This week we recognize the irreplaceable role of fatherhood, a vocation to which all men are called. Pope Francis reminds us: “It is a term dearer than any other to us Christians because it is the name by which Jesus taught us to call God: father.”
By: Rev. Paul Scalia
Call no one on earth your father… (Mt 23:9). More than one priest has squirmed when hearing these words of our Lord or, worse, as he himself read them at Mass. It almost sounds as though Jesus is targeting the Catholic custom of addressing a priest as “father.” Of course, He is doing no such thing. Our Lord is using hyperbole, something He did all the time. He does not mean to forbid absolutely the title “father.” After all, He allowed Joseph to be known by that term (cf. Lk 2:48) and His Apostle applies it to himself (cf. 1 Cor 4:15). No, what our Lord intends here is that we look beyond “fathers” here to the source of all fatherhood (cf. Eph 3:14-15): you have but one Father in heaven (Mt 23:9).
This means that to understand the priest as a spiritual father, we need to step back and correct our understanding of fatherhood. We typically think of fatherhood as a biological, physical reality and spiritual fatherhood as a metaphor. Thus we have fathers in this world and God is like them…a sort of a spiritual version. In fact, the reverse is true: fatherhood is, first of all, spiritual. Before He created anything physical – or anything at all – God is already the Father generating the Son. To think of the priest as a spiritual father is not to apply some alien concept to him. It is, rather, to see the priest as an icon of the eternal Father or, rather, to see God the Father continuing His fatherhood through the priest. As the Father generates the Son eternally, so the priest generates new spiritual life in this world, bringing about new children of God.
So spiritual fatherhood is the proper way to understand the priesthood. It is the lens through which we understand his many duties. On any given day, a priest (especially that purest form, the parish priest) assumes many roles: administrator, teacher, referee, human resources director, judge, policeman, janitor, engineer, accountant, economist, cook, coach, etc. But he is to perform each one not as a mere functionary of this or that, but as a father.
The Church summarizes the priest’s roles in the threefold office of prophet, priest, and king. He is to teach, to sanctify, to rule. But each role rests on and expresses the priest’s basic identity as father. He is father by word, by sacrament, and by rule.
By word. “By your word give me life,” the Psalmist prays (Ps 119:25). We know from our own experience that a good teacher inspires and in that sense he gives life. Pope Saint John Paul II once observed, “The educator is a person who ‘begets’ in a spiritual sense.” But when what is taught is divine truth and when the teacher has been given the authority to teach, the communication of the word has even greater power. Saint James tells us that the Father “brought us forth by the word of truth” (Jas 1:18). Literally, He generated us by the word. The word itself is life-giving.
So the first duty of a spiritual father is to proclaim God’s word by preaching and teaching. Natural fatherhood teaches us this already. A father’s duty is to hand on to his children their patrimony – the wisdom, traditions and knowledge of what came before them. Without this, they are in a sense orphans, cut off from their ancestors. Even more so, a priest shows himself a father by communicating the saving doctrine of Christ to the children of God. By so doing, he gives them their re-birthright and unites them with all in the household of God. It is not the mere human wisdom of forefathers by which he brings about life, but the saving doctrine of God the Father.
By sacrament. The priest generates new life in souls most of all by the Sacraments. In his performance of those sacred duties he becomes God’s instrument for communicating sanctifying grace. His words and actions are the means by which God Himself gives us new birth in Baptism, absolves our sins in Penance, and nourishes us in the Eucharist. At those moments he is no mere functionary or prayer-leader. It is God Himself working through Him to communicate the Father’s love and bring about the life of Christ in each soul. He is father because he generates this life.
By rule. The more common term used for the duty of ruling is now shepherding. Either way, it expresses the duty of a priest to exercise headship over the souls in his care. The father of a family must exercise headship to bring about unity and tranquility in a house. Even more so, the priest, presiding over a portion of the household of God, exercises his fatherhood as often as he governs and shepherds his people rightly. This means that a priest must at times discipline, exhort, encourage…so that the Father’s life in them can grow to full flourishing.
All of this should prompt us to pray for priests – that they live authentically their spiritual fatherhood. It is difficult to be a father. There is always the temptation to become something other, something easier, something that does not require quite as much investment of self – an administrator…an instructor…a coach… a businessman…an accountant…etc. So, this Sunday wish your priests a happy Father’s Day, for they are genuinely fathers. And pray that we live properly the spiritual fatherhood entrusted to us.
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