“But”, a young man considering priesthood asks, “what about the experience of fatherhood? How can I as a priest experience the joy and satisfactions comparable to those of an ordinary dad?”
Firstly let’s be clear about the nature of “experience” – a most ambiguous word in our times. Experience is an effect, not a cause. Experience is to being and action what wetness is to water. Or, to use another metaphor, it is like the waves on the ocean of reality: the waves come from the ocean and are made possible by the ocean. Joy comes from possessing the good; good comes from living out the true. An enduring sense of joy can only come from living in harmony with the inner nature of things through recognizing them for what they are and acting towards them in obedience to the laws inbuilt to reality by the Creator of the universe. Upright action causes man to be aware that he is standing in the truth and thereby in possession of the good – thus he senses a deep down peace of heart which is the essence of joy.
Fatherhood is not a thing; it’s a verb, it’s action! One can only become a father by exercising influence in some way over another. One thing is to have the possibility of being a father (either biological or supernatural) and another is to make it happen. To experience the joy of any fatherhood there is only one gateway ‒ action! The physical father of a family fulfills his fatherhood by educating, feeding, nursing, conversing with, listening to, working for, playing with his children. Day in and day out, week after week, year after year through life’s seasons. By doing so faithfully he experiences himself as father.
Likewise the priest must act out his sacramental character and special priestly powers in order to procreate by sanctifying, governing, and teaching – acting to the uttermost as priest! To experience the joy of priestly fatherhood is to conscientiously work hard in teaching, sanctifying, and leading as well as in “kneeling” ‒ for prayer-action is the key to all the other activities.
If there is a “magic formula” it is: Act as a father to experience being a father! The priest rejoices (and let me add that it is “a hundred times over” just as He said it would be) when through his fatherly actions he brings new life into existence through baptism, strengthens it through Holy Communion, brings the spiritually dead back to life through confession, guides the soul across the frontier in Viaticum, and raises prayers to Heaven for his people. Even the priests who spend their day studying, writing, doing administrative tasks, are fathers because all their actions are intended and offered for souls who will one day thank them in eternity.
St. Francis of Assisi, as one tough, daring, and heroic former knight knew well that both prayer and action are indispensable for spiritual fatherhood. Indeed, he knew that praying is one form of action, the supreme form of action. That is why his famous prayer – “Lord, Make me an Instrument of Your Peace”- is a “verb” prayer: it’s all about being an “action-man”, becoming an instrument of God’s action.
And the “giving” in which “we receive” takes a million forms of enterprise in the heart of the priest-father. When his heart widens and deepens and is set aflame with love, and when that love becomes tangible in projects, activities, people, and prayer, then he lives sacred chastity with the same energy – or more – than that with which he would have lived marriage and biological fatherhood. You know such a priest when you meet him: he “rocks”, vibrates, has a fresh vigor about him that is an élan vital, a will to live to the full! He is actively father through the sacraments and through praying for his spiritual children conscious that his priestly prayer has special power.
And how he experience the joy of fatherhood through the sacraments! When the days and nights are too short because of all the baptisms, confirmations, First Holy Communions, confessions and spiritual directions, marriages, and anointings, then the priest retires at night exhausted with the joy of spiritual fatherhood! And on countless days the words of the psalmist ring true in his heart: Introibo ad altare Dei, ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam – I will go unto the altar of God, to the God who brings joy to my youth.