One of the most important documents of the Second Vatican Council contains a beautiful reflection on the relationship of the priest and the bishop: “By reason of [the] sharing in the priesthood and mission of the bishop the priests should see in [the bishop] a true father and obey him with all respect. The bishop, on his side, should treat the priests, his helpers, as his sons and friends, just as Christ calls his disciples no longer servants but friends” (Lumen Gentium §28). The priest is the son of the bishop, the brother of the bishop in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and the friend of the bishop in the same way that redemption has made us friends of Jesus. If we take this document seriously, the relationship of the priest and the bishop should be quite familial, and it behooves both the bishop and the priest (or seminarian) to strive toward that ideal. After all, respect and obedience are a lot easier and more satisfying when the parties involved have a strong relationship.
My Ordinary, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, was chosen to serve in the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on Africa. The synod started in early October and finished on the 25th. For three and a half weeks, the seminarians from Atlanta who were studying in Rome had a very unique opportunity: we saw our bishop almost every day, enjoying the opportunity to greet him and to hear about his many experiences.
His time here was an exceptional privilege for us. I really appreciated the opportunity to spend time with the spiritual father of my Archdiocese. I also had the opportunity to grow in love for my bishop, who truly and genuinely cares for his seminarians as his sons. Throughout his stay here at the North American College, seminarians from other dioceses repeatedly commented on Archbishop Gregory, especially on how close he seemed to be to his seminarians. As I heard these comments, I realized how nonchalant I have become about the extraordinary relationship I enjoy with my bishop, a bishop who quite clearly wants the absolute best for me and seeks God’s will for me so that I might be abundantly happy and that I might share some of that happiness with the people of Atlanta one day.
One evening during his visit, I was in the chapel praying during Eucharistic Adoration. I noticed that the side door to the chapel was open. Then my bishop walked in. Archbishop Gregory hurt his leg several months ago while exercising and has had a long recovery; in fact, he is still doing physical therapy exercises. Over the course of his visit, I noticed repeatedly that at the end of a day, having trekked over the cobblestones of Rome, his limp would be greatly exacerbated. When he walked into the chapel, his limp the worst I had seen yet. My heart immediately ached for him because his suffering was evident.
He slowly made his way to an empty spot on the end of a row, genuflected, and knelt before our Lord. I sat across the chapel watching him for perhaps twenty minutes. I was transfixed by the sight. I knew he was tired. I knew that his leg was bothering him even as he knelt. But he stayed there, praying intently. After Benediction, he prayed Vespers with the seminarians and continued on about his evening business. His spirits were never down, and he never had anything less than a jovial and kind word to say to any of the seminarians he met. He ate lunch with us faithfully every day, and he prayed with us whenever his schedule allowed.
Sometimes I think the term spiritual fatherhood has become overly fragmented from the actual idea of fatherhood—the kind of father my brother is to his son. Now I don’t get the time from my bishop that my nephew gets from his Daddy, but I do have a spiritual father that prays for and with his sons, eats with his sons, shares stories with and listens to his sons, and spends each day seeking their well-being and happiness. All of this produces in my spiritual father a joy so tangible that it compels others to comment upon it. From my perspective, and my experience, spiritual fatherhood and fatherhood don’t actually differ that much.
I am grateful for the office of my bishop, and I am grateful for the person of my bishop. Perhaps what I am most grateful for is that I am never given any reason to think about the difference.
Fr. Joshua Allen is currently the Chaplain at the Georgia Tech Catholic Center in Atlanta, GA. He was ordained in 2011 and is a priest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. He has a License in Patristic Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University and also teaches at Holy Spirit College.