19 October 2021
Patris Corde

The shadow of the Father in the gaze of a mother

In families, the miracle is often hidden in everyday life: the lesson of Jan Dobraczynski



(L'Osservatore romano [original:Italian], 19 October 2021)


Reading Pope Francis' Apostolic Letter Patris corde, one comes across at one point a quote from a novel about the life of St. Joseph,  The Shadow of the Father, by Polish writer, Jan Dobraczynski. When the Apostolic Letter came out, on December 8, 2020, I was just finishing reading the novel for the first time. I had recently discovered this volume, published in 1977, and reprinted in Italian over twenty times. Curious that the Pope had cited it in one of his magisterial texts.

Since then, in less than a year, I have reread it twice more. In fact, there is something extraordinary in the book, a message that comes insistently to my heart and challenges me as a woman, wife and mother.

The Shadow of the Father, in fact, is not only the story of fatherhood, but even before that, it is the story of a great love, that between Joseph and Mary, lovers, engaged and then spouses. "The greatness of St. Joseph consists in the fact that he was Mary's spouse..." writes Pope Francis in Patris corde. The anticipation of their first meeting, the amazement and certainty of recognising each other at first sight, the joy of abandoning themselves to a love of which they were not the creators, because the source of that love was God. They were happy to participate in the divine plan of salvation, creating the family that Jesus needed in order to come into the world and grow "in wisdom, age and grace". A spousal love that is true, profound, totally entrusted to the Most High since before they met. As can be the love between every man and every woman, who glimpse their own history in the horizon of a vocation in which the protagonist is God. A love that is not to be chased or sought frantically, but waited for: "I am waiting...", whispered Joseph,  answering Zechariah who asked him why at his age he still didn't have a wife. What he was waiting for, he didn't know exactly, but he longed for that waiting, because he understood that deep down it was for something that would transform his life.

Two lovers, Joseph and Mary, who both said yes to a call from the Father to live totally entrusted. Not a romantic idea of love, but the awareness of being invited to carry out a project of which each one is a unique and wonderful instrument; because when Grace acts in one person, or between two people, it spreads like wildfire and has a universal reach. It generates life and changes lives. As happens to us spouses. How beautiful it is to be asked by one's children if the love between mom and dad was born from a stroke of lightning. In my experience, the answer is yes, if, by "love at first sight" we mean re-encountering in the other the one whom the Lord thought up "for me" to realize His plan of salvation. When we meet Christ, we cannot fail to perceive in this encounter a revelation: Christ always has something in store for us, a path that has only one goal - eternal life - along which He wishes only to pour out rivers of His grace.

Marriage, for us spouses, is this journey. Filled with joy, but also with misunderstandings, moments of discouragement and doubts: "His boat - Joseph thought after meeting Mary - had not touched the shore, but had [...] detached itself from its mooring and was sailing far away towards an unknown adventure". And yet, in us spouses, the certainty remains of the beauty of this journey - alongside that spouse who is so different from what we imagined - because at the beginning there was precisely a re-encounter.

The story told by Dobraczynski reminds us that, in order to follow the path, we need to combine two ingredients: knowing how to ask with trust, but also learning to see what does not jump out at us.

How many times in our daily lives do we come across consolations, traces of a promise of Love?

Aware, deep in our hearts, that it is not always necessary to ask and that everything is left to the Giver. In our families, "the miracle is often hidden in the everyday" and the Spirit suggests to us that the ordinary, in reality, is often extraordinary. I think of how beautiful it is to feel the chubby little hands of our children caressing our faces (as little Jesus did with Joseph) and to feel in our hearts that this is a caress from God; or to welcome the fact that an adolescent child shuts himself up in his room for hours, searching for himself in solitude, just as Jesus, when he was very young, withdrew to isolated places to pray to the Father, hidden from Joseph and Mary. How difficult it is to make this kind of discernment in the family when we are called to be silent, to share, to listen, to leave healthy spaces of freedom.

It is our effort to walk together towards eternal life, sometimes weighed down by serious and burdensome circumstances, always studded with continuous small daily difficulties. But Joseph accepts the burden, like Mary, who reminds him that "everything must be done", because only then "He will take the thing into his hands". Both welcome the project of salvation day by day, just as we spouses are invited to welcome the project to which we have said "yes": for ourselves, for the children and for all those who will be lapped by the tide of our family life.

There is a further step that Mary and Joseph teach us to take: both have accepted the promise that the Holy Spirit has made to the other. Joseph accepted the gift of the Spirit that was growing in the womb of his bride; Mary accepts the promise made to Joseph in a dream.

In this gift of the Spirit to both, the unity of the two is created in the spousal dimension and the Trinitarian scheme is recreated: you and I, in Christ; we and Christ. It is this dynamism that can enlighten us as spouses in our life together: in my spouse the Spirit is revealed and is also a sign for me of God's love for us. We know well that sometimes what is revealed through the spouse is not exactly what we would like for ourselves: but in the sacrament, the spouses become each other's pathway to Heaven. A way that is sometimes unexpected and uncomfortable, but that way, if accepted, can teach us to love one another in a greater, more generous way. As Mary did, when Joseph asked her to get up, to gather what little they had, take Jesus in their arms and face a long, dangerous journey on foot to Egypt.

Because what must guide us, in these cases, is the knowledge that at the center of our marriage is Christ. When I see my husband gathered in prayer, I know that it is that relationship that fuels our daily love. And when we are able to pray together, Christ is present among us, a living sacrament in our concrete daily lives.

Paraphrasing the Patris corde, every time we find ourselves in the condition of loving, we must remember that our love is a "sign" that refers to a higher Love. We are all always in Joseph's condition, even as spouses: a shadow of the one heavenly Father. Husbands and wives, to guard each other and guard the children entrusted to us. To guard them for the Father, for eternal life in Him. But each of us is also Mary, carrying Jesus in her womb to give him to the world, as the fruit of our being in relationship with the Holy Spirit. Our Christian vocation - teaches the great Russian saint, Seraphim of Sarov - is to acquire the Holy Spirit to reflect His light, to pour the love of Christ into the relationships we live.

To be a shadow of the Father then means to guard the other who is entrusted to you, until the time comes to withdraw: "Shadows disappear, when the sun rises...". For the shadow vanishes, when the light of the Spirit begins to rise in that child whom you have accompanied toward the freedom of life in Christ.

What a gift it is to observe a son who is almost an adult and who is about to make choices, totally entrusted to the Father! My motherhood would induce me to intervene, to suggest, to guide, but there comes a time when I must cast off my protective shadow and place myself beside my husband, who supports him in his decisions, encouraging him and "launching" him into the world. As wife and mother, I must "leave the father part to him," so together we can watch him go, in silence, grateful. Grateful, because not by our own merits, but by the grace of the Most High we see the Spirit working in our family. To think otherwise is to yield to the lure of the Enemy, who makes us believe that everything depends on us alone: a great temptation of our time, the cause of so many marital crises, even among the most devout Christians.

For this reason, rereading the love story between Joseph and Mary narrated by Dobraczynski can be of great help in penetrating more deeply into the mystery of spousal love and with simplicity and humility discovering together, husband and wife, how Christ acts in our ordinary lives.  (L'Osservatore romano, 19 October 2021)