Editor’s Note: This is a special reflection from Stephen Lenahan, a youth minister in Texas, on the relationship he had with his father in life and death. Stephen’s father died this past year from cancer.
Growing up my experience with my dad was far from a fairy tale. In fact, at times it seemed like I didn’t even know him at all because, like a lot of you, my parents were divorced. Now, I know what you are thinking…he is going to bash his dad and blame all his problems on his dad but hang with me for a second as I take you on my journey with my dad towards the Paschal Mystery.
As a little boy I remember sitting on the couch and calling my dad but being nervous as to what I should say. It seems silly looking back now, but to a young boy who didn’t know his father it wasn’t silly. It’s like the nervousness someone might experience the first time they pray to their Father in Heaven. This is the man who created me in one way and yet he seemed so mysterious to me… sound familiar in prayer?
As I grew into my teenage years I got so busy I remember my mom reminding me to call my dad. It became an experience that often left me bitter because I longed to have my dad around for all the important things going on in my life and a phone call never seemed to satisfy that desire.
When I reached college and young adulthood I began to have a new perspective on my relationship with my dad. I wanted him to be proud of the man I had become. I would email him when I was in an article in my campus newspaper or call him to make sure he saw the picture on Facebook of me skydiving. He always seemed to say, “Well son, you know your dad is always proud of you.” As much as he said those words it never sank in. It didn’t quench that desire to know the love of my father. I thought I had to earn his love; I didn’t realize he gave it to me freely for simply being his beloved son.
Late in 2010, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. In March of this year his doctors said he only had weeks to live. Suddenly, my world, my faith, and my relationship with my dad were all flipped upside down.
I held my dad and my siblings as we cried in the hospital room that day. The next 8 days we spent laughing together and acting like it was any other weekend visit. But that time was definitely more special than anything I had experienced. The difference was that this time we were free to pray together and share our faith. The chaos and confusion of the past all seemed unimportant.
I sat next to my dad at Mass that Sunday and smiled as he loved watching my aunt sing in the choir. I prayed in the living room one day that week while he received the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick from his parish priest. And finally, I knelt praying by his bedside as Jesus, the Blessed Mother and the communion of Saints greeted him and escorted him into eternal life with Our Heavenly Father. It was an overwhelming 8 days with many powerful moments of prayer.
After my dad passed we began cleaning out all of his belongings and finding things we never knew existed. He had kept all the things of his faith that were so important even through all the chaos and confusion of our broken family. Among all the beautiful prayer books, letters from his childhood priests, and rosaries…my oldest brother pulled out a letter that my dad wrote in 1995 and we all began to cry as we realized how much our dad loved us even though he couldn’t always express it to us.
“Hopefully you will recognize that God is always there for you. Regardless of how devastating the situation, you can find peace in your heart when your relationship with God is strong. That is why I haul you to church on Sundays. I’m trying to show you that God is there for all of us, regardless of how weak and sinful we might be. Take it from me because I am well versed at being weak and sinful, God needs to be your best friend for life. There is nothing better…You have made me a very proud dad. I’m confident that you are prepared to handle yourself for whatever you face in life. Remember to accept responsibility when you are at fault. At the same time, let others sing your praises for your successes. It is a sweet song indeed. You are constantly in my prayers, just as I would hope I’m in yours. Prayer is powerful medicine. Take it every day. You won’t overdose on prayer. I love you very much. If you ever need me, just look over your shoulder. I’m watching and smiling. Love, Dad”
The letter helped me to see that my dad was the best dad in world…even though he was broken and imperfect. His love for me was authentic and real.
After burying my father and celebrating his life, I returned back to my home in Texas and life as a youth minister continued. The first Life Night when I came back was about the Ascension of Jesus and Pentecost. I always try to teach the teens at our parish that God is in every situation but this was the first time I had experienced it myself.
My dad, although not always around, helped me to enter into the mystery of Christ in a very real way through his life and death. My dad had to return to Heaven in order that I could know how great his love for me was and still is. If he were still around today I would still be wondering because I would not have read the letter. Within a few days of losing my dad, I found joy and hope in knowing my father’s love in a deep way. It must have been a similar feeling that the Apostles felt in the moments after the Holy Spirit descended on them in upper room during Pentecost. For the first time they too knew the Father’s love.
So this Father’s Day, whether you come from an intact home with your dad at every soccer game, if you’ve never met your dad or if you are separated from him most of the time…celebrate him, be thankful for him, pray for him and most of all love him. He is a great man because he is the one who gave you a life that you can use to give honor and glory to God. Happy Father’s Day from me, my dad, and Our Father who art in Heaven!
“My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.” – John 10:29-30