Published October 18, 2020
My father has always had a special devotion to Joseph, the husband of Mary, since he is the saint for whom my father was named. I remember my father coming home from work, when I was in grade school, on the evening of May 1 with a loaf of Italian bread, a surprise to celebrate the feast of Saint Joseph the Worker. From when I was very young, I have had a devotion to the saint too. But, at least initially, my love for him stemmed almost entirely from the fact that my father loved him first.
That story is a simple way to articulate how deeply and significantly my father’s example has affected my spiritual understanding and led me to place my Catholic faith at the center of my life. I believe because I saw him believe first. I am faithful, even in the midst of scandal, because he is faithful, though it is difficult for both of us, in different ways, I imagine.
I remember learning as a child that none of the words of Saint Joseph are recorded anywhere in the Bible, and this disturbed me for quite some time. I wished that the Gospel writers had thought to tell us even a word or two that he had said, so that I could understand him better. I wanted to commit something to memory, latch on to something that would give me more insight into the only member of the Holy Family who ever sinned.
But as I grew up listening to the same Gospel stories time and again in church and at home, I realized that Joseph’s role in the salvation story is no less powerful just because his words aren’t recorded in Scripture. He has a profound effect even in his profound silence — and, I think, because of his silence.
We are forced to focus on him not as a man with wise words to impart but as a man of deep thought and, most of all, a man of action. We see that he is a righteous man who accepts the will of God, even when it makes no sense in human terms. We see how well he set aside his all-too-human fears and dedicated his life to the immense task of giving the love of an earthly father to the Son of God.
Like the Joseph of the Gospel, my father is a man of few words — but he is a man of deep thought, one who has taught me more with his actions than any words could communicate. As a result of the way he has lived, he has had a profound effect on my life and my faith.
My father grew up in Canfield, Ohio, the younger of two children, and his parents both had been born to men and women who had immigrated to the United States in the early twentieth century from southern Italy. He had the blessing of a large extended family, all of whom lived in the Youngstown area, and he grew up with all the benefits of that sort of close community. His childhood instilled in him a love for home and for family, always evident to me in his desire to be present for my younger brother and me when we were children — not because he felt that he must be, but because he wanted to be.
When my father was in high school, his own father was diagnosed with cancer and passed away within two years, another formative experience that I believe led my father to want to spend as much time with us as possible and to spend that time well. For most of my life, my father has been a lawyer in private practice, but despite the demands of his profession, he chose to be home as often as he could, prioritizing family life over the worldly accolades that he could have attained from reaching the pinnacle of his profession. He would rather have been with us — and he so often was.
Though he always worked hard, he thought it was equally important to make time for his family. He was there for nearly every one of my brother’s Little League games, and he sat through every one of my ballet recitals (although I’m told he sometimes fell asleep during the parts I wasn’t in). When he spent a few years traveling to and from Providence, Rhode Island, for business, we often went with him, staying a week at a time in a hotel as my mom homeschooled us, so we could be together as a family. He made sure that he — that we — would always prioritize the things that mattered most.
The older I get, the more I realize that my father chose to be a lawyer not out of ambition, but for us, so that we would be able to have the type of life he thought would be best for us, so we wouldn’t have to worry about having a good home, or clothes, or food. He viewed his career not as a means of personal satisfaction or glorification but as a means of providing for my brother and me the sort of education that would increase our knowledge and our ability to pursue our goals — and an education that would help us understand and internalize our Catholic faith. Though he loved history and writing, and likely would have been happy and fulfilled working as a professor, he placed his desire for our best interests above his own.
In large part because of those choices my father made, my mother was able to stay home with my brother and me, even homeschooling us for several years, which was an immense blessing that enabled me to grow in my faith from a very young age. Later, I attended a Catholic school that instilled in me a deeper understanding of what it means to be Catholic — an understanding that explains how, as an adult, I freely choose to retain and practice the faith into which I was born. That understanding informs my personal life and my work today and leads me to view my career not as a pursuit of ambition but as an answer to a call.
It was also in large part because of my father’s hard work — and, more important, because of his constant belief that I could accomplish whatever I was called to do — that I was accepted to Notre Dame. My time there was one of the greatest blessings of my life. The friendships I developed with both my peers and my professors, as well as the occasions to deepen my Catholic faith, were transformative. Without those years and relationships at Notre Dame, I don’t think I would have found such quick success pursuing my vocation in journalism.
It is because of my father, too, that I have committed the early part of my career to pro-life reporting and commentary.
When I was born, in the mid 1990s, my father was working on Capitol Hill for Senator Mike DeWine from Ohio. DeWine was one of the most pro-life members of the U.S. Senate, and my father worked for him on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He was handling much of the senator’s work on abortion policy, especially the controversial Republican effort to pass a ban on partial-birth abortion, that heinous, medically unnecessary, late-term abortion procedure.
This past year, as I was writing a speech to deliver on a college campus, I decided to go back and watch some of DeWine’s speeches from the debate in the 1990s over the partial-birth abortion ban. I wanted to understand it better for my reporting on abortion policy, and I wanted to learn more about the man for whom my father had worked. As I sat at my desk watching a video of DeWine defending the ban on the Senate floor in November 1995, the camera panned to the side for a moment, and I caught a glimpse of the face of the man seated beside the senator. It was my father.
I watched the rest of DeWine’s remarks with tears in my eyes. I had known for some time, of course, about my father’s work in Congress and his involvement in the pro-life cause. Both of my parents had raised me to care deeply for the unborn, and they taught me from an early age how much this issue matters and gave me the tools to come to my own passionate stance against abortion.
But in that moment, unexpectedly seeing my father on film, I realized that he had taken his belief in the sacredness of life, his belief in the value and dignity of the unborn, and had done something about it. He had dedicated part of his life to helping write the words that a politician would speak on the floor of the U.S. Senate in opposition to state-licensed killing of the most innocent among us. He had contributed to what eventually would be a successful effort to prohibit a procedure that takes the life of a partially delivered infant in an unspeakably brutal way.
I realized, as I watched DeWine, how deeply my father’s choices have shaped my own beliefs, the way I see the world, and the causes to which I have committed my life. And I felt in that moment, for the first time and in a transformative way, that I had been born with the seeds of the pro-life movement in my heart. I have that heart, in large part, because of my father.
When I was in middle school, I was riding with my dad to Mass one Sunday morning. I don’t remember how the subject came up, but he told me a story about a time he had gone to a Protestant church service with a friend. The service was perfectly fine, he told me, and he knew they all sincerely believed in the same God he did. But he said, too, that after that experience, he knew he could never think about leaving our Church. He had looked around the room where they had worshipped, and, in the end, saw only what was missing: There was no tabernacle. Though their church was full of faith, it was empty of that which matters above all.
Today, as our Church faces a uniquely challenging moment in its long history of challenges, and even as my heart is torn by the knowledge of abuse and corruption rooted so deep within it, I remember that story. I center my Catholic faith not in the men who direct His Body, but in Christ’s Body given for us — in the ultimate value and transcendent reality of the Eucharist.
My belief in that truth above all sustains me. I retain my faith in it in no small part because of the witness of my father, who taught me by his example to believe in the only thing that really matters.
I am not and never have been a Catholic because of the flawed leaders of the Church or the sinful men and women who sit in its pews. Though his influence on my life is undeniable, my father is not, in the end, the reason I’m Catholic. Like my father—whose steady presence and witness taught me to believe in the faithfulness of God—I am Catholic because I have the gift of faith that we belong to Christ’s Church, that the Good Shepherd leads it still, and that He will lead us home, if we let Him.
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared as Chapter Four in Because of Our Fathers, published earlier this year by Ignatius Press. It has been modified slightly for style.
Alexandra DeSanctis is a staff writer for National Review and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.