The Catholic understanding of the Priesthood, where priests are called father, is scriptural and consistent with a biblical understanding of Christianity. That view, however, is a source of confusion for some men and women of good will, especially for our Protestant brothers and sisters. If pressed about the point even well-intentioned Catholics, lacking a clear understanding of the biblical evidence, have a hard time explaining why we call our parish priest by such a name. In fact, Jesus’ words are quite clear, as found in Matthew’s Gospel account, when he says, “Call no one on earth your father …” (Mt 23:9).
So why is it that for over two millennia the Catholic Church has continued the practice, highlighting by name and title, that priests are appropriately called father? The reason may surprise; and a deeper exploration of Holy Scripture reveals the answer to make one thing clear: It’s scriptural and is deeply rooted in biblical religion.
The ancient Catholic custom of calling priests “father” can be traced all the way back to the Apostles. Saint Paul’s own teaching on this issue includes an encouragement that Christians would imitate both his good personal example but also his example of referring to himself as their “father.”
I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me (1 Cor 4:14-16).
You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our behavior to you believers; for you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory (1 Thess 2:10-12).
– Patrick Madrid, A Year With the Bible: Scriptural Wisdom for Daily Living
The Catholic Church has always recognized her priests – just as the early Christians recognized St. Paul – as “spiritual fathers.” Through their ordination into the Priesthood, receiving the Sacrament of Holy Orders, they’re recognized as having the authority given to them by our Heavenly Father. When we read in Matthew 23:9, therefore, “Call no one on earth your father,” Catholics understand the verse means not to honor a man like (i.e. in the same way) you honor God. The Catholic view understands Jesus didn’t instruct in the literal (or strictest sense of the meaning); that one couldn’t call your dad, or a priest, “father”. As St. Paul wrote himself, “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Cor 4:15); emphasis added. Other references to father or fatherhood would include: Acts 7:2-5; Rom 4:16, 9:10; 1 Tim 1:2; Tit 1:4; Phlm 1:10.
In other words, Jesus’ statement, “call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Mt 23:9: RSV) utilized the common Hebrew method of exaggeration or hyperbole (see Mt 19:24; 23:24; Lk 6:42; 14:26) to teach that God the Father is the ultimate source of all authority. Interpreting this absolutely literally would prohibit all uses of the word father whatsoever; even biological fathers. But Jesus Himself uses the term father many times (Mt 15:4-6; 19:5; 29; 21:31; Lk 16:24, 27, 30; Jn 8:56, etc.) … Thus, the objection to calling Catholic priests fathers must be discarded.
A related issue with some critics of Catholicism, is the address, “holy father” as applied to popes (it is claimed that only God could be called that). All that remains, then, is to find “holy men” referred to in the Bible. The writer of Hebrews calls the recipients of his epistle “holy brethren” (Revised Standard Version – RSV). Peter refers to a “holy priesthood” (1 Pt 2:5: RSV and King James Version) and “holy women” such as Sarah (1 Pt 3:5) … John the Baptist is referred to as a “righteous and holy man” (Mk 6:20). Jesus refers to a “righteous man” in Matthew 10:41. Therefore, men can be called “holy” in Scripture, and by extension, since “father” as an address for priests is perfectly biblical as well, the two could be put together for “holy father.”
– Dave Armstrong, Bible Proofs for Catholic Truths
While we should pray for them and pray for their priesthood, Catholic priests aren’t perfect. This shouldn’t come as a shock or be a source of scandal. Yet these men, by virtue of the sacraments they administer, perfect in each of us, and in themselves, the holiness we are each called to by our baptism, and as members of the Body of Christ. Through the special authority granted to them by Christ himself when he established the Priesthood (to be covered in another blog post), Catholic priests administer the sacraments and, thereby, strengthen the Christian faithful for the journey.
Catholic priests hold position within the Church – a special place of ordination – just as St. Paul and his fellow “spiritual fathers” did in the early first century. Just as the bishops and presbyters did in the early days of the Church, our priests today minister to the Church throughout the world through their preaching and offering the sacraments.
In the Catholic Church, therefore, and for my fellow Catholics: Every priest requires our respect – every priest, in spite of his weaknesses or sins … When a man fails in priesthood, we should pray for him, confront him privately with our concerns, confront him with other witnesses; and, if all other attempts fail, we should take our case to the bishop, all the while honoring the man, his priesthood, and his fatherhood. This is what children do for their fathers (see Gen 9:22-27) – see Hahn pp. 147-8.
… Paul was a father not because he was married and reared a family; he did not. He was a father because he was a priest: “a minister … in the priestly service of the gospel” (Rom 15:16).
St. Augustine looked the same way upon the episcopal office he had inherited from the apostles: “The apostles were sent as fathers; to replace those apostles, sons were born to you who were constituted bishops … The Church calls them fathers, she who gave birth to them, who placed them in the sees of their fathers … Such is the Catholic Church. She has given birth to sons who, through all the earth, continue the work of her first Fathers.”
That is the true biblical teaching. Our priests are so much more than managers or functionaries. They are fathers. The sacramental priesthood is not so much a ceremonial function as it is a family relation … [A priest’s] fatherhood is not merely metaphorical. True fatherhood involves the communication of life. As a natural father, I have communicated biological human life – but, in the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, a priest communicates divine life and the divine humanity of Jesus Christ.
– Dr. Scott Hahn, Signs of Life: 40 Catholic Customs and their Biblical Roots
In future posts we will explore the heroes of the Priesthood and the many contributions these men have made throughout history in the sciences, art, literature and theology, to name a few. For other references please visit Word on Fire (www.wordonfire.org) and search Heroic Priesthood.
Navy chaplain Luis Padilla gives last rites to a soldier wounded by sniper fire during a revolt in Venezuela (1962). Braving the streets amid sniper fire, to offer last rites to the dying, the priest encountered a wounded soldier, who pulled himself up by clinging to the priest’s cassock, as bullets chewed up the concrete around them. The photo was taken on June 4, 1962 by Hector Rondon Lovera, photographer of Caracas, for the Venezuelan newspaper “La Republican”. It won the World Press Photo of the Year and the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for Photography. The original title of work is “Aid from The Padre”. (Source: rarehistoricalphotos.com)
May the Catholic Church continue to raise holy men to the Priesthood to minister to God’s people throughout the world.
Be not afraid! And may the peace of Christ be with you and your loved ones today and always.
Holy Family pray for us … Amen.