Back in my Seminary days I distinctly remember one of my fellow seminarians referred constantly to his parents by their first names rather than as Mom and Dad or Mother and Father. I shared the first names of my parents as well but I thought it somewhat odd that he rarely referred to them in parental terms. He had a good relationship with his mother and father. He did indeed love them but on a visit to his family one vacation period I was struck even more when in their presence he continued to address them by their first names rather than refer to them as mom or dad. It was just his way.
Yet, in my own mind it felt as if a relationship was changed. I once commented on this and stated that I never called my parents by their first names if only I was introducing them to someone. We sort of laughed about it and his parents didn’t seem to be particularly bothered. Regardless of our age, our relationship to our parents always remains as “mother and father.” Could you imagine a ten year old saying to his Mother, “No, I won’t go to my room Mary!” Or coming to his Father and saying, “Hey Frank, can I have the keys to the car this evening?” It sort of changes things.
There is something very special about the relationship between a parent and his/her child that implies respect, protection, love, nurturing, and the giving of life. This is not just any “Frank” or “Mary.” These people have and always will play a specific role in my life for without them I would not exist.
The other evening in our Catholics Come Home session the question came up about why Catholics refer to their priest as “Father” when Jesus states in Matthew 23: 9: “Do not call anyone on earth your father. Only one is your father, the One in heaven.” It is a common misunderstanding in non-Catholic circles or among some Catholics as well. In the Protestant tradition, they refer to their Church leader as “Pastor” or “Preacher” or “Reverend “or sometimes simply by their first name. While in a relaxed atmosphere around good friends I certainly don’t mind being called simply “Tim,” in other settings there is a certain professional expectation.
The short Catholic answer is, “Well, that’s our tradition.” A Priest is also addressed as “Reverend” but normally you see that more often when he is addressed in writing as in a formal document or letter.
For a priest to be addressed as “Father," is to refer to relationship and not biology (obviously). In Mt. 23: 9 Jesus was speaking about those who seek out positions of honor and prestige; those who seek them out for their own sakes rather than for their purpose – to be of service to others. This turns into a kind of personality cult; a false representation and the enjoyment of praise and prestige to the detriment of their position. As Jesus warns in Mt. 23: 4 -5: “Their words are bold but their deeds are few . . . All their works are performed to be seen . . .” I have always thought that the word performed was significant.
The position of priest with his people is one of a spiritual fatherhood. Jesus was not saying that we should literally call no one our father. If that were the case, then your children, as in my example above, would refer to you only by your first name: “Good morning Julie.” or “Have a good day Bill!”
While we address medical personnel as “Doctor,” or a policeman as “Officer,” or a college teacher as “Professor,” the title of “Father” for priest is far more than merely a position.The relationship between priest and the people he serves is that of one who is ordained and assigned to be a kind of parent among his people. The priest is there to be of service to the church and specifically in the role of dispenser of the Word of God and the sacramental life. Thus, the relationship is a kind of “fatherly” one as in the one who provides, sustains, loves, supports, and is responsible for final decision making. It is parental in that sense.
He is among the people to act in persona Christi – the person of Christ. While doing so, any priest shares in the full human experience of fallibility and sin but in a unique relationship among the good People of God. Whether he is in parish ministry, education, administration, or some other position of service he still remains by virtue of his ordination, like a “Father” to people.
Our culture being what it is, however, any priest realizes that he needs to earn the respect of his people. If I as priest think that simply having the title “Father” before my name is going to bring with it entitled rights and privileges, then I am no better than those who were castigated by Jesus in our quoted Scripture passage from Matthew 23.
So, hopefully this explanation is helpful. Let’s pray for our priests, and yours truly, who stand on the front lines, in the heart of the Church. Let’s always keep in mind the never ending call to holiness that we share as baptized members of God’s good people.
One of these days, I may write a book entitled: There's more than one way to be a Father.