By Father Dennis J. Billy, C.Ss.R.
Fourth in a series that explains the priesthood during the Church’s Year of the Priest.
Since Jesus told His disciples not to call anyone on earth their father (Mt. 23:9), some of us may be wondering why we give our priests this title. The answer requires some explaining. We obviously do not call a priest “Father,” in the same sense that Jesus called God “Abba, Father” (Mk. 14:36). God alone is our true Father. A priest is a father in another sense.
Today, we use the word “father” in a variety of ways. In addition to the biological father, it is not uncommon to hear people speak of a child’s legal father or foster father or adoptive father or step-father. We call George Washington the father of our country because he was present at its very inception and did more than anyone else to secure its independence.
A priest is a father not in a biological or legal or patriotic sense, but in a spiritual sense. He is someone who has been entrusted by Christ and His Church with the spiritual welfare of the people he serves.
A priest exercises his spiritual fatherhood in any number of ways. When he baptizes, he immerses a person in the mystery of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection and raises from the font a child of God “begotten of water and Spirit” (Jn. 3:5).
When he hears confessions, he looks upon the repentant sinner with the compassionate and merciful eyes of a loving father.
When he preaches, he breaks open God’s Word and tells the people not what they wish to hear, but what they actually need to hear if they are to deepen their relationship with Christ. When he celebrates Mass, he stands in the place of Christ and provides spiritual food and nourishment for those in attendance.
When he anoints the sick and ministers to the dying, he fortifies others in their weakness and prepares them for the journey ahead that will bring them either back to health or to a new life beyond the pale of death.
As spiritual fathers, priests have many responsibilities that spill over into other areas of life. They guide, protect and nourish all those who are under their care, especially those who are defenseless and without a voice.
They look out for the needs of the poor and the marginalized, those who can no longer fend for themselves. They are deeply concerned for the well-being of those at the very beginning of life’s journey and those at the very end. They stand up for the dignity of the unborn, the handicapped, the seriously ill and the aged.
A priest considers all human beings members of his family. He has given up the comforts of a wife and children to be a part of a different sort of family, one that goes beyond the ties of blood and is held together by bonds of spirit and a deep willingness to serve.
He needs our prayers for he has assumed many important responsibilities for which he must one day answer to God. To call him “Father” is not only a sign of respect, but also a reminder to him (and to us) of the dignity of his calling, the weight of his office, and the deep love he is called to bear for all God’s children.
Father Dennis J. Billy, C.Ss.R., is the John Cardinal Krol Chair of Moral Theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.