In the late 1980s, two nuns at a small Catholic college for women asked me to celebrate Mass for the students in their weekend college program. They praised the seriousness of the students' work and their commitment to the program. However, the class schedule ruled out attendance at Mass during the normal times when it was offered. I agreed to celebrate a Mass for them on Saturday evenings.
Late in the spring semester the cycle of post-Easter Mass readings included selections from John 17, our Lord's “High Priestly Prayer,” as many scholars call it. These selections from the Gospel got me into trouble. Not that the content of my sermons was mentioned. Rather, the nuns who invited me to celebrate these Masses were very upset because when reading John 17, I said the word, “Father.” Whenever Jesus our Lord is quoted as saying “Father,” I read out “Father.” The two sisters told me I must stop saying “Father” when reading the Gospel, or I would not be invited to return. I responded, “I did not write the Gospel and I cannot change it.” They fired me. The next Jesuit priest refused to change the text, so they informed him that he, too, would be fired. Today, the women's college no longer exists.
This was the second time in my life as a priest that I ran into trouble for calling God “Father.” A campus minister was visibly upset when she told me that I must stop calling God “Father” as I prayed the canon of Mass. Her relationship with her own father was very negative and she could no longer attend my Mass if I continued to call God “Father.” I insisted that the Mass is not mine; it belongs to Jesus Christ and His whole Church. I do not have the authority to change the words of the Mass, as the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II explicitly states in its norms: “Therefore no other person, not even a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority” (22.3). Though I continued to celebrate Mass on campus, that nun no longer attended when I presided.
I regret the fact that some Catholic nuns found my approach to celebrating Mass so intolerable that either I had to go or they had to go. However, I would regret changing the words of Sacred Scripture and the Mass even more, if not in this life, certainly in the next. One reason to regret such changes is that ceasing to call God “Father” would cause far more division than would maintaining that name. At least that is what our Lord Jesus Christ says.
In John 17:11 our Lord prayed, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you gave me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” In other words, the name “Father” has the power to keep or protect Christ's disciples in such a way that they can be united among themselves similar to the way Jesus is united with God the Father. Christ our Lord develops this idea at the end of the prayer: “I made known to them your name, and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and I in them” (Jn 17:26). His purpose in revealing the name “Father” is to make it possible to receive the very same love which the Father has for the Son and to make it possible that the Son may be in them.
The reasons for calling God “Father” are overwhelming. Only quiet meditation on these words will allow their impact to turn us around and effect the kind of conversion of heart and mind that our Lord Jesus envisions. Removing the word “Father” as an offending term is a mistake which would depersonalize our relationship with God. This is made all the more clear when alternative terms like “parent” or “creator” are proposed by those who disapprove of “Father.” Instead of Christ's interpersonal term, the alternatives are functionary terms.
Instead of depersonalizing God as a functionary, we need to take up the prayer which Jesus taught us: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Christ taught us to hallow the name “Father.” This means we make it holy, treat it as holy, and love it as holy. More importantly, the name “Father” makes us holy. We need his holiness to sanctify us and unify us. Father, hallowed be thy name!
Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa is a professor at the Institute for Religious and Pastoral Studies at the University of Dallas.