Outside and inside the context of prayer, the formula “In the name of the Father” is so familiar to us that we are not always inclined to ask ourselves the full reason for what we are saying. We take it for granted that addressing God and calling him Father is a natural and obvious thing to do. Moreover, largely it is, too. However, the scope and implications of those words are worth pausing for a moment, perhaps widening our eyes and asking ourselves a few questions.
In the prerogative of Father attributed to God, two trajectories intersect. First of all, there is that of Jesus who reveals the face of his heavenly Father, with whom he is “one” (Jn 10:30): it is the announcement on which salvation is based, good news, the promise of which God himself made in the first covenant, never revoked, assuring that he was “a father to Israel” (Jer 31:9). Then there is the trajectory of the believer who accepts the announcement and in faith recognizes the God who saves. However, wanting to give plasticity and substance to this God, he fuses together the revelation from God in Jesus Christ and the sense of the family bond closest to him and extends it by likeness and analogy to God. There is thus an interweaving of revelation and attribution, which are two converging movements, yet unequal. One is inspired by God's desire to reveal himself as Father; the other is entrusted confidently to the expressive possibility of analogy, though always exposed to the fragility of its holding, linked to the experience of the family bond. In the symbolism of this interweaving one can read in the watermark the meanings and tasks that touch us very closely.
From son to father
The progression of the father-son relationship can have different directions. Here we give more emphasis to the one that goes from son to father. Understanding fatherhood - also and above all the fatherhood of God - starting from recognizing ourselves as sons means first knowing that we are not alone in the world. The perspective of filiation develops in us the awareness of a belonging that reveals that we are in the chain of generativity, that which introduces us into history and allows us to be part of it.
The perspective of generativity removes the father from the exclusivity of his relationship with his son; in a certain sense it widens the mesh of that relationship, including the polarity of the maternal dimension in a unitary circuit of a parental relationship. Perhaps this is precisely the deepest root for which, and not as of today, the prerogative of motherhood is also attributed to God.
The reference of the medieval mystic Juliana of Norwich (1342-1416), contained in chapter 59 of her Book of Revelations (Anchor), is famous. This reference has been followed in more recent times by similar expressions, not least by popes such as John Paul I and John Paul II. Certainly, the extension to the maternal sphere is often covered with meanings pertaining to functions and roles, attitudes and virtues that only because of a distorted cultural conditioning are considered exclusively feminine prerogatives, as if this were the only way to say of God who is loving in his care and sensitive to the fragility of his children. God being father and mother at the same time, in this perspective of enlarged and inclusive generativity, brings to completion the design of God's relationship with the world and with humankind and expresses to the utmost power that the destiny of the history of man and the world is dear to God who generates life.
The father on the son
Belonging, inscribed within the perimeter of generative and inclusive fatherhood, has a double value and is under the threat of a double risk. From the perspective of the son, it can degenerate into inertia and passivity, emptying out from within the assumption of responsibility by the latter to build himself up as a mature subject, capable of standing on his own two feet, autonomous and relational in order to be well in the world and build a community. In the father's perspective, belonging can stimulate the desire to possess his son's life, the presumed right to dispose of him through domination and control. History presents us with a gallery of paternal models that many times overflow into a masterly attitude. The figure of the mother is no longer evoked as inclusive in the idea of generativity, but as a compensation for the arrogance of the father who expresses the same desire to control her and her children. Only delicate and complicated processes of emancipation from these models of dominant paternal figures can restore personal dignity to women and mothers and possibilities of development to daughters and sons. Those who experience an arrogant father no longer know how to use the analogy of the family bond to approach God and call him Father. It is a tragic consequence of outsized father-son relationships to make it existentially impossible for these disadvantaged individuals to recognize the paternal face of God.
Fatherhood and masculinity - not everything runs smoothly
Behind all this there is a false idea of masculinity, considered normative in the way we play our role as males and in the desire to exert control and domination to rule the world. It is actually nothing more than toxic masculinity, the manifestations of which are quite common and all sadly colored in dark tones, often soiled by violence, marked by blood and death. These models of paternity do not lend themselves to mediation in order to enter into analogy with the paternity of God, which, instead, speaks the language of care, of respect for the otherness of the other, of recognition of the right to become oneself, through the construction of one's own life plan. The path of liberating fatherhood from the bonds of toxic masculinity is long and arduous: whoever is willing to undertake this journey has to understand that not only does it create more humane conditions of life for each daughter and son; not only does it enrich one's own humanity and redeem one's own masculinity, it restores to God the recognizable luminosity of his true face as Father.
And if Jesus of Nazareth warns: “do not call anyone 'father' on earth” (Mt 23:9), he certainly did not do so in order to undermine family ties, but perhaps only to tell us that one can be a father and mother only by making God's way of being transparent and contagious. This is why we can and must still dare to call him Father.
by Antonio Autiero
Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology - University of Münster (Germany)