Above: Eugène Burnand, “The Prodigal Son” (1908)
My dad was a good father. I didn’t always think so. When I was a kid, I thought he ignored me; he paid more attention to his work, my other siblings, even his business associates and friends. When I was around him, I felt like a nuisance. When he spoke to me, I heard only criticism.
As a teenager, I avoided him. I believed that my radical appearance, behavior, and bad attitude were all in spite of him; subconsciously I wanted him to notice me. At some point I think he gave up; and I officially became, what my father said to my mom: “your son.” I reckoned that was the ultimate cast-off. Until I went away to college, I barely tolerated him.
When I occasionally returned home, between us, not much was said. Almost nothing. Although I didn’t fully recognize that I did such a thing, I continually uptaked my willingness to transgress in order to shock – my father. Tattoos, various easter-egg hair colors, and increasingly strange looking friends, pushed my dad to the edge, but he didn’t say anything. Until, the day he did.
Afterwards, I considered my dad to be an even bigger homophobic bigot. My assessment of him was a result of his reluctance to tell me everything I wanted to hear. Ever since a priest said to me: God made me gay…and it was beautiful, I almost expected a reutterance of this affirmation – from everyone. In the gay male community, I got that daily encouragement. In my estimation – my father was the lone holdout. Although I thought I knew what I wanted to hear, I actually needed something else. In hindsight, as a teenager, when I asked a priest for advice, concerning my sexuality, I kind of knew what he would say, but I hoped he would say something else. He didn’t. But my dad did.
My father wasn’t an educated man; he didn’t have a degree in theology; he didn’t have any degree at all. But he had common sense, and he had love. After a weekend spent at my parents’ house, accompanied by a couple of friends from San Francisco; while they were rather circumspect and respectful, despite their outrageous appearance, I was overly demonstrative and rude. For years, my dad remained quiet, then – he had to speak. In a calm tone – he said I couldn’t return with my friends. But the door was always open to me. I swore that I’d never come back. Only, a few years later – I showed-up; albeit, decidedly less arrogant and demanding.
The willingness of my father to say the truth – saved me. But he could only accomplish that little enormous feat because his fortitude was solidified by a life of prayer. My father didn’t lift weights to get outwardly pumped; he was too old and ill to do that. But he prayed the Rosary on a daily basis – all four Mysteries, twice a day; that’s over 400 Hail Marys. That takes true endurance and strength. The truth is difficult to speak; its never the easier option. It often invites persecution, ridicule, and hostility. Considering the past, I wondered what I would find at home; like the “prodigal son,” I found my father waiting.
In the Catholic Church, I quickly discovered that true examples of “fatherly” strength were difficult to track down in the priesthood. I also found that priests (fathers) were waiting there for me – but they were the same ones who told me that God made me gay. Only I wasn’t an impressionable sixteen-year-old boy anymore. The church wasn’t providing me with the safe and welcoming place to find myself – I already had one: with my dad.
But other young men and women have not benefited from having a parent who didn’t capitulate; not everyone speaks-up like my father; dads often isolate themselves in a corner while women take-over; hence the propensity for gay men to have closer relationships with their mothers than their fathers. But as many fathers do not realize, as St. Thomas More famously stated, silence gives consent. Say something; or you will lose everything. If you invite disorder into your family, chaos will soon follow.
My father took a chance; and my mother was willing to let him do it. Some mothers of a “gay” son will find that a difficult proposition. After years of watching the alienation grow and widen between a father and a son, the need to protect the wounded straggler is a power instinct. Yet the breach between father and son can only be healed by the father. Inevitably mistakes will be made, things will be said in anger, and actions taken that were influenced by emotions rather than calm reasoning. But that’s okay. It’s part of the battle – things can get messy. But a true father, when the smoke dissipates, tries to restore order out of disorder; he cleans-up the mess, he doesn’t make them.
St. Joseph always served as a model for my father; as the world they knew came crashing down around the Holy Family – occupation by a militaristic empire, mass infanticide, and eventual exile, St. Joseph never surrender those entrusted to him over to the evil of the age.
Like all parents, my dad made some missteps; he wasn’t always there, but he was never malicious. He thought he was doing the right thing. Later, for those choices and deficiencies, he paid a price. He had to watch as I threw my life away. He spoke, but I wouldn’t listen. What was left? Prayer. But not just any sort of prayer. Not a quick little appeal to God at bedtime. And certainly not a prayer for “pride” month. Intense, strenuous, endless prayer. Pain and sacrifice. It was the only way. In the end, it all could have been for naught; but true fatherhood and true love requires at least the desire to try. Like God, my father didn’t give up on me. In the end, he finally showed me that he did care.