Sunday, January 23, 2011

Why Priests are Fathers

St. John Bosco and his boys, to whom he was a true father. A mystic from childhood, Don Bosco ministered particularly to boys because of the insight he received regarding the spiritual dangers faced by boys.
One of the many objections to the Catholic Church that Protestants often raise is that we call priests "Father."  In support of this objection, they cite Matthew 23:9, in which Jesus says: "And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, Who is in heaven."

In the first place, I can't help noticing that this objection is often brought to me by the same people who accuse my Church of being a "Church of rules"; it's hard to imagine a pickier or more artificial rule than one designed to make me scrupulous about giving a term of respect and endearment to my parish priest.  In the second place, to cite Scripture in support of the objection is to misuse it.  Read in context, Matthew 23:9 is part of a denunciation of the hypocritical scribes and pharisees who love to lord it over everyone else, keep their subjects firmly under their thumbs by means of unreasonable demands, and bask in the glow of human respect.  Jesus is not forbidding His disciples literally to call anyone "Father"; rather, He is warning them not to follow in the footsteps of the Pharisees, whose path leads to hell.  In the third place, this question of calling priests "Father" involves supernatural realities of which both Protestants and Catholics have lost sight in our times.

Perhaps, for purposes of being struck by these realities, it helps to be at an age when one is older than most newly ordained priests.  For example, the baby-faced young priest who celebrated the Mass I attended this morning is probably 27 or 28, though, like most young people nowadays, he looks to me to be about twelve. Naturally speaking, it would be impossible for him to be my father, because I am so much older than he is.  But supernaturally speaking, he can be my father, and in fact is.  Just as my natural father must answer to God for my well-being, this young father is responsible before God for the care of my soul.  I could do no better at this point than to quote Frs. Rumble and Carty, the famous "radio priests" of the 1930s and '40s, on this very question:
In a purely spiritual sense a priest does all for the life of grace in a soul that ordinary parents do for the natural life of the children God gives them.  It is the priest who gives spiritual life to souls at the baptismal font.  He educates those brought forth to life in Christ by their baptismal rebirth; he teaches, warns, corrects and advises his spiritual children, and nourishes them with the bread of life in the Sacraments.  When souls go out of this world to meet God, it is the priest who is at their death-beds, soothing their last hours, allaying their fears, and consoling them as no others could do.  Having no family, the priest belongs to every family: and all in  his parish, men, women and children, love him and venerate him, and look up to him as their spiritual guide and friend, summing up everything in that term of supreme respect and reverence -- "Father."  Catholics rightly, therefore, call the priest "father," not to the exclusion of their Father in heaven, but as a manifestation on earth of the supreme Fatherhood of God in the spiritual order, even as an earthly parent is a similar manifestation of that same Fatherhood in the natural order.
Radio Replies, Volume III, section 304.

This is one of the paradoxes that is a hallmark of the supernatural: what is impossible in the natural order is possible in the supernatural order.  The jar that this paradox gives people operating in the purely natural realm should not be avoided: it is salutary, and the opportunity for a teaching moment.  A priest who looks to me like a high school kid is nevertheless my spiritual father; and I am his daughter in the supernatural order, even though I am much older than he is.  Therefore, despite the absurdity on a purely natural level, it is fitting and proper for me to call him "Father."  In fact, I submit that we ought to go further than that: not only should we call a priest "Father," but priests ought to get back into the habit of calling the faithful "sons" and "daughters," precisely to underscore, in this age of modernism and rationalism, this supernatural relationship with our shepherds.

Perhaps this will also do something toward restoring the lost esteem and dignity of priests in the eyes of their flocks, and hence their authority; and of helping priests themselves to live up to the same.


  1. I am glad you highlighted the aspect of a supernatural father. Very well written piece.

    One thing that irks me (and related to the subject of this post) is how many parishioners (at least in my area) treat the priest like "one of the guys". I see these backslappers who say "Hey, Father, what's going on?" etc.

    Now I am not calling for incessant seriousness - and there is a certain level of comfort that arises after one gets to know a priest - but I think attitudes have become too irreverent. This is a result, in my view, of ignorance the priests high calling and that, indeed, the man you see in front of you is REALLY a soul specially consecrated to Christ, who has offered his entire life as a sacrifice for God. Of course, female religious are included too.

    When I encounter a priest in real life my whole demeanor changes: respectful, I speak only when spoken to, and so on (really, not trying to be sanctimonious). When I see a priest I want to see a collar, I want that nun to wear a habit. A sign to the world. When I see these, then I know, it reminds me, telling me that my petty problems and responsibilities in/of the world are no where near as important as the responsibilities of a priest.

    And this is why, as you likely have noticed, I'm so hard on dissenting priests/nuns, especially those not outfitted as such. I am tough on them because I really do believe they are specially consecrated souls and that, if they fall, they are in much more trouble than I am as a lay person. My approach (very abrasive and outlandish to some bloggers/readers, I know) when dealing with wayward or dissenting religious is - literally - to scare the hell out of them... and, yes, I do worry for them and pray for them.

    Apologies for the tangent.

    Sidebar: I did not know there was a photograph of St. Bosco available.

  2. Thanx, TH2! At least the backslappers are calling the priest "Father"! I think a certain level of familiarity is okay, to a point. When my friends and I went out to the Extraordinary Form Mass, we always used to treat Father to dinner afterwards, and he loved to talk and kid around and laugh; and we had a lot of fun making him laugh. We did this, not only because we liked him personally, but also to thank him for his ministry, and to let him know that he was appreciated.

    Re photos of Don Bosco: there are actually a number of them out there.