Spiritual fatherhood, in a priest’s own words

Therese Aaker

This Father’s Day, we remember not only our earthly fathers, but also the priests who are our “spiritual fathers” as well. These men so generously give of their entire lives to devote themselves to raising up a spiritual family in the Church and reflect in a unique way the Father’s love for us in their sacrificial care. Remember to say thank you to your priest this Father’s Day!

From the Archbishop…

For Archbishop Aquila, a spiritual father means possessing “manly virtues, care and compassion for people and leading people to encounter Christ.” For him, he exercises his own spiritual fatherhood by “celebrating Mass and visiting people after Mass — with young people, meeting with college students who are discerning vocations and helping them in the discernment process and working with my brother priests.” To develop a greater identity as a spiritual father, he advised, “See Jesus as the example, his love for the Father. Deepen your personal relationship with the Father and truly come to know yourself as a beloved son in the Son.”

 

“Jesus said that ‘Whoever sees Me, sees the Father’ (Jn 12:45). Because a priest is an alter Christus, people call him ‘Father.’ Fathers protect, they provide and they establish. In my ministry as a priest of Christ, I establish the divine life in a soul through holy Baptism. I protect them spiritually in the Sacrament of Penance. And I provide the heavenly Food through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Another huge part of fatherhood is being present. In these few days and weeks of being a priest, I have found that being present in the manifestation of fatherly and priestly love for souls. The fatherly presence of a priest helps the baptized soul experience what Jesus experienced in His baptism when the voice of the Father came from heaven and declared, ‘You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.’ And it’s this work of presence, together with protecting, providing, and establishing, that gives joy and meaning to my vocation.”
— Father Nicholas Larkin, Parochial Vicar of Our Lady of Loreto Parish

 

“On the day of a man’s priestly ordination, the man becomes configured to Christ the high priest in a radical way, and ‘with the help of God,’ he consents to the questions the bishop asks of him. As a physical father of a household protects his children from harm, provides for them in their needs, and establishes an environment of love and care, so too does a so-called ‘spiritual father,’ yet in a radically different way. As the rite of ordination affirms, the priest is to ‘strive to bring the faithful together into one family, so that [he] may lead them to God the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit.’ In a similar but different way as the physical father, the spiritual father is to pray and offer sacrifices for his children — his sheep — in imitation of Jesus the Good Shepherd. He is to learn what it means to protect his sheep, provide for them, and establish their identity as children of our true Father in Heaven. After having been ordained for one year, I am still learning what it means to be a father. I am grateful to God and to the Church for having called and affirmed my vocation to Holy Orders. Even though it still sometimes throws me off when people twice my age call me ‘Father,’ I strive to remain in imitation of Jesus, who always directs us to His Father in Heaven. Happy Father’s Day!”
— Father Matt Magee, Parochial Vicar of St. Michael Parish (Craig)

 

“An image of my father that will remain with me forever was of him kneeling next to his bed at night, praying before he went to sleep. He often came home exhausted, but he always made time for prayer. It was clear by the way he lived that the Lord was the center of his life. So when I think of a spiritual father, I think of my dad as a model. To be a spiritual father is to be in touch with the Lord, and just as my dad lifted up all the concerns he had about his family (seven children), so must a priest. He carries in his heart the joys, sorrows, successes and failures of the people whom he loves and for whom he has given his life. My father was very aware of his foibles and leaned on my mother to help him. In a like manner, a spiritual father is cognizant of his ‘weaknesses’ and he leans on the Blessed Mother to help him as he guides his family. My father taught us we couldn’t have everything we wanted because it didn’t always bring happiness. In a similar manner, a spiritual father teaches his people to discern the will of God and see how that is a better path to happiness than what our world often presents as the source of happiness. Being a spiritual father means being willing to undergo conversion and to trust and with Peter to say, ‘Yes, Lord I do love you.’ It means becoming an instrument of the Lord and often begins by going to our knees and lifting up the people whom we love to the one who is Father of us all.”
— Monsignor Bernie Schmitz, Pastor of St. Joseph Parish (Denver)

 

“Being assigned to live and work at SJV seminary, I have many moments of rewarding spiritual fatherhood. It is a privilege to be invited to walk with young men on their journey towards priesthood – seeing them grow in their love for Jesus and desire to serve His Church. Most recently, being present at the ordinations on May 13 and praying for them as they received holy orders! I am so proud of them, and happy for the Church of Denver.”
— Father Jim Thermos, Director of Spirituality Year at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary

 

“To be a spiritual father is to generate life in imitation of our Father in Heaven. None of us are the makers of these lives; yet we have been entrusted these children by our Lord. As spiritual fathers, we are called to foster, correct, train, and encourage our children until they bear fruit that will abide. Any father, natural or spiritual, rejoices in seeing their sons and daughters grow to their full stature in Christ Jesus. May we always receive from our fathers in Christ strength, wisdom, and compassion.”
— Father Nathan Goebel, Pastor at St. Joan of Arc Parish (Arvada)

Why are priests called “father”?

We see early references to the title in the New Testament. St. Paul refers to himself as “father” of the Corinthians, and St. John the Apostle writes to his “children” in 1 John 2 and refers to his fellow priests as “fathers,” following the tradition of referring to Jewish elders as “father” (Acts 7:2, 22:1).

Until around the year 400, a bishop was called “father” (“papa”); this title was then used solely for the Bishop of Rome, and in English was called “pope.” Later, St. Benedict, in an early version of his rule, gave the title to spiritual confessors, since they were the guardians of souls. As monastic orders developed, it also became customary to call the leader “abbot” or “abbess,” which is a variation of the Hebrew word for father, “abba,” but in the more familiar sense of the word, like “daddy.”

In the Middle Ages, the term “father” was used to address friars because through their teaching and charity they cared for the needs of God’s children, according Fr. William Saunders in an article for The Arlington Catholic Herald.

COMING UP: On being a father to the fathers

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Nine years ago I made an appointment with Archbishop Charles Chaput to talk to him about a parish concern. Archbishop listened very patiently to me, and then he told me that he was going to ask me to become the Vicar for Clergy for the archdiocese. It came as a total surprise to me and I was unable to respond.

Over the last nine years I have learned a lot about what it means to serve as Vicar for Clergy. When people ask me what I do, and I tell them that I am the Vicar for Clergy, the expression on their faces is usually one of bewilderment. Often times I tell them that I’m like the Human Resource person for the priests and deacons, and that seems to satisfy their curiosity.

Certainly, in a certain sense that does explain the job of attending to the health, education, placement and general employment concerns for priests and deacons. However, I have discovered that the “job” is much more than applying policy to particular situations or advising priests about their health insurance or what they should do to prepare for retirement, all of which are important.

This ministry is really about trying to be a “father to the fathers.” Even as I write those words they seem strange to me: how can one possibly be a father to the priests of an entire archdiocese? It also seems presumptuous on my part to think that I could be formed, educated, mature, and sufficiently wise to be a “father to the fathers.”

It’s about accompanying them in their journey. The challenge of being a priest in today’s world is a great one indeed. A priest in a parish faces many challenges that touch on almost all aspects of human life.

On a daily basis the priest can find himself as the “first responder” to a family in grief over the loss of a loved one. He can find himself placed in the role of ethicist as he tries to advise a family that is trying to decide about life support for a dying family member. He can be a catechist as he teaches a group of young people about maintaining a life of purity. He is often the “confessor” as he listens to the broken-hearted and those who carry heavy burdens from their past. And he is the administrator, managing parish budgets and fixing leaky roofs.

Not too long ago I had the joy of celebrating a confirmation in a local parish. It was beautiful celebration, but as I was leaving I noticed the pastor with a mop and bucket in hand as he was going to clean up a mess. He just looked at me smiled and said, “Such is the life of a pastor!”

How does one be a father to these fathers? They too carry within their hearts hurts and disappointments, and they carry within their hearts great joy for things accomplished, or times when they witnessed the joy of conversion happen in the life of a parishioner. To be a father to them is to support them and to walk with them. It’s not to have all the answers, but rather to help point them in the direction that will help them in their journey.

The call to be a father is exactly that, a call. One does not take this on his own initiative, for if done in that spirit it will lead to pride and a hunger for position rather than seeking to be an instrument in the hand of the Lord.

Being a “Father to the Fathers” is not just a job, but a ministry, and the path the Lord has provided for his own reasons to help further his plan. That same truth is true in the life of each priest whether he is pastor, parochial vicar, working at the seminary or in the chancery or engaged in advanced studies or ministering in the military.

Our mission is not about us, but about the Eternal Father whose love we seek to reveal. Please keep priests in your prayers that every day our hearts may be renewed by the Heart of Christ.