The reasons behind why we call priests "father".
Father Mike, Father Jim, Father Kevin, Father Mark... without much effort we can name a score of priests, but no matter what the name they all have something in common, the title “Father” always comes first. Why “Father” and not something like “Elder,” or just “Priest?” Does fatherhood have anything to do with priesthood? In the Catholic Church we have the tradition of calling priests “Father”. We get accustomed to it, so that it frequently becomes a title much like Doctor, Professor, or Senator. It shouldn’t be that way, because there is a very big difference between the two, the reason behind the title. To call someone a Doctor means that they have a doctor’s degree, to call someone a professor means that they have a degree as a teacher, but no one receives a degree as a priest. Ordination is something beyond just a few years of study. (CCC 336, 1592, 1547-1553) So why do we call priests “Father¬?” The first reason is that they represent God the Father as his ministers, and the second is the spiritual fatherhood they assume in the care of the souls entrusted to them.
The priest is called to be a shepherd of souls, to give himself completely to the service of others. That’s why the title “Father” is actually more important and significant for the faithful than the actual name he was given at birth. In a way it is easier to talk to a priest because you don’t even have to know his name. You can walk up to any priest without hesitation or barriers that normally divide two people who have never met before because it is enough to call him “Father.”
The parish priest is a spiritual father for his parishioners, since he guides and leads them on the path of spiritual growth. He cares about all of them just as a father cares for his children, though in the spiritual realm. The priest steps in at all the important moments of our lives with the sacraments. He is there at the beginning of our life in the Church when he baptizes; he is there to bless our marriages; he is there at life’s close to help us make the step from here to heaven. All throughout this time he is there to call God down from heaven and make him really present for us in the Eucharist, where Christ is our spiritual food, and strength for the journey.
St John Vianney, who the Pope has called us to recognize in a special way this year, was a father of souls. He was especially renowned for his curing of souls in confession. Hundreds of people would flock to the tiny village of Ars just to receive the sacrament of reconciliation at his hands. The devil hated him for all the conversions he was bringing about and tempted him strongly, many times not giving him a chance to sleep. The Curé of Ars never allowed himself to be disturbed by this, because he discovered that the more Satan bothered him at night the bigger the sinner who would come to him the next day for confession. So whenever Satan made earthquakes or eerie wolf howls to steal his sleep he would only smile and resist the temptation with that much more strength because he knew a big sinner would be waiting for him in the confession line the next day.
Another firm example of a father of souls was the Italian saint Don Bosco. He saw the many boys who lived on the streets who needed someone to guide them and watch over their spiritual growth. At least for starters they needed to know right from wrong. Perhaps he could have just preached fire and brimstone to them to try to put them in line, but none of us want to listen to someone who doesn’t care about us. So he went about it in a different way. He sought to be a spiritual father for them, not just teaching them how to obey the law, but also putting his entire person at their disposal. He put enormous trust in them and they responded with openness and loyalty. At a certain point he had the spiritual care of a group of boys who were in prison. The guards let them leave the prison for a day to go with Don Bosco. The condition was that if he didn’t bring them all back, he would be the one to go to prison. When it was time to return in the evening there were two missing from the line as they filed in. The guard gave Don Bosco a stern look but just before he could open his mouth the two came bolting around the corner and up to the prison door. They had been tempted to make a break for it, but their loyalty to their spiritual father was stronger than the urge to escape.
Lastly we have an incredible example of a priest who shows us what it means to be a father of souls. John Paul II, by his words and actions led the way and illumined the meaning of being a father of souls.
"Through his celibacy, the Priest becomes the ‘man for others’, in a different way from the man who, by binding himself in conjugal union with a woman, also becomes, as husband and father, a man ‘for others’ . . . The Priest, by renouncing this fatherhood proper to married men, seeks another fatherhood and, as it were, even another motherhood, recalling the words of the Apostle about the children whom he begets in suffering. These are children of his spirit, people entrusted to his solicitude by the Good Shepherd . . . The pastoral vocation of priests is great . . . The heart of the priest, in order that it may be available for this service, must be free. Celibacy is a sign of a freedom that exists for the sake of service" (Ioannis Pauli PP. II, Epistula ad universos Ecclesiae Sacerdotes, adveniente Feria V in Cena Domini, 8, die 8 apr. 1979: Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, II (1979) 854 s.).
The spiritual fatherhood of the priest is born form his desire to bring all souls to heaven. He is the intermediary between God and man, a footbridge that allows us to cross the abyss that separates us from God. It isn’t through his own merit, but by the grace of God, who chooses his priests as instruments. God is the artist of the masterpiece of a soul’s holiness; he is the one who deserves all the credit. The priest, through his ministry, strives to transmit to us this love of a father, the love of God, Our Father.
Thomas Connelly, LC studies for the priesthood with the Legionaries of Christ in Rome.