1 April 2021
By Emma Baker
I attended a BBQ held for our Alpha team in the home of one of our members who kindly offered to host. It was the perfect setting for our gathering: great food, great company, lots of laughter and kids happily playing. Amongst the company gathered was John and a little boy who I will call ‘Sam’. Shy and pensive, 5-year-old Sam sat next to John eating his sausage sandwich. Sam suffers from separation anxiety and spends most of his time by John’s side. When you call John on the phone, John is usually with Sam (last time I called they were making a milkshake together). In the evening, John helps Sam settle into bed and usually gets some time to himself after 8.00pm.
The time came for the kids to swim in the pool. With teenage children I could sit back and relax as my kids made themselves quite at home. For John, pool time was total commitment. Little Sam cannot swim and is afraid of the water. After John donned his togs and set Sam up with a swimming vest, they both gingerly entered the water – for John because of the cold (it may have been sunny, but it certainly wasn’t hot!), for Sam because he was scared. As I sat back and relaxed to shoot the breeze with other guests, John patiently and gently held Sam in the water. Gradually Sam’s fear turned to excitement as he discovered the water was fun, and safe in the arms of John, splashed away for the next hour.
I was reminded of this experience when I read Pope Francis’ Apostolic letter Patris Corde. In this document, Pope Francis announces the Year of St Joseph and invites us to discover the great example St Joseph gives of fatherly love and protection. One of the themes Pope Francis touches on is that of ‘an accepting father’. Joseph had the ability to accept aspects of his life he didn’t understand and to love anyway. Joseph, as we know, was not the biological father of Jesus. He has been called a “foster father” because in some mysterious way, Mary conceived Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1: 35).
Pope Francis gives us some beautiful insights into what it means to be a father: “Fathers are not born but made. A man does not become a father simply by bringing a child into the world, but by taking responsibility to care for that child. Whenever a man accepts responsibility for the life of another, in some way he becomes a father to that person”. As I read those words, I thought of John. You see, my friend John is a foster father to Sam. John is caring for Sam because Sam’s biological father (and mother) are unable to look after him. In the gentle, patient manner John looks after Sam and provides the constant reassurance he needs, John is being a father to him in one of the most profound ways.
The Australian National University’s Gender Institute recently issued a Handbook which advises academics to adopt gender neutral language to create a culture of respect and inclusivity for students who identify as LGBTQIA+. Staff have been asked to refrain from using the word ‘mother’ for example, and instead use the term ‘gestational parent’. Fathers should be referred to as a ‘non-birthing parent’ and ‘chestfeeding’ should replace ‘breastfeeding’. When I think of my friend John, and of the patient and unconditional love he provides to Sam, the first phrase that comes to mind is not ‘non-birthing parent’.
To describe a relationship between a parent and child simply in terms of its biological function is to rob language of all its richness and meaning. Working out the best way to ensure our LGBTQIA+ friends feel affirmed as persons is something our society is currently grappling with, but let’s not do so at the expense of rendering language sterile and meaningless. Fatherhood is so much more than a biological function and people like St Joseph and my friend John are great witnesses to this.
Emma Baker is Team Leader for Life, Marriage & Family, Evangelisation Broken Bay, is a PhD candidate in theology examining the theme of the family as an image of the Trinity in the writing of St John Paul II, and has worked as a family law solicitor.