Fatherhood at an intersection of vocations

Deacon Halbrook baptizes a young girl at St. Elizabeth Parish in Granite City.

Special to Catholic Times 

I distinctly remember when my wife and I brought the oldest of our four sons home from the hospital after he was born. We sat him in his pumpkin seat, in front of the couch in our family room, and looked at each other and said, “Oh my. What have we done?” It was only a few days later when I came to realize that this little baby boy wasn’t going to follow and fit into my schedule the way that I had planned.

Everything had changed (in a good way).

I also distinctly remember a moment a few months after my ordination as a deacon. I realized that we were out of holy water in the receptacle in our home prayer room, and I sat down to pray, also pondering when and where I was going to pick up more holy water. It was only a few minutes later when I realized, “Oh wait. I’m a deacon now. I can make the holy water!”

Everything had changed again (in a good way).

I set out to write about what it’s like to be a father at the intersection of both of those vocations: married husband and father, and ordained deacon. But the more I’ve taken this to prayer, the real value isn’t what it’s likeor how I integrate those. I believe the real value is the common themes that I’m finding in trying to be a good father anda good deacon.

A good father loves God first

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

 – Deuteronomy 6:4–5 (RSV-2CE)

God moves first — it’s through His work that we come into being and by His grace that we are first given a sense of Him and drawn to Him. As such, it’s only right that in turn, in justice, we put God first in all things.

As a dad, this comes to life in a concrete way when I choose to begin every day in prayer and with a holy hour, conversing with and contemplating God, my heavenly Father. It’s not easy — most mornings, this means being up well before my wife and my sons, “putting in the time” on the relationship with God first. 

This also comes to life when I’m not intimidated to show signs of my faith in public. It could be a logo or slogan on a shirt that I choose to wear, or it could be leading my family in the Sign of the Cross and grace before a meal at a restaurant.

I remember when I was a young boy, my dad kept a pocket New Testament on the end table in our family room. One thing that he insisted upon was that we never put anything else on top of that. God’s Word always sat on top — nothing else on top of it. This was a physical and tangible way that my own dad taught me about placing God first.

From putting God first, all of my other relationships can flow and have the proper order and disposition through the day.

A good father prays

“But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

 – Matthew 6:6 (RSV-2CE)

I’ve continued to find that in both vocations — as a husband and father, and as a deacon — if I neglect my prayer life, everything else will start to fall apart.

My wife will even call me on it. If there’s a day when I didn’t start the day in prayer and still need to invest that time, she’ll even notice it in my behavior or reaction to a scenario and say, “You haven’t prayed yet, have you?”

So what we do — or don’t do — in secret (in prayer) has effects that others around us can actually see!

It’s no surprise that one of the things we were told the most through diaconate formation is that “the fastest way out of your vocation is to stop praying.” This is true not just in ordained life, but in married life too. Everything gets out of proper order and perspective without the cornerstone of prayer, of conversation with God.

Deacon Halbrook and his family are shown at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception with Bishop Thomas John Paprocki.

Sometimes this is alone, as Jesus taught in Matthew’s Gospel. Early in the morning, you’ll usually find me alone in our family prayer room or on our back patio appreciating the sunrise.  Sometimes one of my boys will wake up and join me midway through. When that happens, I’m grateful for him to join me, and grateful to know that I’m also setting an example that he’ll remember through life.

Sometimes this is with our family, leading them in prayer. It could be as simple as grace before meals, or a family rosary, or crowning an image of Mary in your home in May. It could be leading prayer with your wife before bed each night.

Before I was ordained, I would take my fatherly role of tracing the cross on my boys’ foreheads before bed and extending a fatherly blessing, commanding evil spirits away from them. Now, I appreciate being able to take that to another level and offer them a blessing from the stores of the Church before bed. It also reminds me of my first weekend assisting at Mass as a deacon, when my pastor made it clear that I could now offer blessings, and he invited parishioners after the Masses to seek and receive blessings from me. Everything had changed (for the better!).

As Pope Paul VI taught us, “And you, fathers, do you pray with your children, with the whole domestic community, at least sometimes? Your example of honesty in thought and action, joined to some common prayer, is a lesson for life, an act of worship of singular value. In this way you bring peace to your homes: Pax huic domui. Remember, it is thus that you build up the Church.” — Pope Paul VI, General Audience Address, August 11, 1976: Insegnamenti di Paolo VI, XIV (1976), 640.

A good father shows his love for God through his love for others

“The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

 – Mark 12:31 (RSV-2CE)

As a dad, I try to show my sons how I love and care for others as an outflowing of my love for God. 

The first place this shows up is in how I love my wife, and how I insist that my sons also show her love and respect. Next, it shows up in everything that I do in my vocations and that we do as a family to care for others.

Sometimes this is in looking out for and spending time with elderly members of our community. A few nights ago, it took the shape of picking up a coffee and running it by the office of a friend who we knew was working late. 

One of the favorite activities I do with a couple of my sons is packing up essentials like water bottles, energy bars, hats and gloves, lip balm, prayer cards, and similar items into drawstring packs that we can keep in our car and share with homeless people when we run across them on the streets. Stopping to gift them and say a quick prayer with them really drives home a concrete and uncommon love for neighbor.

How are you bringing your children into the expressions of your love for others?

A good father is patient and balances mercy with justice

“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

 – Ephesians 6:4 (RSV-2CE)

Our heavenly Father is perfect in all things — including in patience and balancing mercy with justice. As a dad, I do my best to take a deep breath, collect my patience and pray before I react when my boys are doing something that I need to correct. 

And man, I fail at this a lot. Sometimes I know it’s out of love for them. Correcting what’s about to become a knockdown, drag-out among my four sons quickly is essential at times. In those moments, it’s easy to lose patience and overreact. Those are the moments when I find myself apologizing to them later for my overreaction.

But in my best moments, when God gives me the grace, I surprise even my wife in my ability to be the one that brings a calmer head and a measured reaction to a situation. Patience is a virtue at play in these moments. Quickly investing the time to contemplate the best reaction before I react is also key.

When trying to discipline or turn a mistake or misstep into a teachable moment, balancing mercy with justice is also a key.

I love the image that’s found in the tradition of a newly-ordained priest hearing his own father’s confession as his first confession. From his earthly father, he has learned some measure of balancing mercy with justice. And now, in turn, through the grace of his priestly ordination, he has the ability to offer the perfect balance of the heavenly Father’s mercy and justice to the very same earthly man from whom he learned. What a turn!

This also comes into play in my diaconate ministry. Any imaginable scenario can walk up in the vestibule after Mass or into the parish office any given day. Being ready to lend a patient ear and pray for the grace for the right words in mercy and justice is often the most important “step” one can take in these ministerial moments. It’s the same in our “ministerial moments” in our families and life as husbands and fathers too.

When I was first learning to teach and discipline my oldest sons, there was a moment when I reached out to my dad and asked him what on earth I should do. I truly appreciated his answer. He asked, “Do you think you turned out OK?” “Yes, I guess so,” I replied. “Then do what you saw me do,” was his answer. That was a moment in which I realized I had been given the gift of a wonderful father who found a balance in raising me and was a good model to follow with my own sons.

I know that not every man has had that gift, but every man can look to God the Father for a model, and every man can seek the support of brothers in fraternity. I know raising our children is a common theme in our Exodus fraternity’s ongoing meetings, and for that mutual support of my brothers I’m very grateful.

A good father is a good worker

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”

– Genesis 2:15 (RSV-2CE)

“Make it beautiful” is a mantra from Dr. Jordan Peterson that has become a rallying cry for me lately. Being willing to put in the work to make my corner of the world, and my areas of responsibility, the best and most beautiful they can be, is a high calling.

It takes focus and effort. And it takes fighting sloth and pride (hallmarks of our summer season in the Exodus app, Kings of Summer).

I’ve worked from home for more than 16 years. Save a couple of years of my oldest son (which he probably doesn’t remember), my boys have always seen me “working,” mostly in knowledge work, out of an office at home. There’s a blessing and a curse in that. They are able to see the type of work that I do to support our family, and even to occasionally watch and enter into that work in certain ways. But they also don’t see me “heading out” to work for the day, like I used to see my dad leave for his shifts as a bricklayer lining ladles at the steel mill.

I try to ensure that my boys see me honoring my work and working hard at it during the work day, and then do my best to try to stop that work after hours so that I also teach them the proper balance and orientation of work — providing for us so that we can be most focused on our vocation and our family.

I’ve also started to be more intentional about bringing my boys into helping me with all of the tasks around our house and property to maintain and improve it. In being intentional about that, I’ve even been able to start to accomplish more around the house with their help, especially as they’re getting older.

I find the most fulfillment, though, when that work flows out of my love for God and for them (my wife and sons). That turns even something as small as washing the last dishes in the sink late at night so that it’s taken care of for them into a graced moment.

A good father has his priorities in the right place

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

– Luke 12:34 (RSV-2CE)

If I’m doing all of the above right, then I’m showing by my example — as a husband and dad, and as a deacon serving my pastor and our parishioners — that everything has its proper place. God has given us all things to hold onto and love in their proper order.

None of the things of the earth hold a candle to God and the desire to be with Him for eternity in heaven.

After that, nothing of the earth is more important than my relationship with my wife and my children, and my “work” as their father.

As Christians, it’s been often said that we’re “not of the world but in the world.” We can enjoy the things God has given us in moderation — a dram of a good whisky here, or a pint of a quality beer there — but still hold it in its proper order.

We can also take part in the economy of the relationships around us while choosing where we invest our time and our gifts, focusing on areas that align with our values.

Family first (after God). As a deacon, God’s people come next after that. I’m ordained to serve — all of the above.

A final and separate point: A good father is a model for a good deacon

I hope and pray that the expressions that I strive for in trying to be a “good” father are also expressions of my diaconate vocation. There’s so much overlap and integration for which I’m grateful. Living out one of those vocations helps support living out the other if I’m doing it as well as I can.

I know I’m not perfect. My wife knows I’m not perfect. And God certainly knows I’m not perfect. But I hope that they all see that I’m striving and doing the best I can, with God’s grace and with His help and support, and that of my wife.

Here’s to all of my brothers seeking to be strong in their vocation, to be good husbands and fathers — and for my brother deacons, to be good servants — and for our priests, to be good spiritual fathers. A blessed and happy Father’s Day to you.

God our Father, in your wisdom and love you made all things. Bless these men, that they may be strengthened as Christian fathers. Let the example of their faith and love shine forth. Grant that we, their sons and daughters, may honor them always with a spirit of profound respect. Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Deacon Michael Halbrook is a deacon at St. Elizabeth Parish in Granite City. He serves as COO of Exodus 90. He is married to Suzanne and has four boys.