Fathers Are Saint-Makers

St. Aloysius Gonzaga, whose feast is June 21, had to find holiness without the consent of his father, but cases like his are the exception that proves the rule.

Fathers are saint makers — or saint destroyers. Statistics show that children are much more likely to go to Church if their fathers do. If dad abandons God, kids will too.

In a much-cited Touchstone article, Robbie Low reports about Swiss research that compared families in which one parent, both, or neither regularly attended church.

  • If the mother only goes, 2-3% of children will go
  • If dad joins her, 75% of the children will go, occasionally or regularly.
  • If only dad goes regularly, while mom stays home, even more children will become churchgoers, oddly.

Some have said that this is because we tend to get manners from our moms, but our worldviews from our dads. Whatever the reason, you can see it again and again.

  • Mother Teresa’s dad used to feature her singing into meetings he held in his house and always said that extra food “belonged to the poor.” “My father had a loving heart,” said St. Teresa of Kolkata. “He would never refuse the poor. We were very closely united after he died.”
  • John Paul II loved the Carmelite spirituality and Divine Mercy, but reportedly his last prayer, on his deathbed, was a prayer he learned from his dad. “Sometimes I would wake up during the night and find my father on his knees, just as I would always see him kneeling in the parish church,” said St. John Paul II. “His example was in a way my first seminary.”

But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for us to find the faith if our fathers didn’t. My brother, sister and I are examples of this. But so is St. Aloysius Gonzaga (1568-1591).

His father wanted him to be a soldier, and reacted angrily when the boy wanted to enter religious life instead. It took him years to pester his father into giving in.

Once in the seminary, he followed new fathers: St. Charles Borremeo was an early influence on the child and, later, St. Robert Bellarmine. “I am a crooked piece of iron,” Aloysius said, “and am come into religion to be made straight by the hammer of mortification and penance.”

In 1591 he did just that when a plague struck. He tirelessly served victims, though his spiritual director later said that Aloysius had a strong revulsion to the sights and smells of the work.

The Jesuits insisted that their young seminarians stop serving plague victims, but young Aloysius kept asking for permission — just as he had his father — until his superiors gave in. He got sick and died at age 22.

His story might show the need for fathers after all: the kind that wear Roman collars.

St. Aloysius truly gave himself as a son to his mentors. When he was wrongly punished in school, he said, “I have certainly been wrong some other time.” The imperfections of his earthly fathers helped him see the need for his heavenly father. “It is better to be a child of God than king of the whole world.”

Before his death he wrote home saying his “one desire that all my family may consider my departure a joy and a favor,” and asking for his mother’s blessing. “I have no clearer way of expressing the love and respect I owe you as your son.”

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Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, The Fatima Family Handbook and What Pope Francis Really Said, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and their nine children.