Virtues of Spiritual Fatherhood
How it is a call to generosity, fidelity and fortitude in the priesthood
We call priests “Father” all the time. What does that title actually mean? Is it simply a symbolic label? Do priests exercise any real paternity, or is it only a kind of metaphorical “fatherhood” in carrying out their pastoral duties?
Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, a 19th-century English prelate, saw in the title much more than a mere metaphor. “The title of father,” he wrote, “is the first, the chief, the highest, the most potent, the most persuasive, the most honorable of all the titles of a priest. He may receive from the world and from its fountains of honor many names, from the schools of learning many degrees, from the ecclesiastical law many dignities; but none has so deep and so high a sense as father.” He then concluded, “and none but the spiritual fatherhood will pass into eternity.”
Reflecting on the true spiritual paternity exercised by priests yields important fruits. It reminds us that the priest is more than a sacramental functionary or parish administrator; he is a genuine father in Christ. It helps us understand the reason for priestly celibacy, which the Second Vatican Council described as a “source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world” that renders the priest “better fitted for a broader acceptance of fatherhood in Christ.” It emphasizes the spiritual fatherhood that is shared by all Christian men, especially natural fathers, who exercise their spiritual paternity through their prayer, sacrifice, teaching, good example and by protecting their children from spiritual and moral harm.
It also gives us a framework for priestly formation in the seminary and the ongoing spiritual development of priests. After all, there are certain virtues we look for in natural fathers. If we priests are authentic fathers, shouldn’t we aspire to the same virtues? The best fathers, for instance, are honest, loving, diligent, responsible, humble and committed. So, too, are the best spiritual fathers. In “Why Celibacy?: Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest” (Emmaus Road, $24.95), I argue that there are three primary responsibilities of any father: that he be a provider to his family, a teacher and guide, and a protector. Each of these duties, which priests share with other fathers, is accompanied by a virtue that is particularly important for his ministry.
Care for the Family
Before anything else, a father provides for his family. He does so through his daily labor, by giving them a home, food, medical care and, in an extended sense, a cultural and historical identity — including their very family name. The priest, too, provides for his spiritual family. He gives his people a supernatural identity, incorporating them into the family of God through baptism and cares for their spiritual home, the local parish church. He nourishes them with the Eucharist, provides spiritual medical care in the sacraments of confession and anointing, and cares for them through all his daily priestly work.
The virtue that corresponds to this aspect of fatherhood is that of generosity. Generous men are able to channel their masculine energy in such a way that it contributes powerfully to the life of their families. Something happens when a young father first holds his child — the sense of joy and responsibility can be overwhelming. Having a child changes everything. Fatherhood draws a man out of himself, dilates his heart and makes him willing to give up conveniences, comforts, even necessities, for the sake of his loved ones. When a priest knows that his work matters, that Jesus genuinely wants to work through him to cultivate the life of grace in others, then that same masculine energy will motivate him to be generous and self-sacrificial in his ministry.
One reason why some priests struggle to be generous is that they no longer truly believe that their work is really necessary. This crisis of identity in the priesthood is caused in large part by a widespread denial of perennial Catholic truths about the “last things.” The implicit assumption, and sometimes explicit assertion, that everyone is automatically saved, despite the clear teaching of Jesus to the contrary, undercuts the very purpose of the priesthood. If everyone is saved, then there is no need to continue Jesus’ saving work on earth. Why would anyone spend themselves to give supernatural life that’s already given? Why would men sacrifice themselves for others when their sacrifice is not needed?
Priests often feel most needed when helping others through difficult situations in life. This is an important part of priestly ministry, but truth be told, social workers could often do the same — and sometimes do it better. Where priests are most needed is in giving supernatural life to their flock. We are in the business of saving souls who might otherwise not find salvation. Priests are needed because our ministry has a lasting and real supernatural effect on immortal souls.
Good fathers make extraordinary sacrifices for their wives and children. They find in their paternal love the reason for the daily routine, the self-denial that their work requires, the determination to overcome themselves in order to better serve their beloved families. When priests are convinced that their work contributes decisively to the supernatural life of others, in fact to their eternal life, then they will live their spiritual fatherhood with the kind of generosity and self-sacrifice that characterize the very best of fathers.
Teacher and Guide
A second duty of fatherhood is that of being a teacher and a guide. He ensures that his children are properly educated, instructs them in moral virtue and guides them with wisdom and prudence as they grow up. The priest, too, is a teacher and guide. He plants the seeds of faith in those entrusted to his pastoral care, nourishes their spiritual growth through preaching and teaching, and guides them pastorally in their journey through life. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “I am writing you this not to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children. Even if you should have countless guides to Christ, yet you do not have many fathers, for I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Cor 4:14–15).
The dominant virtue for this aspect of spiritual paternity is fidelity, including the need for personal and moral fidelity, as the clergy abuse scandals have amply demonstrated. But primarily I have in mind ecclesial fidelity, fidelity to the Church, fidelity to her teachings. One role of a husband is to show his children how to love their mother, and thereby teach them respect and love for women. Such a lesson has a lifelong effect on children. The priest has a similar duty — to show his spiritual children how to love their mother, the Church, the Bride of Christ. In his devotion to her liturgy, in his fidelity to her teachings, in his love for her people, the priest offers a constant, quiet catechesis in loving the Church.
When a priest fails to have this respect for the Bride of Christ, when he neglects his people, when he arrogates to himself the authority to change or downplay the teachings he was charged to transmit, when he tinkers with the liturgy with which he was entrusted, he undercuts the Church’s authority. He undercuts the very source of his own paternity since it is precisely through the Church that his priesthood is fruitful.
Ecclesial fidelity can be difficult, particularly in an age of scandal, in the face of corruption, and in the light of negligence and failure on the part of both bishops and priests. Nevertheless, our spiritual fatherhood depends on fidelity, on being able to see through the human weaknesses of churchmen to the divine beauty of the Church, Christ’s beloved Bride.
During his visit to the United States in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI preached from inside the beauty of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “It is only from the inside,” he said, “from the experience of faith and ecclesial life, that we see the Church as she truly is: flooded with grace, resplendent in beauty, adorned by the manifold gifts of the Spirit. It follows that we, who live the life of grace within the Church’s communion, are called to draw all people into this mystery of light.” We priests will “draw all people into this mystery of light” in the measure that we show fidelity to the Church, to her teachings and to her liturgy, which are supernaturally fruitful in the lives of our people.
A third duty of fatherhood is that of being a protector. Natural fathers exercise this role by protecting their children from physical harm, of course, but also by protecting them from the moral and spiritual wounds caused by harmful ideologies and dangerous moral influences, including those from the internet. The priestly father does so by warning his people of these same immoral influences as well as by protecting them from doctrinal error, confusion and heresy. Today, in an age of profound anthropological confusion, he does it especially by teaching forthrightly the Catholic understanding of the human person, the dignity of all human life and the truth about marriage, human sexuality and gender.
The virtue that corresponds to this paternal duty is fortitude, especially the fortitude of the moment, the fortitude to overlook human respect and to do the right thing no matter what the consequences. Being a Catholic, let alone a Catholic priest, in many countries means swimming upstream in a highly secular environment. The worldly-wise tell us that we are on the “wrong side of history” — and they are perfectly right. Jesus told his apostles, “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first” (Jn 15:18). The Church has always been on the wrong side of history. The only question is, will we be faithful anyway?
To be faithful requires fortitude. I suspect it will need to be heroic fortitude in the years to come: fortitude in the face of resistance, ridicule and perhaps overt persecution. Priests must not be afraid to stand alone, as long as they are standing with Jesus. We cannot be afraid to lose people from our pews, as Jesus “lost” them in the synagogue in Capernaum (cf. Jn 6:66) — that is, as long as we remain true to the Gospel. This is the kind of fortitude that true spiritual fathers need today more than ever.
FATHER CARTER GRIFFIN is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and rector of St. John Paul II Seminary. He is the author of “Why Celibacy?: Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest” (Emmaus Road Publishing, $24.95).
Beyond these three virtues — generosity, fidelity and fortitude — there is something even more necessary for priestly fathers today. There is “one thing,” as Jesus said to Martha of Bethany, that is necessary — the one pearl of great price that will make us into the spiritual fathers that we are called to be — and that is holiness, being united to Jesus, learning to be a son of God. Every father learns to be a father by first being a son, both in the natural and in the supernatural realm. It is in taking that divine sonship seriously, in responding to the Father’s love with gratitude, confidence and joy, that we will learn not only to be good sons, but worthy fathers too.
It is in embracing our dignity as sons of the very best of fathers that we will find the key to our priesthood, because it will be the key to our own fatherhood. And that, truly, is the greatest virtue of all.