Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Why A Priest Is Called ‘Father’


(Thirty-first Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on October 30, 2005 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Matthew 23: 1-12.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirty-First Sunday 2005]

“Why do you Catholics call your priests ‘Father’? Don’t you know that Jesus said, ‘Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven’?”

On Our Sunday Visitor’s list of the top ten questions Catholics are asked, that one is number 8—which means that, if it hasn’t happened already, the chances are good that at some point in the future, a non-Catholic (probably a fundamentalist or evangelical) will ask it of you.

How will you respond? Will you simply shrug your shoulders and scratch your forehead? Will you say—as so many Catholics do—“I don’t know,” and then walk away with doubts in your mind about what the Church teaches? (That, incidentally, is probably what the person asking the question will want you to do!)

Or will you have a well thought-out, logical, biblical response to give him?

Since I don’t like to have my parishioners deceived and led astray by those who would undermine their Catholic faith, I’ll share with you today one possible answer to this question—mine!

If you can remember it, you’ll be able to pass it on to a fundamentalist or evangelical friend, when the opportunity presents itself.

But fear not, even if your memory is a little porous at this hour of the morning and you forget most of what I say, you can always go onto my blog site (fatherrays.blogspot.com) for a quick review.

Then you can go into the discussion well-prepared!

Obviously the passage of Scripture at issue here is the one we heard a few moments ago: this text from Matthew 23. And you must admit, at first glance, Jesus seems to be saying that what we do as Catholics is wrong!

“Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven.”

If I were in a discussion on this issue with an anti-Catholic fundamentalist or evangelical, the first thing I would do is to concede this point. And why shouldn’t I? It’s true, isn’t it? I would say, “You know, it sounds like you’re right. After all, I’m on earth right now—I’m not in heaven. But people do call me ‘Father’. In fact, the Church explicitly teaches Catholics to refer to their priests by that title, although Jesus tells us in this text not to call anyone on earth by that name.”

That’s where I would begin. But, of course, that’s not where I would leave it!

I would then add the following (from now on, incidentally, I’ll pretend that I’m speaking to the person who asked me the question):

“But you know, it’s very important never to take a Scripture passage out of context. If you do, you’ll almost certainly misinterpret it. As you’re well aware, people over the centuries have tried to justify all kinds of evils, by taking one single line of the Bible and treating it like it was written in a vacuum—with nothing either before it or after it.

“To avoid this error and interpret a verse properly, you always need to do two things. First you need to consider the verse’s immediate context, and then you need to consider its wider context (which is the entire Bible).

“The immediate context of this verse from Matthew 23 is Jesus’ dialogue with his disciples concerning the scribes and the Pharisees. The scribes and Pharisees were the religious leaders of the Jews at the time. Many of them, unfortunately, were filled with pride; hence they greatly enjoyed being called by fancy titles like ‘rabbi’ and ‘teacher’ and ‘father’ and ‘master’.

“Jesus knew this—which is precisely why he criticized them in this scene and encouraged his own disciples to be humble.

“But the real question is: In doing this, did Jesus intend for his words in verse 9 to be understood literally? Or was he speaking in a figurative way? If he did mean them literally, of course, then you’re absolutely correct in your assertion, and we Catholics should stop calling priests ‘Father’ immediately!

“However, it seems to me that if Jesus did intend a literal interpretation, then he certainly would have followed his own rule. That sounds reasonable, does it not? He wouldn’t have given his disciples (and all of us) a commandment—not to call anyone on earth ‘father’—that he didn’t intend to keep himself.

“But you see, when we examine the wider context of this verse (i.e., the rest of the New Testament), what we find is that Jesus did not observe this rule himself! For example, in this very same chapter of Matthew (in verses 30 and 32 to be exact), Jesus uses the word “father” to refer to men here on earth! Speaking to the scribes and Pharisees in verse 30, our Lord says, ‘And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.’ Then, in verse 32, he says, ‘Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers.’

[By the way, a little aside here: those two passages are from the King James Version of the Bible—the only one many fundamentalists and evangelicals will read. Consequently, in order to make an impression on them, you must use the King James. If you don’t, they won’t listen to you. You might as well be quoting from the Koran! Back now to my explanation:]

“Jesus did the same thing at other times in his ministry: he referred to people on this earth as ‘fathers’. Just read your King James Version and see!

“And so did the writers of the New Testament! St. John, for example, addresses ‘fathers’ more than once in the second chapter of his first letter.

St. Paul calls Abraham ‘the father of us all’ in chapter 4 of his letter to the Romans. And then, in 1 Corinthians 4, he goes so far as to speak of himself as a father—a spiritual father—to the Corinthian people. Can you imagine? Of course, that makes perfect sense to every Catholic, because St. Paul was a priest! As a priest, he was a spiritual father to all the people in the various churches he founded.

“The bottom line is this: If Jesus intended a literal interpretation to his words, ‘Call no one on earth your father’, and if violating the words of Jesus is a sin, then you’re forced into a position where you have to say that Jesus himself sinned! You also have to say that St. John and St. Paul sinned when they wrote the words of Sacred Scripture.

“Speaking for myself, I’d rather not say either of those things, because they’re not true. Jesus was—and is—God! He never sinned. St. John and St. Paul did sin in their lives—but certainly not when they were writing the inspired word of God!

“So what’s the answer? If Jesus didn’t intend that his words be taken literally in Matthew 23: 9, exactly what was he getting at when he said not to call anyone on earth your father? For that matter, what did he mean when he said to avoid the titles ‘Rabbi’ (or ‘teacher’) and ‘master’.

“Very simply, he was saying that no one is God but God! Thus no human person can legitimately take the place of God the Father or usurp his role in our lives. Not a scribe, or a Pharisee—or anyone else.

“First of all, God is the source of all truth. Because of that, he’s our ultimate teacher—although human beings can share in this role, functioning as God’s instruments. (We all know that because we’ve gone to school!)

“God is the ultimate authority in our lives—our true master (although others can share in his authority and legitimately exercise it in certain situations).

“And he’s our true Father, in the sense that he is the ultimate source of our existence.

“Here Jesus is reminding us that we are God’s children, created in the Lord’s image and likeness. That is our primary identity! It is God who has given us life. And yet, when the Lord communicates his gift of natural life to us, as well as when he communicates his gift of supernatural life to us, he doesn’t act alone! That’s key! In his great wisdom and love he allows men—ordinary human beings—to participate in these events as physical and/or spiritual fathers.

“God ‘fathers’ us naturally through human beings (our earthly dads), and he does the same thing supernaturally through human beings (our priests).

“And so it’s fitting and proper that we should call our dads 'fathers'; as it’s fitting and proper that we should call our priests by the same title.

"In the natural order, our dads (and moms!) cooperated with God the Father to give us natural life. And they nurtured that life for many years by feeding us and supplying our basic human needs.

“In a similar way, through the grace of ordination, a priest is given power by God the Father to give us supernatural life (and to nurture that life) through the sacraments.

“For example, God the Father gives his children a supernatural rebirth through the priest in the sacrament of Baptism; he spiritually feeds his children through the priest in the sacrament of the Eucharist—and by the priest’s preaching and teaching; he binds up the spiritual wounds of his children through the priest in the sacrament of Confession; he even cares for his children in sickness and in death through the priest in the sacrament of Anointing.

“These are not just pious, religious rituals: these are some of the ‘fatherly’ duties of a priest.”

So there you have it: a relatively simple answer for a curious fundamentalist or evangelical as to why Catholics call their priests ‘Father’.

The answer, hopefully, will satisfy him. On the other hand, it might not.

If it does satisfy him, thank God! If it doesn’t, then pray for him every day: that his eyes will someday be opened to the truth on this issue.

And while you’re at it, pray for me and for all priests. Pray that we will be what we’re called by God to be: good—and holy—spiritual fathers.