Why do we call priests “father”?

Bishop Jorge Rodriguez

This month we celebrate Father’s Day, and just as we prepared to express our love and gratitude to our mother in May, this month we have the opportunity to acknowledge our duty of gratitude toward the man we call “father.”

We call God “Father,” we refer to the pope as “Holy Father,” and we also call our priests “father.” Not to mention the “founding fathers” or even the San Diego “Padres.” Yet Jesus told us not to call anyone “father” on earth! Does Christ forbid us from calling our biological father “father”?

Obviously not, and the Early Christian community knew that well from the beginning, so they kept calling their fathers “father” and later also applied this title to priests. Some Protestant brothers and sisters argue that the Catholic Church is against the Bible’s teachings. I will not address that question directly, as it is a matter dealing with interpretation. What I can say is the Bible itself and tradition prove we’re right.

The priest never gets married or has children. No one celebrates him on Father’s Day, and he will never hear a child call him “dad.” Nonetheless, when he enters the parish, people call him “father.”

We must recognize that on the realm of faith, a relationship between the priest and the faithful is established that allows for the reality of fatherhood to be applied to the priest. The father figure is related to the origin of life, its defense, its protection and the vigilant presence that instills in us confidence. God is our Father and all life comes from him; his providence looks after us and his presence makes us feel safe. Thus, Jesus taught us to call him “Father.” God is Father not only because he is the origin of our earthly life, but also because he is the one who gives us eternal and divine life. Every single one of our cells is deeply connected to, and depends on, him.

But God wanted to affiliate his fatherhood with those who share in his Son’s priesthood; for the life of grace, the Communion that upholds us in life and the prayer that defends us from evil are all given to us through their ministry. The priest, as father, teaches us the faith, forgives us when we fail and blesses us like a father and like God, our Father. We receive from the priest the apostolic faith, the sacraments, supernatural life. He is not the source, but the channel.

Furthermore, the priest finds in the faithful those sons and daughters that Christ promised to those who left everything for him. The priest leaves the possibility of starting a family behind, and God gives him an even larger one: you, the faithful, who call him “father,” even if you are not related by blood.

It is true that when the priest returns home after a day of work, he does not find someone who runs to meet him and calls him “dad,” or asks him to read a book or to help with homework. But when the priest arrives at the parish the next day, the first thing he will hear will be someone calling him “father.”

One of the first words Jesus learned to say was probably “father.” Joseph, his father, inspired him. Jesus prayed much, and we know he always started by calling God “Father.” And he died saying it: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46).

“Father” is one of kindest words in our vocabulary. We use it to refer to God wholeheartedly. We use it with our father wholeheartedly. If you use it for a priest, do so from the faith: God is our Father, but this man represents him in my life and gives me supernatural life, feeds me with the Eucharist and helps me experience God’s care.

COMING UP: Machebeuf basketball star traded success playing hoops for a solitary life of prayer

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Shelly Pennefather led the Bishop Machebeuf High School girls’ basketball team to victory in every game she played in. It was not surprising to her friends and classmates that she would go on to play college ball for Villanova and then play professionally in Japan. It was not even surprising that she would have a religious vocation.

What was surprising was the order she chose. In 1991, Shelly Pennefather drove to Alexandria, Va., where she entered the Monastery of the Poor Clares. She would become a cloistered nun, living a radical life that included going barefoot out of penance and poverty and praying all of the hours of the Divine Office, even at 12:30 a.m.

This also meant she would not see her family except for twice a year from behind a transparent screen. She would not hug them until 25 years after her profession.

“I was shocked that she chose a cloistered order,” said Annie Mcbournie, graduate of Machebeuf in 1984 and a friend of Pennefather’s. “I was not at all shocked that she chose a vocation.”

Her story was recently featured on ESPN, who recounted how Pennefather gave up being the highest-paid women’s basketball player in the world in 1991 to live a life in service to the Lord as a Poor Clare.

Pennefather took the name Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. This past June, Sister Rose Marie celebrated her 25th anniversary of her solemn profession: the long-awaited moment to greet her family from outside the screen, not to happen again for another 25 years.

Villanova teammates, friends, Machebeuf classmates, and family were all in attendance. She hugged her 78-year-old mom for what will probably be the last time.

Mcbournie was not able to make it but will visit Sister Rose Marie this fall. Since she’s kept up with her via letters, she is permitted to visit the monastery.

Pennefather attended Bishop Machebeuf High School in Denver from 1980 to 1983 before transferring for her senior year due to her dad’s military job. She left Machebeuf with a 70-0 record.

“Her entire high school career, she never lost a basketball game,” Mcbournie said.

Mcbournie was a cheerleader and friend of Sister Rose Marie in high school, but a deeper friendship began 10 years after graduation. Sister Rose Marie’s brother Dick called Mcbournie before World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 since Mcbournie was still in the area.

Sister Rose Marie had just joined the Poor Clares and Dick and McBournie met up and spoke about the mourning process the family was going through, McBournie said. Dick mentioned to her that they could write Sister Rose Marie as many letters as they wanted, and one day a year, on the Feast of the Epiphany, she could write back.

Shelly Pennefather, pictured here in this photo from the Archdiocese of Denver archives, always exuded a deep spiritual life, her former Bishop Machebeuf classmates said. (Photo by James Baca)

“From that year on, I have been writing her every year,” McBournie said. She gives Sister Rose Marie updates on life, pictures from their high school reunions, and prayer requests.

“I have witnessed her journey through these letters,” McBournie said.

When Sister Rose Marie’s dad passed away shortly after entering, she was not able to leave the monastery to go to the funeral. McBournie saw how difficult these sacrifices were for her, especially in the early years of her vocation. But the letters show Sister Rose Marie’s joy.

“The last 5 to 10 years, I could just see her say, ‘I’m so blessed to be able to do this’,” McBournie said. “She’s so joyful.”

A fellow Machebeuf classmate asked McBournie for Sister Rose Marie’s address in order to have a little fun. He sent her a $20 bill with a note saying he thought she could use a smoke and a bottle of wine.

Sister Rose Marie did not miss a beat and in her yearly letter, she responded, “I bought incense, and I drank from the chalice,” McBournie recounted.

Shelly Pennefather (#15) had a 70-0 record playing basketball for Bishop Machebeuf in the 1980s, and went on to play for Villanova and then professionally in Japan. (Photo courtesy of Villanova Athletics)

But this letter sparked a friendship. This classmate has continued to write letters and even attended the 25-anniversary jubilee.

“Her letters are still hilarious, still very sarcastic,” McBournie said.

She remembers Sister Rose Marie being reserved and quiet in high school, focused more on school and basketball than anything else. Her father was in the military and the family was very disciplined, but they had a good sense of humor and quick wit, McBournie said.
“Her spirituality permeated her existence from the time she was young,” McBournie said.

David Dominguez was a few years ahead of Sister Rose Marie at Machebeuf but remembers her discipline and her talent. He called himself her cheerleader.’

“If it was really tight, we would start yelling, ‘Shelly, Shelly!’” Dominguez said. “It was one of my favorite cheers.”

Dominguez exercised at the Air Force base gym where Sister Rose Marie would train and play basketball with her dad and brother.

“I knew she had incredible skills,” Dominguez said. “It was kind of magical to watch.”

Sister Rose Marie recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of her profession of vows with the Poor Clares. She was able to hug her friends and family for the first time in 25 years. ESPN was there to cover the occasion. (Photo courtesy of Mary Beth Bonacci)

Dominguez also knew she was different.

“She was living for a different purpose than everyone else,” he said.

Sister Rose Marie’s devotion and personality remain the same, though she has traded in her jersey for a habit.
Although Sister Rose Marie can only write one letter a year, and can seldom have visitors, her friendship and influence reach far beyond the monastery walls.

Mcbournie said that their yearly letters have brought them even closer than they were in high school.

“I look forward to her letter every year,” Mcbournie said.