Seminary faculty: Spiritual fatherhood central to priestly identity

Seminary faculty: Spiritual fatherhood central to priestly identity

Pope Francis ordains a priest in St. Peter's Basilica, April 26, 2015. Credit: Bohumil Petrik/CNA.
Pope Francis ordains a priest in St. Peter's Basilica, April 26, 2015. Credit: Bohumil Petrik/CNA.

.- Faculty at US seminaries have emphasized that spiritual fatherhood is an essential component of priestly identity, amid calls in some corners for priests not to be referred to as “Father”.

“Priests [are] like the father of a family – the spiritual family of the Church. It [is] a reminder to priests that they [are] to be like a father to a family,” said Fr. Pius Pietrzyk, O.P., chair of the pastoral studies department at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif.

The priest “exercises authority in a paternal that is a loving way and does so in a way in which God the Father himself exercises his authority over creation, that is, out of love,” he told CNA.

Cardinal John Dew of Wellington has said he no longer wants to be called “Father”, but “John”, suggesting that dropping the title Father could combat clericalism: “All I am trying to do is get guys to look at what clericalism might look like and what attitudes might need to change.”

Cardinal Dew, who in an Oct. 4, 2005 intervention at the Synod on the Eucharist suggested that the divorced-and-remarried could be admitted to sacramental Communion, cited an article by a French priest written in La Croix International suggesting that not using “Father” could “transform” the Church amid the clerical abuse crisis.

The New Zealander cardinal also noted the increasingly egalitarian aspect of society.

By contrast, the Second Vatican Council's decree on the ministry and life of priests, Presbyterorum ordinis, while acknowledging priests' role as disciples of the Lord in common with all the faithful, emphasized that “priests of the New Testament … exercise the most outstanding and necessary office of father and teacher among and for the People of God.”

The Vatican II document added that the faithful “should realize their obligations to their priests, and with filial love they should follow them as their pastors and fathers.”

And the newest edition of the Congregation for the Clergy's ratio fundamentalis on priesthood – which was issued in 2016 and guides priestly formation around the world – noted that priests are called "to exercise a true spiritual fatherhood in the communities entrusted to them,” and that the priest should exercise "his pastoral responsibility with humility as an authoritative leader, teacher of the Word and minister of the sacraments, practising his spiritual fatherhood fruitfully."

“Consequently, future priests should be educated so that they do not become prey to 'clericalism', nor yield to the temptation of modelling their lives on the search for popular consensus. This would inevitably lead them to fall short in exercising their ministry and leaders of the community, leading them to think about the Church as a merely human institution,” the ratio continued.

Neither Presbyterorum ordinis nor the ratio called for or suggested that priests no longer to be called “Father”.

Father John Kartje, rector of Mundelein Seminary outside of Chicago, told CNA that referring to a priest as “father” was first seen in the epistles of St. Paul, who identified himself as a father to the new believers of the Church in Corinth.

He said the use of the word 'father' is not meant to express tyrannical authority or abuse of power, but it is to be used as it was by St. Paul.

“The Church of Corinth was a Church that [Paul] founded. I think it was a Church of great endearment to his own heart and he refers to them as his beloved children. He writes in verse 15: ‘Even if you should have countless guides to Christ, you do not have any fathers, for I became your father.’”

“It’s a term of endearment and affection that [St. Paul] really cares for these people, but also that he does provide them with a servant leadership,” Fr. Kartje said.

He also said that in the early centuries of the Church bishops were referred to as “papa” and abbots of monasteries were referred to as “abba”, both of which are forms of “father”.

Fr. Pietrzyk said a priest is a spiritual leader of the community. He said authority is part of the Church and scripture, but it is not despotic ascendancy. As seen in Christ’s washing of the apostles' feet, he said it is exercised paternally and lovingly.

“Christ tells his disciples on more than one occasion that they are to exercise authority… but he reminds them that they are not to exercise that authority in a way that lords it over the people,” he said.

“The apostles exercise authority, but they do it in a way different from the world, different from civil authorities. They do it out of service to the people of God. I agree with the cardinal [that] that needs to be at the forefront of the bishop’s understanding, but you don’t do that by not calling yourself father. You do that by being a father.”

Fr. Pietrzyk noted that St. Patrick's Seminary renewed its curriculum recently. In doing so, the faculty compiled a list of characteristics to emphasize in priestly formation.

Spiritual fatherhood was at the top of the list.

“At St. Patrick’s Seminary, our primary goal in forming men to be priests is forming them to be spiritual fathers. It runs in everything that we do. That means they are fathers, that they exercise authority within a family, but they do so mindful always of the spiritual good.”

Tags: Spiritual fatherhood, Priestly identity, Cardinal John Dew