We Priests Are Fathers, Pointing Always to Heaven

COMMENTARY: Good fathers inspire their children and help them set goals and priorities. So too must a priest point always to heaven, inspire the faithful to its lofty heights and, by God’s grace, equip, empower and enable the faithful to get there by proper priorities, the life of virtue and due reference to the four last things.

Spiritual fatherhood
Spiritual fatherhood (photo: Unsplash)

Spiritual fatherhood begins in a paradoxical place: the summons by Jesus of his first priests to radical detachment from family, property, career and, yes, fatherhood. The paradox is especially manifest in what we call today “celibacy.” Consider a central text from Mark’s Gospel regarding this counsel:

“Simon Peter said, ‘We have given up everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come’” (Mark 10:28-30).

What every priest, every spiritual father, knows is that this passage is dripping with irony. For indeed, we have forsaken the gift of marriage, and therefore fatherhood — and yet, we have thousands who call us “father.”

St. Josemaría Escrivá was fond of describing himself as “the father of a large and poor family.” I remember once thinking that if I did not get married, I wouldn’t have the pressures of keeping a large income, maintaining a house and providing for my family. God must have had a good laugh. Priests are very involved in concerns related to parish income and providing for the family of faith. And, wow, do I have a big parish plant of aging buildings and lots of big-ticket items in need of repair all the time! And, yes, thousands call me “Father.” It is all just as the Lord promised — “a hundred times more” in this present age! Hence, if we live our vocation properly, we priests are fathers, not in the physical order, but spiritually.

What do spiritual fathers do?

Biological fathers, by God’s grace and intimate union with their spouses, bring forth children to life. Priests, as spiritual fathers, acting in persona Christi, bring forth children at baptism, from the chaste union of Christ and his bride, the Church.

Fathers are to be the spiritual leaders of the household (Ephesians 5 and 6). Priests also instruct, through preaching and teaching the faith, and stand at the head of parishes, dioceses and so forth.

Fathers feed their children. Priests, as spiritual fathers, feed the faithful with the Holy Eucharist and the Word of God.

Fathers are to strengthen and lead their children to maturity; so, too, should priests strengthen the faithful by the celebration of the sacraments at regular times and intervals.

Good fathers are integral to preparing their children for life, including marriage and family. Priests, by presenting the wisdom and truth of God, also prepare the faithful for life and, especially today, are called to give special emphasis on the biblical vision of marriage, sexuality and family.

Good fathers inspire their children and help them set goals and priorities. So too must a priest point always to heaven, inspire the faithful to its lofty heights and, by God’s grace, equip, empower and enable the faithful to get there by proper priorities, the life of virtue and due reference to the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell.

One of the greatest gifts a father can give his children is to love and cherish their mother. Priests, too, are called to love and cherish the Church.

Priests are not bachelors. We are very much married to the Church, our bride. Much like religious sisters are brides of Christ by their consecration, priests, being configured to Christ, the Head and Bridegroom of the Church, see her as their bride. And just like any bride, she is always right, and there’s a long honey-do list.

Even as a father should love his wife, care for her and confirm her authority over the children (Ephesians 5:22; Sirach 3:2), so, too, priests as spiritual fathers must love the Church, care for her and confirm her authority over the faithful. Few things are as unbecoming as a priest disrespecting and undermining Church teachings or the respect and love that is due her by the faithful.

In a related matter, every earthly father is called to give good example and to demonstrate that he is under God’s authority and will answer to him one day. Here too, every priest must give good example.

Though no father of any kind is perfect, a father, biological or spiritual, must carefully model the Christian life and humbly repent and confess his sins to the Lord in confession. Few things are as obnoxious and unedifying as a priest preaching or living contrary to God’s teaching and commandments. What kind of father is that? The tragic clergy scandals of recent times have caused inestimable harm and also show us the high calling of fatherhood and the deep wounds of not living it properly.

There is another point that is so obvious that we are likely to miss it: Good fathers most often begin by being good sons. Spiritual fathers must also have fathers. Perhaps mentors and other priests. But they are also sons of God, sons of the Church, sons of the Blessed Mother, sons of their own family of origin, and even sons of their parish families, especially when they are younger priests. The lay faithful are greatly helpful to priests in their formation. Some years ago, I was moved to realize and to say to God’s faithful: “For you, I am your pastor. With you, I am your brother. But from you, I am your son.”

Finally, as a good spiritual father, a priest is called to be present to the faithful. He ought to, like any good father, love his family and enjoy spending time with them. He should also learn to accept love from them and realize that he needs that love, support and encouragement every bit as much as they need it from him. While it is true that a priest cannot attend every function or be equally close to every parishioner, as a good father, may he never cause God’s people to doubt his love for them.

An elderly priest, back in my seminary days, said, “People won’t remember most of what you say. But they will remember if you loved them, or not, if you cared for them, or not.” Amen, good father; and may God the Heavenly Father strike deep in the hearts of all fathers, biological and spiritual, a powerful and joyful love for all their children and family.