The surprise winner of this year’s Best Picture Oscar was veteran South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s social satire Parasite, the first foreign-language film to win the award. Set in South Korea’s capital, Seoul, it chronicles the comedic and underhanded attempts of the Kim family to find work in the home of the wealthy Park family, who live in a cavernous mansion high above the city. The contrast drawn between the two families lies at the core of the ensuing drama: the poor but united Kims, and the economically rich Parks—the epitome of privileged detachment. The role of the fathers is particularly crucial to this dynamic. World-weary, unemployed Kim Ki-taek, patriarch and “man without a plan,” may not seem like a model father, but he nonetheless clearly loves and is loved by his wife and children. This is made particularly clear in a scene where the family finds work folding pizza boxes in their cramped basement apartment, teasing and joking together. Park Dong-ik, by contrast, struggles to be at home due to working long hours as a successful software entrepreneur. He therefore remains detached from his teenage daughter and hyperactive young son in a house whose vastness speaks of the family’s emotional distance.
The film clearly stuck a chord with a worldwide audience. Among its many themes, it highlights how both societal pressures on family life and emotional distance between parents and children can have a debilitating effect on human development. Spiritual writer Richard Rohr traces the roots of such disconnect to the industrial revolution, where the patient passing on of skills from father to son was replaced by migrations and work patterns that removed fathers from such immediate and influential relationships with their children. Exacerbated in the intervening centuries, he perceives a great father hunger in many men—with a consequent search for approval and acceptance—in many cultures, including our own in North America and Western Europe.
This is a problem for a religion where God is called Father, and where all prayer is an outworking of a basic cry of the heart to the One we call Dad. When Jesus spoke of God, he used the unconventional and original Aramaic word Abba. One feature of the originality of naming God in this way lies in naming God at all. Jews refused to speak the name of God, replacing the Tetragrammaton YHWH with the euphemism Adonai, an injunction extended to Catholics by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008. To know a person’s name is to know their core and to gain power over them, which none can presume with the almighty God of Israel. To name this God “Dad” is truly daring; yet, it represents “the cry used by Jesus in the moment of his supreme earthly confidence in God.” Following the Lord’s example, St. Paul sums up all prayer as that of adopted children who cry out in the Spirit in the same words as Jesus (Gal 4:6), placing our trust in the Father who will give us much more than any earthly father (Lk 11:9-13). The child-father relationship, so humanly significant as to be irreplaceable, is to be the blueprint of the Christian’s loving and personal relationship with God.
A Personal God?
If the image of a father is being weakened in Western societies, then catechetics as an affective process, in which the young are initiated into the life of God the Father in the domestic church, will inevitably be weakened too. Indeed, contemporary empirical evidence points in this direction, indicating that belief in the God just described—the God of the Scriptures—is in decline, even among self-declared religious people. A 2018 Pew Survey discovered that 68% of self-declared US Catholics “believe in God as described in the Bible,” as opposed to “believe in other higher power or spiritual force” (which was affirmed by 28% of self-declared Catholics). The figures roughly correlate to findings of a separate 2019 Pew survey, which showed that 64% of self-declared US Catholics are “absolutely certain” that God exists, and 27% are “fairly certain.” Where respondents are “absolutely certain” that God exists, they are almost three times as likely to consider religion important in their life, and more than twice as likely to attend religious services and to pray at least daily than those who are “fairly certain.”
There appears to be an urgent need to rediscover the God who is revealed as Father in the Scriptures—a personal God rather than an impersonal force—in order to open the way for many Catholics to embrace a relationship with the Lord, nourishing that relationship though prayer and liturgy.