Section 7, the last major headed one in this document is titled, A father in the shadows. What does the Holy Father mean by this? The word has different meanings and connotations in the English language, influenced as always by popular culture.
The Polish writer Jan Dobraczyński, in his book The Shadow of the Father, [Original edition: Cień Ojca, Warsaw, 1977] tells the story of Saint Joseph’s life in the form of a novel. He uses the evocative image of a shadow to define Joseph. In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way. We can think of Moses’ words to Israel: “In the wilderness… you saw how the Lord your God carried you, just as one carries a child, all the way that you travelled” (Deuteronomy 1:31). In a similar way, Joseph acted as a father for his whole life. [Cf. St John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos, 7-8]
One use of the word in English is to accompany. This in the sense of an apprentice learning a task, staying close and observant of a master. I can see one sense of Joseph as a shadow of the Father. I also think of Jesus shadowing Joseph: learning work and a trade, learning the care of loved ones, perhaps more than just a nuclear family, but an extended community. Through his faith, Joseph shadowed the One God. His care for Mary and Joseph as a husband and father was formed by his attention to the care of God for his people. The passage cited from Deuteronomy is interesting–it’s part of a section critical of the Israelites for not trusting fully in God. The prophets certainly echo that theme.
Fathers are not born, but made. A man does not become a father simply by bringing a child into the world, but by taking up the 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.
If human beings were only animals, then biology would be at the forefront in situations that lack intent and commitment. For men, acting as fathers is a choice, not a biological fact. A man may father a child, contributing to a genetic being. Fatherhood comes later.
Children today often seem orphans, lacking fathers. The Church too needs fathers. Saint Paul’s words to the Corinthians remain timely: “Though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers” (1 Corinthians 4:15). Every priest or bishop should be able to add, with the Apostle: “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel” (ibid.). Paul likewise calls the Galatians: “My little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you!” (4:19).
I’ll comment here that fathers are not elder brothers in the sense of Luke 15:28-32. Clergy who fully embrace their ministry are not in the business to complain, or chase people away, or debate their demerits as Christians, Catholics, parishioners, or whatever. There are times when a person in ministry must set aside childish things and embrace adulthood, including fatherhood as the calling is realized.