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Why do we call priests “father”?

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.

Bishop Jorge Rodriguez
Bishop Jorge Rodriguez serves as auxiliary bishop of Denver.
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