Why do they do that? There’s no canon which prescribes the title. No book of manners which recommends it. People just do it. Say it, “Father, come anoint my mother.”
I suppose in these days I am particularly attuned to the name father, as I have been these past months with the one who first taught me its meaning. At one meeting with hospice workers last month my father introduced me as Father Moroney, my son. The slightly confused health care worker looked at me and said “you’re both his son and his father?”
And I have been his father when I’ve said Mass by his bed and his son when I recalled the days when he first taught me to make the sign of the cross. Son and Father. Father and Son.
Why do we call the priest father
Saint Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, establishes the priest’s paternity when he writes:“Through the Gospel, I became your father.” Through Christ, who has made him an adopted son, the Apostle Paul becomes the Father of the Gentiles and the father of all who will be formed by the Gospel he proclaims.
That is why St. Benedict, in an early version of his rule, prescribes the title “father” for all confessors, since they are the guardians of souls and uses the more intimate form (Abba or Abbot) for the spiritual fathers of his monasteries.
Similarly, the Greek pappa (a good translation of abba) was used for Bishops early on, although it becomes used almost exclusively for the Bishop of Rome from the time of Pope Leo the Great.
More deeply into the Middle ages, the mendicant friars, mainly Franciscans and Dominicans, came to be called Father; for like a Father they taught and took care of the spiritual and even physical needs of their children.
Prior to the Reformation, parish priests were generally called Sir in the English-speaking world, an equivalent of Senor, meaning senior or elder...not a bad rendering of presbyter. After the Reformation, most Catholic priests in the English-speaking world adopted the title Father. Since most of the priests in the New World were Franciscan, Dominican, and Jesuit missionaries, this title came to be extended even to secular Priests working in the parishes of the New World.
At the same time, the title Father was taking on currency among the post-Reformation Catholics of England, in yet another attempt to distinguish themselves from the clergy of the Church of England.
So that’s where it comes from, but what does it mean? What is the deeper meaning or theological significance of being called father?
Like everything we do and are, the fatherhood of the priest is but a poor reflection of the Fatherhood of God. Or, as the great Caryll Houselander once wrote:
“The father and mother within us is only the faint image of the Father and Mother in God. He is the Father and Mother whose heart never sleeps, whose hands never lift from their works that they have made. He is the One who has numbered the hairs on our heads.52 In His humanity we are clothed as in a warm woolen garment. In Him we live as in our home. He is our food and our drink, our shade in the heat, our comfort in sorrow, our healing when we are wounded, our light in darkness.”
So the fatherhood of the priest is but a poor reflection of the Fatherhood of God. God the Creator, God the Teacher, and God the Sanctifier.
The Priest as Father Creator
Ironically, it is the fecundity of the Priest which is one of his primary characteristics as Father. After all, the primordial meaning of fatherhood is to give life, to co-create with God.
The Rite of Ordination of a Bishop which many of you celebrated last week with Bishop Deeley reminds us in the homily that “with the charity of a father and brother, [the Bishop must] love all whom God places in [his] care, especially the priests and deacons, your co-workers in the ministry of Christ, but also the poor and the weak, immigrants and strangers.”
This is what Blessed Pope John Paul II was talking about when he insists that “the priest ... must exercise towards the men and women to whom he is sent a ministry of authentic spiritual fatherhood, which gains him "sons" and "daughters" in the Lord.”
In another Holy Thursday letter, the Holy Father continued: “The Priest, by renouncing this fatherhood proper to married men, seeks another fatherhood...recalling the words of the Apostle about the children whom he begets in suffering.
Such love, such charity to all whom God sends to him, breathes life into that which is dead, sheds light into the corners which have grown dark and defrosts with its warmth all that has grown frigid and cold.
How can a priest manifest the fecundity of God our Father, the Creator of all things seen and unseen?
It’s like Allen. Thirty five years old and living with his girlfriend of the last three years, he came in with her to have his baby Baptized. Every time I asked his girl friend a question she smiled from ear to ear and talked and talked. When I would turn and ask him, she would smile from ear to ear, put her hand on his knee, and talk and talk. For fifteen minutes she never shut up and he never opened his lips.
Finally, I turned to her and said, “would you mind if Allen and I went into the other room for a few minutes.” Her face froze with a mixture of fear and panic. But before her uncustomary silence ended, I led Allen out of the room and into the rectory parlor.
He stared at me with the eyes of the Anti-Christ. Fearsome, ferocious and unyielding. “Can I help you Allen,” I asked. He just kept staring. So I smiled and said, “Maybe I should go back in the other room so your wife could answer me.” That got a wisp of a smile and the first words of the night. “I don’t wanna be a Catholic any more...not after what they told my mother when all she wanted to do was to get married and do you know what that priest said to her....” He didn't pause for a breath until a half hour had passed. I think these two were made for each other.
But while her discourse was all smily faced sweetness and light, his was more real and what flowed out of his gut was the vilest bile of hurt and suspicion and hate you could imagine. And I sat there and shut up and listened. I nodded when he talked about how unfair it had been. I cried when tears flowed down his cheeks about the pain he had felt. And I grimaced when he told me the worst of it.
I didn’t judge, yea or nea on the truth of it, because for him it was all truer than any Iphone camera could ever record. And he needed to vomit up the awfulness of it all and how much the Church had hurt his mother and him and the whole damn world.
I listened in love, in charity. I shut up and listened and told him I was sorry for whatever stupid things others may have done and that all I wanted to do was lead him to the love of Christ.
And you know what? Thirty minutes later we re-entered the room where his girlfriend had bitten off all her fingernails and pulled her hair out. Her eyes bugged out in desperation as he smiled at her, hugged her, and said...”Why don’t we go back to Church.” That old SOB who said that to my mother is dead. Who was he to keep us from Church anyway?!
And what did I do to let God bring love from hate, light from dark, faith from hostility? All I did was love. And listen. Charity makes us fruitful fathers.
The story is told of a meetings of Father Luigi Giussani and Bishop Eugenio Corecco, two of the founders of Communio e Liberazione. Bishop Eugenio was close to death and began to pray that his suffering would, in some way, prove fruitful in his ministry as a Bishop.
“The essential thing for a bishop,” he said, for “a pastor, or an abbot [the essential thing for each of them] is charity. Charity is what is fruitful, what changes and converts the people...Charity is what regenerates love. The world does not forgive. Charity always begins loving again...There’s no greater miracle than discovering in yourself charity, a love that wasn’t there before.”
"What does love look like?” Saint Augustine once asked. “It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like."
I suppose it is ironic that in my lifetime it may be a nun who has taught me the most about fatherly love. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta once wrote: "We can cure physical diseases with medicine but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more who are dying for a little love. Let us not be satisfied with just giving money. Money is not enough, money can be got, but they need your hearts to love them. So spread love everywhere you go."
Such is the love of a father, who cradles his son in his arms and dries his tears and the priest who sacrifices his life that the sheep in his care might live and love in peace and joy.
The Priest is also a Father when he teaches.
Whether he was teaching me to walk, to say dad, to not spend all my allowance on candy, to drive a car, to forgive, to work hard, or to always do the right thing, the one who worked with God to make me, my Father, was among my first teacher.
He was the one who took to heart the command of Deuteronomy, to impress on his children, talk about and write on the door frames of your house the commandments of God.
In the same way, according to the Council Fathers, the “priests of the New Testament, in virtue of the sacrament of Orders, exercise the most outstanding and necessary office of father and teacher among and for the People of God...”
A couple years ago I buried John. I had first met him, and three of his friends, on a cold winter’s night out behind the Price Chopper Super Market in Spencer, where I was pastor. The boys were 15 and 16 years old and have been thrown away by parents too young, too poor, or too frightened to care for them anymore.
It was the beginning of one of the most exciting adventures with which I have ever been blessed. With doctors and lawyers, parole officers and judges, local businessmen and social workers, we formed the St. Timothy Guild. And for five years no teenager remained homeless, lacking a drug and alcohol program, job training, or someone to care for them. It was the church doing what she does best in a wonderful way.
The success of the endeavor only hit me almost two decades later, when John, now in his mid-thirties, died of his latest and last struggle with drugs. We buried him from the cathedral and I was amazed at the presence of at least a half dozen of the kids I had not seen for 15 years. You see I had always insisted that they go to church every Sunday, that they be in the youth lounge at least three nights a week, and each time I would see them I’ve asked whether they’d said their prayers.
So I was deeply touched that a half-dozen of them showed up to church at John’s funeral and that I saw every one of them at the cemetery by his graveside. When the prayers were concluded they all came over and each wanted to give a report of what it happened to their life in the last 15 years. Father Jim, I went to college for a whole year! Father Jim, I work at Price chopper and I became a butcher. Father Jim, I work at the court house!
And then Rob came up and was smiling from ear to ear. He introduced me to his new bride and told me they had left the two-year-old the three-year-old and the six-year-old home with his mother-in-law to babysit. And Father Jim, he practically giggled, that’s mine! As he said this he pointed to a large truck, actually s sewage treatment truck, which was his, along with the largest septic tank treatment business in the whole town of Spencer!
I congratulated Rob on his entrepreneurial success and to be honest could not have been prouder of what one of the kids who called me Father Jim had done with his life! But then he looked to me and reached inside his T-shirt and pulled out a cheap metal cross all rusty at the edges with most of the plating peeled away. I never took this off, Father Jim, in all these years, Rob looked at me with tears in his eyes. You gave it to us and told us to pray and God would take care of us and he did.
I have never felt more like a father then at that moment. Never more needed. Never more blessed.
They had no fathers or mothers or anyone else who would care for them. Imagine being a sixteen year old kid about to go to jail for six months and there’s nobody there to say goodbye. Imagine what it did for the kid’s image of himself. Imagine what it, as a wise man once wrote, for his image of God:
“when human fatherhood has dissolved, all statements about God the Father are empty.” The crisis of fatherhood, therefore, leaves the human person lost, confused about who God is, confused about who he is, confused about where he has come from and where he is going.”
I remember innumerable times standing in Dudley district court, where I came to know the probation officers as well as the members of my parish council, when before sentencing the judge would say: “I see that Father Jim is in court. What do you think the court should do to help young Mr. Flynn today, Father?’
It was as such moments when I grew to be a real father, a real priest, as Christ was there for those kids through even the weak and bumbling ministry of “Father Jim.”
Priest as Father and sanctifier
I have entitled this talk with the words I speak while on my knees before a priest as I am about to confess my sins: Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It is the prayer of the prodigal son who trusts in a father...the father who awaits his return at his every waking hour, staring down the road and dreaming of running out to meet his son, to take him in his arms and celebrate his return. It is the confident prayer of a son who trusts in his father’s blessing. "Bless me, father, for I have sinned."
For the priest, in the end, is the Father who blesses, like Noah and Esau and Abraham and Aaron. But this father’s blessing is something more, for the priest speaks the blessing not in his own paternal name, but in the name of his father in heaven. And the blessing takes effect not by virtue of his priestly action, but by the action of Christ the High Priest.
Nowhere have I ever heard it better explained than in the words of the English mystic Caryll Houselander when she writes about Father O’Grady:
"Father O’Grady was on the side of life, he had no other work, no other raison d'etre but to give life, and the life he gave could not be killed. He was not outside of the world's love because he was a priest and alone, he was the heart of the world's love, its core, because the Life of the World is born every day in His hands at Mass.
Father O'Grady made the Sign of the Cross. "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen," and bowed down under the burden of the sins of the whole world. His own sins were a heavy enough load, and now he bowed under the weight of all sin. But when he straightened himself up from the Confiteor, the burden of the whole world's sin, and his own with it, had fallen from his back, and his shoulders were strong. For it was Christ who rose up and went up to the altar-Christ who had seen evil naked, face to face, Christ who had been brought down to the ground, under the world's sin to sweat blood into the dust, and Christ who had overcome the world.
He lifted the unconsecrated Host, light as a petal on its thin golden paten, and with it lifted the simple bread of humanity, threshed and sifted by poverty and suffering. He offered the broken fragments of their love, made into one loaf.
He lifted the wine and water mixed in the Chalice, and with it offered the blood and the tears of his people to God.
And God accepted the offering, the fragments of love were gathered up into the wholeness of Love and nothing was wasted.
Slowly, exactly, Father O'Grady repeated the words of Consecration, his hands moved in Christ's hands, his voice spoke in Christ's voice, his words were Christ's words, his heart beat in Christ's heart.
Fr. O'Grady lifted up the consecrated Host in his short, chapped hands, the server rang a little bell, the sailor, the handful of old women and the very old man bowed down whispering "My Lord and my God" and the breath of their adoration was warm on their cold fingers.
Father O'Grady was lifting up God...
The little server rang his silver bell. The people bowed down low. Time stopped. Fr. O'Grady was lifting up God in his large, chapped hands. Christ remained on the Cross. The blood and sweat and tears of the world were on His face. he smiled, the smile of infinite peace, the ineffable bliss of consummated love."
My father taught me, from the time I was born, to be holy...to imitate the holiness of God. He taught it by his words, but even more by what he did, and most of all by who he was.
We are worthy of the name father only when it is not we whom people see and admire, but Christ Jesus in us. And it is Christ through whom all things were made, Christ the paschal teacher, and Christ the sanctification and salvation of all mankind who is the model of what we are called to be. For in the end, “Jesus' priest is not a bureaucrat, a hired hand, a CEO, or a careerist, but a father.”
January 17, 2013