catholic Fatherhood: The Rite Stuff


I recently watched the movie “Courageous”, produced by Sherwood Pictures, the same company that brought us Flywheel, Facing the Giants, and Fireproof. It’s a good movie with a good message, applauded by Catholics as well as Protestants.  Prior to the initial release of the film, a National Catholic Register article noted that “[a]t least 10 Catholic men’s, marriage and family ministries have partnered with the filmmakers to help support and promote the film.”

I’ve enjoyed all of the Sherwood films, but I’m always watching for how a Catholic message on the same topic might be presented a little differently…and reflect our Catholic identity.

The story line in “Courageous” revolves around several men who decide to make a commitment to their families, the substance of which is concerned with providing a Christian witness to their children, and bringing up their children in the ways of God. One man starts digging into Scripture to see what the Bible has to tell him about fatherhood.

Wait…insert Catholic perspective: in the Catholic Church, we have those ideals readily before us in living examples. We have priests who are called “Father”; we have the Pope - “Papa” – our Holy Father. We have Holy Mother Church. It’s all woven together so we can see a model of the family. We have St. Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, who was guided by angels as he agreed to take Mary as his wife, and later as he escaped to Egypt with her to protect the Baby from Herod.

It just seems so...wrong...
(And yet, these days poor St. Joseph is relegated to the status of a plastic statue buried upside down in the front yard of a house to guarantee its sale. Oh dear – even Snopes is in on the act.)

When one “Courageous” man shows the men’s written commitment to his wife, she points out that “this is computer paper”, suggesting that the men need to use something more appropriate to the gravity of the promise. She also suggests that when they sign the commitment, they should be dressed appropriately, and there should be a “ceremony”.

Ah...that's better!
Wait…insert Catholic perspective: all I could think of as I watched this part was the need for human beings to honor God with worthy rites, in worthy ways, with proper reverence and care. That’s what the man’s wife was saying.

I think Catholics have a built-in way of achieving just exactly what the men in the movie wanted to achieve: to make a promise before God to fulfill the duties God has prescribed for them, in the presence of family and friends who will hold one accountable for the promises made. We have RITES!

We have rites galore!  They are approved by the Church, and they are a part of our Catholic life and our Catholic identity.

Let’s start with the rite of marriage. (I’m going to use examples from the ordinary form of these rites, not the extraordinary form, since most people will be more familiar with the ordinary form. But just so you know, the extraordinary form of these rites is generally richer and more powerfully reverent than the ordinary form. Just sayin’.)

In the rite of marriage, the priest says (my emphases):

My dear friends, you have come together in this church so that the Lord may seal and strengthen your love in the presence of the Church’s minister and this community. Christ abundantly blesses this love. He has already consecrated you in baptism and now he enriches and strengthens you by a special sacrament so that you may assume the duties of marriage in mutual and lasting fidelity. And so, in the presence of the Church, I ask you to state your intentions.

The priest also asks the couple:

Will you love and honor each other as man and wife for the rest of your lives?
 Will you accept children lovingly from God and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?

These two short questions tell us what marriage is about: loving and honoring each other, and welcoming children and bringing them up in the ways of God. In other words, the rite itself lays out some of the concerns addressed by the men in “Courageous”. In the Catholic marriage rite, the couple is put on notice from the very beginning that they must be prepared to raise their children according to the law of Christ and the Church.

The men in the movie held their ceremony in the presence of a pastor, they signed the paper, and they received their framed document. We see them each hang the document in his home, in a prominent place, to remind him of his commitment. But don’t we also know that after a time, such things become invisible? We forget that they are there, unless we make some effort to remind ourselves about the promise made.

For Catholics, that reminder is built into our sacramental life. When their first baby is born, the couple immediately prepares for the child’s baptism (ideally!). And in the baptismal rite, we find that parents are again reminded about their duties before God. They are reminded not just by looking at a framed document on the wall, but by participating in a rite that confers the sacrament of baptism on their baby, and exacts from them a re-statement of their commitment to God and to their family life.

In the baptismal rite, parents promise to raise the child according to the laws of the Church. They make baptismal vows in the child’s name. The priest says to the parents:

You have asked to have your child baptized. In doing so you are accepting the responsibility of training him (her) in the practice of the faith. It will be your duty to bring him (her) up to keep God's commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor. Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?

And not only the parents, but the godparents as well, make a commitment to the child. In the movie, the men agreed to hold each other accountable. In the Catholic world, godparents can serve that purpose for the parents. The godparents too are making the commitment, as the priest asks:

Are you ready to help the parents of this child in their duty as Christian parents?

The priest also tells the parents and godparents the following:

On your part, you must make it your constant care to bring him (her) up in the practice of the faith. See that the divine life which God gives him (her) is kept safe from the poison of sin, to grow always stronger in his (her) heart.

If your faith makes you ready to accept this responsibility, renew now the vows of your own baptism. Reject sin; profess your faith in Christ Jesus. This is the faith of the Church. This is the faith in which this child is about to be baptized.

And finally, the priest says:

God is the giver of all life, human and divine. May he bless the father of this child. He and his wife will be the first teachers of their child in the ways of faith. May they be also the best of teachers, bearing witness to the faith by what they say and do, in Christ Jesus our Lord.

If you compare this to the vows the men made in the movie, I think you will find some strong similarities! But, as Catholics, we’ve got something even more powerful here: a sacrament instituted by Christ which is administered by an ordained priest standing before us as an alter christus! It really doesn’t get much better than that.

Each time a child is born to the couple, the baptismal vows are repeated. Not only that, but as the child grows, the parents continue to be reminded of their duties by the sacraments of first Holy Communion and Confirmation.

Catholics, in other words, have exactly what the men in “Courageous” were looking for. The problem is, we take it for granted, or we don’t fully participate in it, or we don’t understand what it’s all about.  But the information is there, if we want to dig for it. As Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote in Familiaris Consortio:

In revealing and in reliving on earth the very fatherhood of God, a man is called upon to ensure the harmonious and united development of all the members of the family: he will perform this task by exercising generous responsibility for the life conceived under the heart of the mother, by a more solicitous commitment to education, a task he shares with his wife, by work which is never a cause of division in the family but promotes its unity and stability, and by means of the witness he gives of an adult Christian life which effectively introduces the children into the living experience of Christ and the Church.

I encourage all you “Courageous” Catholic fathers (and mothers, and godparents, and family, and friends) to look in your own backyard for the riches sought after by those men in the movie.

Somehow, the phrase “Save the Liturgy, Save the World” comes to mind…


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