“I told them I was pulling the fourth.”
A wise father once shared with me that the fourth commandment—honor thy father and mother—is a trump card he holds up his sleeve. He pulls it out when his children need to hear it. A stubborn teenager or a young adult know that Dad means business when the precept sounds. Sometimes the pater familias has to lay down the law for the good of the family.
Today, the Order of Preachers pulls the fourth on us friars. The Constitutions state:
Mass of the Dead shall be celebrated in each convent on 7 February for the anniversary of fathers and mothers (LCO 70.II).
St. Thomas teaches us that we can never repay our parents for everything they’ve done for us. They’ve given us life, nourishment, and instruction. In many ways, we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them. Existence, health, and (for many of us) the faith … our parents generously bestow all of these to us.
Honoring our father and mother is an act of justice, but it is also an act of charity. More than just repaying a debt, fulfilling this commandment fosters gratitude for something we could never earn. The love that our parents have given us comes first, and we are called to respond. The parallel to the love of God is evident, and this is why the fourth commandment straddles between the commandments concerning love of neighbor and love of God.
For those who have suffered the loss of a parent, a temptation can sink in that the time for the fourth no longer applies. Yet, this couldn’t be further from the truth, and there’s a more profound reason than mere obligation.
Saint Augustine says that we are bound to love all, but cannot do good to all. Our limitations require us to perform acts of mercy in a selective way, and this begins with mom and dad. The filial bond we share with our parents orders our love, and death does not change that bond. Our love, thanks be to Jesus Christ, can pierce through the dark cloud of death.
There is no better example of this than the mother of St. Augustine, St. Monica. On her death-bed, she too pulled the forth on her son:
Bury my body wherever you will, do not be concerned about that. One thing only I ask you [Augustine], that you remember me at the altar of the Lord (Confessions, 9.11.27).
Image: Gioacchino Assereto, Saint Augustine and Saint Monica