“Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven.” (Mt. 23:9)
In 1 Cor. 4:14-16, St. Paul calls himself “the father” as he emphasizes the spiritual paternity from whom the Corinthians were begotten in faith. The same connotation can be seen in Gal. 4:19, where St. Paul calls the Galatians “my little children.” St. Peter addresses St. Mark the Evangelizer as “son” (1 Pet. 5:13), meaning that St. Peter is the spiritual father to St. Mark. St. John uses the term “little children” seven times in 1 John, highlighting his spiritual paternity in Christ to his Christian community.
The threefold munera of the priesthood, to sanctify (sanctificandi), to teach (docendi), and to govern (regendi), manifest spiritual fatherhood in the life of the priest. Looking at the office of sanctification, the primary focus is on the sacraments in the Church. St. Thomas Aquinas compares each sacrament to periods in the development of human life: Baptism to birth; Confirmation to the strengthening of the child; Confession and anointing to healing; Matrimony and Holy Orders to the common good in the sense of procreation naturally and supernaturally.
The priest is the ordinary dispenser of the grace of the sacraments by the power of his ecclesiastical office. In administering these sacraments, the priest plays the role of father, especially in administering the first five sacraments, because through these the priest exercises his “formal paternity” by generating new life and bringing life to its perfection. St. Thomas explains that the principle efficient cause of all graces of the sacraments is Christ; therefore, the graces of Christ through the sacraments. As the instrumental cause of the sacraments, “sacramental generativity” is the result, thus pointing again to a priest’s spiritual fatherhood.
The priest’s fatherhood is most vivid in the celebration of the Eucharist. The Catechism of the Catholic Church highlights that the Eucharist is the most powerful way that a priest acts in persona Christi and in persona Ecclesiae. St. John Paul II explained in the Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis that a priest must be a spiritual father by living the Paschal Mystery and initiating this in the people entrusted into his charge. The Eucharist is the spring of spiritual generation in the priesthood; therefore, the effect of the Eucharist is paternal. St. John Paul II also stated that the unchanging Eucharistic love is the source that empowers the fatherhood in the priest and transforms the priestly life in Christ into both the people’s priest and people’s victim on the altar of Christ. Therefore, in celebrating the Holy Eucharist, the priest is in close relation to the font of his fatherhood, which is Christ.
Reflecting on the office of teaching in the priesthood, the ministry of preaching and teaching are the ways that a priest can generate spiritual life and radiate his spiritual fatherhood to the lives of his sons and daughters in Christ. The priest exercises his paternity in preaching and teaching the faith in order to form his children in Christ. Eusebius of Caesarea explains that those who proclaim and teach the word of God must dedicate themselves to the fostering of spiritual offspring in Christ. St. Paul highlights that he is not only a “guide” but also “a father” through teaching and preaching of the Gospel (1Cor. 4:15). Lumen Gentium reflects that through the preaching of the Gospel, the priest forms sons and daughters who are conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of God to a new life in Christ. In his remarks, St. John Paul II said that the work of evangelization in preaching and teaching in the priesthood is a remarkable example of spiritual fatherhood. Again, the source of the priest’s paternity associated with the office of teaching is Christ.
The priest communicates the graces of Christ and His paternity through the priesthood and his fatherhood to those in his charge. He exercises his spiritual fatherhood in the office of governing or shepherding in three ways: provider, teacher, and protector. In his homily at his first Chrism Mass as Pope, Pope Francis reminded all the good shepherds to live with “the odor of the sheep,” clearly indicating that the priest is a shepherd among his flock. In his work Rise, Let Us Be on Our Way, St. John Paul II explained that the shepherd must be ready to lay down his life for his sheep, and always be there for the sheep. He further reflected on the words of St. Augustine when he said that the good shepherds are in the Good Shepherd, Christ; when they feed their sheep, they are feeding Christ to them.
As a shepherd, the priest leads his flock to the Good Shepherd, which can be a heavy task in the priesthood because he experiences both joy and sorrow according to the way he lives his outpouring of paternal love to his spiritual community. He becomes a guider and teacher as he exemplifies the paternity of God within his spiritual community, teaching them how the love of God the Father is expressed to others.
A true shepherd is also a protector, so the priest has to protect his flock against evil. Pope Francis meditates on Abraham in Gen 15:11; he compares how Abraham protected his sacrifice from the birds of prey to a spiritual father who protects his spiritual children through the grace that God has bestowed upon him.
As a father, a priest has the duty to advise and correct his spiritual children with the aim of leading them in the right spiritual direction. Moreover, the priest has the responsibility of articulating and teaching the teachings of the Church to his spiritual children. Another duty a priest has as a father is to defend through words and deeds, the deposit of faith in his spiritual children against immoral and heretical thoughts and deeds.
The priest, as a spiritual father, must have far-reaching love with an understanding heart for all the souls in his charge. St. John Paul II explained that the love of a priest should be universal, and there should be no boundaries in that love, especially for the lost sheep and the sheep who are ignored in the herd, because those who are ordained to Holy Orders are sharers in the universality of the mission of love, which was mandated by Christ.
It is for all these reasons that Catholics call priests 'Father'