Ever Wondered Why Catholics Call Priests “Fathers”?
Just as Bill Jackson, a Fundamentalist who runs a full-time anti-Catholic organization, says in his book Christian’s Guide To Roman Catholicism that a “study of Matthew 23:9 reveals that Jesus was talking about being called father as a title of religious superiority . . . [which is] the basis for the [Catholic] hierarchy”, many Protestants claim that when Catholics address priests as “father,” they are engaging in an unbiblical practice that Jesus forbade.
When you think of a good parent, what comes to your mind is kindness, nurturing, and unconditional love. A parent brings mental strength, protection, loving care, and attentiveness. We use the symbol of parenthood to describe other contexts as well for example; Mary is the mother of the church. Mahatma Gandhi is the father of Indian independence. The early leaders of our nation are referred to as Founding Fathers, and so on.
The symbolic understanding of parenthood goes back to biblical times. In the Bible, the concept of fatherhood is not restricted to just our earthly fathers and God. It is used to refer to people other than biological or legal fathers and is used as a sign of respect to those with whom we have a special relationship.
St. Paul in 1 Cor. 4:15, uses his own life as a model for Christian living. He reminds the Christians of Corinth that it was he who brought the faith to them. “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel,” he writes.
Although St. Paul sometimes has to engage strong emotions in his letters, He seems to be gentle in his approach: “I am writing you this not to shame you but to admonish you as my beloved children” (1 Cor. 4:14). Here, it is easy to see why he presents himself as a spiritual father and those who are most times conscious of biblical literalism sometimes express concern for Paul’s presentation of himself as a father of the church. This concern has carried over to using the word “father” in other religious contexts as well.
This is as a result of a passage in the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus cautions his listeners that they should “call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven” (Matt. 23:9). But if you read this part of the Bible contextually, it is clear that this commandment comes after a story where Jesus teaches about humility, (Matt. 23:8) and warns us to be aware of the teachers of the law and Pharisees who do not practice what they preach, yet the wish to be greeted with respect and be called “teachers” or “leaders”. He compares the teacher who teaches by examples with one who fails to follow the teachings he conveys. Reading further, you would notice that Christ also made mention of calling one a leader, saying; “Nor should you be called “Leader”, because your one and only Leader is the Messiah.”(Matt. 23:10) Does this mean we can not use the word, “leader” in speeches or sentences? For example when you say: “He is an authoritative but great leader”, “Who is Your leader?”, “the leader of the council”.
Notice also that in Matt. 23:11-12, he lets us know the importance of humility in achieving greatness. “The greatest one amongst you must be your servant. Whoever makes himself great will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be made great.” Christ, not minding his greatness as a son of God, remained humble and led us by example. Therefore, leadership is associated with greatness, and to achieve greatness, you must be “humble” to be called a “leader”.
Thus, Common sense should tell us that Jesus is not insisting that we avoid using the words “father”, “teacher” or “leader” in all metaphorical senses but that we recognize that only God can be perfect; only God can fulfill the role of the sincere Father, religious leader or teacher.
Due to the way Priests serve the community, it seems a natural and even holy development that we see priests as symbolic parents. Their sacramental service is similar to the sacrifices given to us by our biological parents. Priests baptize us, bringing us into the realm of Christ and incorporating us into the family of the church. They pronounce words of healing and forgiveness. They feed us and counsel us. They pray for us. In fact, we are their burden and their rest of mind and peace depends on our success.
It is true that we should also recognize the limitations of these terminologies. People are not perfect, and this applies to both biological and sacramental fathers. Also, fathers (or mothers) do not accomplish their work alone. The entire families, communities, and societies are necessary to raise a child. This fact is a reminder to us that everyone has a place in the church and everyone has a role to play and not just the fathers.