“Our parents give us birth for the present life, priests for life eternal” (St. John Chrysostom)
“The priest, rather than losing the gift and duties of fatherhood by the law of celibacy, increases them incalculably. For although he does not give birth to children for this passing life on earth, he gives birth to children for that life which is heavenly and eternal.” (Pius XII, Menti Nostrae)
The Priest: Man who Procreates unto Eternal Life
“I became your father in Christ Jesus when I preached the Good News to you” (1 Cor 4:15)
The priest’s procreative role is vitally necessary – for eternal life! “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36).
In order to weigh the importance and sacrifices of the priest’s role of fatherhood it is necessary to ask the ultimate questions, to stand resolutely before the ultimate why ‒ salvation or damnation! In this light all must be seen, all must be weighed, all must be decided!
The Priest: Man who Protects
A spousal, virile love for the Mystical Body of Christ and his spiritual children marked by the virtues of fatherhood: to be proactive, confront danger, stand up to opposition, and fight all that will harm the souls of his offspring (Gal. 4:19).
Guide and Shepherd of his sons and daughters through the dangers of the journey through enemy-occupied “Middle Earth” to the Eternal Homeland. Thus, as the priest nurtures, protects, and cherishes her [the Mystical Body of the Church] as His own flesh (see Eph 5:28-30), his soul is sealed by the signature of true manhood.
Man who Provides
The priest-father is present through word, sacraments, and other actions for every stage of his childrens’ journey from the cradle to eternity’s gateway.
He nourishes souls on the “wayfarer’s bread” vitally necessary to reach the destiny: “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life within you” (John 6:53).
He, as Christ’s ambassador (2 Cors 5:20), revives men who are spiritually dead in confession; he strengthens them for Christian maturity; he brings “viaticum” [food for the journey] through extreme unction when they are about to embark for the shores of eternity.
He educates through speech and writings, empowering his offspring to fight valiantly for all that is true, good and beautiful against the forces of darkness.
Church Militant Fatherhood of souls still amidst “the world”, empowering them by the Holy Sacrifice, the sacraments, leadership, and word so that all may arrive to Eternity with the assurance “the good fight have I fought, the race have I finished, the faith have I kept.” (2 Tim 4:7-8)
Church Purgative Priestly fatherhood in action to aid the souls of our brothers and sisters in Purgatory through the Holy Sacrifice
Church Triumphant Fatherhood lived in the strength of the fellowship of the long line of heroes and heroines already in Heaven, of being “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1)
“Come with us, and be to us a father and a priest…. And the priest’s heart was glad; he…went in the midst of the people.” (Book of Judges 18:19-20).
“He was more than a father to me”
Sir Alec Guinness, a British actor starring in movies such as The Bridge on the River Kwai and Star Wars, in his autobiography Blessings in Disguise narrated one of the milestones in his conversion to the Catholic Faith. While staying in a French village for the filming of a movie in which he played the role of a priest, one evening, still in costume, he was walking to his lodgings when suddenly a little boy, mistaking him for the real thing, grabbed his hand and trustingly accompanied “Mon Père” along the road! Guinness was greatly moved. “Continuing my walk,” he said, “I reflected that a Church that could inspire such confidence in a child, making priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable, could not be as scheming or as creepy as so often made out. I began to shake off my long-taught, long-absorbed prejudices.”
The author of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien, at twelve years of age after the death of both his parents, lived with relatives. However his mother in her last will and testament had stated that a priest, Father Francis Morgan, should be the legal guardian of both J.R.R. and his brother. Thus, each morning both boys would go to Mass with their guardian before eating breakfast with him and the other priests prior to setting out for school.
The priest, himself a convert to the Catholic Faith, was to be a key influence in Tolkien’s life and he would remain forever grateful to him. Years afterwards, in a letter to his son he wrote about their relationship: “I first learned charity and forgiveness from him and in the light of it pierced even the liberal darkness out of which I came”. Tolkien gave an insightful tribute to Father Morgan when he stated that he had been “a guardian who has been a father to me, more than most real fathers”
And that is exactly what must be the conviction of the man crossing the threshold of the Society of Ignatians: the priest when he is an authentic priest is not only a true father (as if that were not enough!) but he exercises the most sublime form of fatherhood possible to man.
Thank God, there has been no shortage of priests who have been giants of fatherhood throughout history. Page after page of history bears witness to the countless men and women everywhere who even though blessed with good fathers hailed priests as “my father”. One of the more famous was St. Thomas A Becket who –before his ordination – became foster father to young Prince Henry, son of King Henry II when the king sent the boy to live in Becket’s household (it was a custom at that time for royal children to be fostered in other royal or noble houses). The boy is reported to have said that Becket gave him more of a father’s love in a day than his own father did during his entire life. Becket continued to live out fatherhood as priest and bishop – to the point of shedding his lifeblood for his sons and daughters in the Mystical Body.
“Those, that is to say the abbots”, wrote St.Thomas Aquinas, “who preside over monasteries, are called fathers”. Although the title of “Father” was not used for most priests for many centuries, from the 1800s onwards the title of “Father” for every priest gradually spread, at least in the English-speaking world, thanks to the Catholics of Ireland who brought the custom with them when they left their country to go into exile. It was a custom dear to them due to the love they felt for generations of priests who from the 1500s onwards had suffered persecution for their sakes as they clandestinely offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass under pain of death at “Mass rocks” in the hills and forests. Both priests and people knew how real – and how costly – was priestly fatherhood.
The priest is really (ontologically) a father and his supernatural and spiritual fatherhood should be ‒ as it has often been in the past ‒ the model for biological fathers who only merit the title of father if they exercise spiritual fatherhood according to the paradigm of God’s fatherhood which the priest is called to illustrate in his person. The ontological basis for his fatherhood springs from the sacramental character and gifts of the Holy Spirit received at ordination whereby he becomes a “natural supernatural” father. Under God’s fatherhood, the priestly fatherhood is ontologically the highest degree of paternity because he fathers divine life in the souls of humanity.
Moreover, the sheer numbers of spiritual sons and daughters that the priest can be father to is a further motive for responsibility. By forging his masculine qualities of decisiveness and fortitude and by being on the front-line of spiritual warfare, he will attract them as a man of God, a man to whom they can look to for leadership, strength, and guidance as confessor and spiritual director.
This was the priestly fatherhood present in generations of true priests that inspired Catholics. Wherever in recent decades a minority has destroyed this natural bond between priests and people, future priests have the mission to restore it by radiating fatherhood more vibrantly than ever! In their lives may there be countless instances like that of the priest who received a card from a youth containing the memorable phrase: “Merci au meilleur Père de ma vie!” [ With gratitude to the greatest Father of my life!].
Moreover, in our contemporary society where fatherlessness is widespread, the priest is called to fatherhood with a sense of urgency. He must be father to all men and women: firstly to Catholics, then to other Christians and to all people since all are willed by Christ to belong to him in his Mystical Body, the Church.