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: Repenting and renewing our role as shepherds

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Jesus tells the disciples in St. John’s Gospel, “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” contrasting his goodness with the thieves who come only to steal and destroy.  This past week my fellow U.S. bishops and I sought to act as good shepherds by approving three measures to increase our vigilance and prevention of the evil of sexual abuse by bishops, shepherds who have betrayed the flock entrusted to them.

This last weekend we celebrated Father’s Day, which should remind biological and spiritual fathers of their great responsibility of protecting and raising up new life. This mission is further emphasized by the Rite for the Ordination of a Bishop, which says, “In the Church entrusted to you, be a faithful steward, moderator and guardian of the mysteries of Christ. Since you are chosen by the Father to rule over his family, be mindful always of the Good Shepherd, who knows his sheep and is known by them, and who did not hesitate to lay down his life for them.” This is the model for all bishops.

But the scandals of Theodore McCarrick, Bishop Bransfield and others have made it clear that our vigilance has not been adequate. To quote from the just-issued “Affirming Our Episcopal Commitment” statement, “We, the bishops of the United States, have heard the anger expressed by so many within and outside of the Church over these failures.  The anger is justified; it has humbled us, prompting us into self-examination, repentance, and a desire to do better.” This sentiment was clear in my interactions with my fellow bishops in Baltimore this past week.

As evidence of our commitment, we overwhelmingly passed a set of directives for the bishops’ conference to implement Pope Francis’ Vos estis lux mundi document on handling abuse by priests and bishops. These directives include the creation by May 31, 2020 of a third-party phone and online system that receives reports of potential violations by bishops, the establishment of a protocol in which the Holy See designates and authorizes metropolitan archbishops to investigate cases of alleged abuse by bishops, and the expectation that the investigating bishop involve lay experts in assisting with these inquiries. For any investigations that falls under my jurisdiction, I will ensure that lay experts are involved, as I’ve done throughout my time as a bishop. As the new directives indicate, I will also appoint a lay person to receive complaints from the third-party reporting system, publicize how to make reports, ascertain the credibility of reports and gather any additional information necessary for an investigation to commence.

I also want to highlight that the bishops overwhelmingly approved protocols for imposing limitations on former bishops who were removed from office for grave reasons and that we adopted a code of conduct for bishops, which explicitly states that the Dallas Charter will now include bishops.

All these measures are in addition to those we have been enforcing since 2002 in relation to preventing sexual abuse of minors by priests. The Archdiocese of Denver has a strong track record of actively working to protect children, including annual audits, background checks of employees and clergy, and a code of conduct that previous bishops and I have all signed, and a robust training program aimed at fostering safe environments for children. The effectiveness of these measures over the past 20 years has made us a model for other institutions seeking to combat abuse.

Pope Francis rightly noted in a January 2019 personal letter to the U.S. bishops that the consequences of our failures cannot be fixed by being administrators of new programs or committees.  They can only be resolved by humility, listening, self-examination and conversion.

My brother bishops and I hope that by obeying the Word of God, seeking the will of the Father and embracing what the Church expects of us, we will imitate Christ, the Good Shepherd.

Read more

Pope Francis’ motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi can be read at: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/motu_proprio/documents/papa-francesco-motu-proprio-20190507_vos-estis-lux-mundi.html

The USCCB Directives implementing Vos estis can be read at: http://www.usccb.org/about/leadership/usccb-general-assembly/2019-june-meeting/upload/usccb-modified-amended-directives-2019-06.pdf

Reach out

Christi Sullivan serves as the Protection Specialist for the Office of Child and Youth Protection and can be reached at 303-715-3241 or Christi.Sullivan@archden.org.

Victims of abuse can reach out to Dr. Jim Langley, the Victim Assistance Coordinator, at 720-239-2832 or Victim.Assistance@ArchDen.org.