The priest is a man who protects the souls and bodies of those entrusted to him.
To protect spouse, children and community is the signature of manhood. It is the role of the warrior, the conqueror and defender, by which the male shows his readiness to sacrifice himself, even laying down his life if necessary, for the sake of his loved ones. He fulfills the biblical command to stand on the walls of the city as watchman: “I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem, [who] shall never hold their peace day nor night” (Is. 62: 6). Thus he is a man who defends the perimeters, the frontiers, against the enemy.
Just as the physical father and husband is protector of his spouse and children, the priest is called to use all his natural male aggressiveness in order to fulfill Christ’s command in Gethsemani to the first priests: Be vigilant! Vigilance for the approach of the enemy who may harm or even murder the soul of one’s spiritual child through immorality, heresy, ambiguous doctrines, and ideologies ‒ such as rampage through society and even within the walls of the Church under the “Dictatorship of Relativism” (Benedict XVI). The priest must be in the frontlines defending his family: if he is not leading or if he panics and retreats, his entire flock may be spiritually annihilated. Hence he must be willing to confront danger, obstacles and enemies; he may not shirk from pain, blows, and a fight; enduringly brave in what is ultimately a lifelong warfare; buttressing his endurance through self-discipline.
The priest “nurtures, protects and loves her [the Mystical Body of the Church] as His own flesh (Eph 5:28-30). This involves a deep union of his intelligence and love with Christ’s Church. Whatever Catholic Tradition holds, he holds; whatever is important to her, is important to him. As spouse of the Church, he cherishes his Bride by devoting his energies and time to her alone.
This dedication to his Bride requires of him that he never abdicate the authority conferred upon him at priestly ordination. Etymologically auctoritas is about authorship: “to be the source of something”, whether it’s a book, a movie or – a child. From it derive both responsibilities and rights. The lay faithful respect the priest’s authority – as he in turn respects that of the bishops, the Pope and the Magisterium – not because of his personal qualities but because he is their father in Christ. Just as his fatherhood does not originate in the laity, neither does his authority. Accordingly, he cannot abdicate but only delegate power on some issues to associates and committees according to Canon Law and wise judgment.
He is father not grandfather to the parish “family”. Thus, he not only ensures that the ultimate decision on important matters such as liturgy and catechesis remain with him but also all secondary matters of discipline and boundary-definer. A father teaches in two ways: by what he says and by what he does about what he says. If the latter does not back up the former, the former becomes irrelevant. Doctrine and discipline are bonded; father, lawgiver, and provider of discipline are inseparable.
Yet neither should he tolerate in himself any “authoritarianism” which leads to so much rejection of fatherhood. Authority is not a synonym of authoritarianism: as a true biological father within a family exercises his responsibility towards his wife and children out of love, with respect, self-forgetfulness and gentleness, the priest like St. Paul should be able to say: “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some”(1 Cor 9:22). Therefore the priest does not impose his own liturgical or other preferences on his parish: he always asks himself the double question: “What is the mind of the Church on this matter?” and “What is the best way to apply this principle or praxis in the parish so that it will be of the greatest possible help to the salvation of souls?”
But likewise the priest will not bend in the face of opposition to the teaching of the Church once he has carefully weighed matters and seen that principles are at stake. Never, through fear of confrontation, will he betray his responsibilities. Like St. Paul he intends to be able to say at the end of his life on earth: “For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience that we have behaved in the world, and still more toward you, with holiness and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God.” (2 Cor 1:12)
Therefore the priest’s fatherhood brings with it all the heavy burden of upholding the authority accompanying it. At times the priest will make his own the words of Dante “How heavy is the great mantle to him who guards it from the mire.” (Dante).