As Spiritual Fathers, Priests Encourage Their Flocks to Grow in Holiness

As Father’s Day is an appropriate time to reflect on the men who have nurtured us, the clergy who guide us spiritually should be considered.

Clockwise from top left: Father James Livingston blesses a parishioner on the feast of St. Blaise. Father Christopher Ford offers his June 2, 2019, thanksgiving
Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Naugatuck, Connecticut. Father Andrew Hofer teaches contemplative nuns from different cloistered monasteries as part of the Monastic Theological Studies program at the Dominican Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in Summit, N.J. And Father Dennis Billy smiles with his students when he was teaching at St. Charles Seminary in 2016.
Clockwise from top left: Father James Livingston blesses a parishioner on the feast of St. Blaise. Father Christopher Ford offers his June 2, 2019, thanksgiving Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Naugatuck, Connecticut. Father Andrew Hofer teaches contemplative nuns from different cloistered monasteries as part of the Monastic Theological Studies program at the Dominican Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in Summit, N.J. And Father Dennis Billy smiles with his students when he was teaching at St. Charles Seminary in 2016. (photo: Courtesy of subjects , Amy Mortensen and St. Paul Church)

Just as fatherhood is theoretical until there is a child, spiritual fatherhood becomes real during ministry, according to Father Christopher Ford, who credits parishioners at his first parish assignment with making him a spiritual father during the past two years. 

As he prepares to leave his parochial vicar position at St. Gregory the Great in Danbury, Connecticut, this month to serve in campus ministry (while also serving part time as the Diocese of Bridgeport’s vocation team coordinator), Father Ford reflected on how the congregation has drawn spiritual fatherhood qualities out of him as a new priest.

“I think we go to each place or work with each person that’s entrusted to us and if at the end of the day they’re able to receive even the tiniest piece of their heart back,” he said, “then whatever we went through to get there is infinitely worth it.”

As Father’s Day is an appropriate time to reflect on the men who have nurtured us, the priests who guide us spiritually can be overlooked. Spiritual fathers and fathers of children say they have much in common and see as a model St. Joseph, Our Lord’s earthly father. The current crisis of fatherhood is making formation of spiritual fathers more critical.

A priest lives his spiritual fatherhood in three functions or offices outlined in Presbyterorum Ordinis, the Second Vatican Council’s “Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests”: as minister of God’s word; as minister of the sacraments and the Eucharist; and shepherd of his people. “A spiritual father in his prayer, words, love and sacrifice lets people know of their dignity as children of God, who loves them, and that they may be free to live for God our Father,” said Dominican Father Andrew Hofer, professor of patristics and ancient languages at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington. Father Hofer was ordained to the priesthood in 2002.

Spiritual fathers are an icon of God the Father, spiritually nourishing the parish family and helping to bring out their charisms and gifts, said Father James Livingston, pastor of St. Paul Church in Ham Lake, Minnesota, who became a priest in 1990. They provide an ordered household where freedom can flourish, he said. 

Spiritual fathers need to recognize that Christ yearns to be born in people’s hearts and to allow that to happen, said Redemptorist Father Dennis Billy, professor of moral theology and spirituality at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore. 

A priest can’t do this by himself, said Father Billy, who was ordained a priest in 1980. 

“He needs strong support from his fellow priests, but he also has to be a deep man of prayer,” he said. “He has to be someone who himself looks to God as father, looks to Jesus as brother but also as father [and] … has a deep sense that he has been called by God to do this special work for his mystical body.”

Spiritual fatherhood looks different depending on where and how a priest serves, said Father Billy, who is mostly involved in the teaching office of priesthood. “No two priests embody those offices in exactly the same way.”

Father Hofer said he also seeks to exercise spiritual fatherhood through teaching, trying to help people to experience Christ’s life through the Holy Spirit. Being a religious priest means being obedient to his order’s founder, St. Dominic, and receiving grace for his work through living the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. 

St. Joseph is a model for all fathers, Pope Francis wrote in Patris Corde, his apostolic letter for the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of St. Joseph as “Patron of the Universal Church.” 

“Each of us can discover in Joseph — the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence — an intercessor, a support and a guide in times of trouble. St. Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation. A word of recognition and of gratitude is due to them all,” Francis wrote.

St. Joseph’s silent love forms priests to be able to tell the Good News, Father Hofer said. 

For priests, St. Joseph is also a model of prudence, chastity, charity, poverty and practical action, Father Livingston said.

The saint was also a mysterious presence, Father Billy said. Spiritual fathers also have a sort of shadow role, not seeking to be the center of attention or to be too possessive of parishes and spiritual directees, he said

“Priests as spiritual fathers shouldn’t be so much concerned about the people’s need for them,” he added. “They should be more concerned for the people’s need to grow in holiness and journey to the Father.” 

Spiritual fathers plant seeds for holiness for Catholics entrusted to them, which they may not see reach fruition, Father Ford said, noting that St. Joseph also seemed to fade from the Gospel.

St. Joseph is a model for all fathers because he did the right thing in difficult circumstances, without regarding the cost to himself, said Sam Alzheimer, who has four children and is founder of the Tallahassee, Florida-based Vianney Vocations, which provides vocations resources to dioceses.

Fathers of children and spiritual fathers need to be quick to encourage, to foster independence, and to both love and correct, he said. 

A father of children is also a spiritual father, Alzheimer said. 

“He doesn’t bring the sacraments, but if you talk about launching a child along a faithful path in life, then natural fathers are every bit as important,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to contrast [the types of fatherhood] so much, but I think dads need to see themselves as spiritual fathers.”

Father Ford learned from his father to recognize each person’s unique path to holiness, and seeing his friends with their kids has taught him about giving correction.

The best witness to authentic spiritual fatherhood is a witness to sonship and relationship with God the Father, as well as recognition of what he can do and has done, he said. According to Father Hofer, “A man really can’t be a good father if he isn’t a good son. Although I fail as both a son and father, God is merciful in my life.”

Sometimes, Father Livingston said, men who have had negative experiences of fatherhood have transferred some of their feelings on to him. 

The clergy sex-abuse crisis has also damaged the credibility of spiritual fathers. 

“I think you end up earning people’s trust, no matter what, and some of the trust comes on the backs of generations of priests before us,” he said. 

Seminarians and young men and boys in Father Livingston’s congregation see him as a father figure, he said, just as the pastor he knew in his 20s was like both a father and an uncle to him. 

As a professor living on the St. Mary’s Seminary campus, Father Billy said he strives to model spiritual fatherhood to seminarians, while also teaching them to be mentors and spiritual directors. 

Some spiritual fathers must be like natural fathers both with seminarians and in parishes because some of the men have not had positive father experiences, Alzheimer said. “A lot of guys need that boot camp in spiritual fatherhood before they go to seminary.”

Janette Howe and her husband gave their son, Spencer, a solid foundation for becoming a spiritual father that he continues to build on. “We see that it’s building blocks that continue,” she said. Father Howe was ordained in 2013 and pastors a Minneapolis parish. 

Catholics can support their priests by drawing their fatherhood role out in them and holding them accountable if they don’t live up to it, Father Ford said. 

As many as 14,700 women in 24 countries spend one hour per week praying for their priests and bishops before the Blessed Sacrament as part of the St. Paul, Minnesota-based Seven Sisters Apostolate that Howe founded in 2011; they pray for their clergy’s well-being and sanctity, and part of that is his spiritual fatherhood, she said. Catholics can say “thank you” for their spiritual fathers’ generosity through prayer or a personal comment, she said. 

Gratitude can be offered for simple things like “‘that is a word in due season’ or [a word] ‘that is straight from God’s heart’ through your heart into mine,” Howe said, “or to just express gratitude in a more concrete affirmation.”