Priests are Spiritual Fathers

Homily for Saturday of Week 20

by Fr. Tommy Lane

Hypocrisy. That is the failing of the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus condemns in the Gospel today (Matt 23:1-12). They do not practice what they preach. They have God-given authority because they sit on Moses’ seat. In other words, they regard themselves in a line of succession going back to Moses just as our bishops are in a line of succession going back to the apostles. But the problem with the scribes and Pharisees is that they are hypocrites. Instead of helping people Jesus says they are putting burdens on people. They want to be seen, they want honors and they want titles. Instead Jesus says his disciples are not to be seeking after titles; they are not to be called rabbi and are not to call anyone on earth “father” because there is one Father in heaven (Matt 23:8-9). If Jesus tells the disciples not to call anyone on earth father, why are Catholic priests called “Father”? Three important guidelines for interpreting Scripture are context, context, and context. In today’s Gospel passage Jesus is condemning hypocrisy. We call a Catholic priest “Father” because he is our spiritual father, but when Jesus said to call no one father he was condemning hypocritical use of titles for one’s own glory, not just the title father, but the hypocritical use of any title, rabbi, father, master.

In fact, using the title “Father” to refer to a priest as our spiritual father is biblical. There are many instances of spiritual fatherhood in the New Testament. St. Paul referred to himself as the spiritual father of the Corinthians, “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 4:15) Paul also spoke about himself as the spiritual father of the Galatians, “My children, for whom I am again in labor until Christ be formed in you.” (Gal 4:19), and regarded himself as the spiritual father of the Thessalonians, “as you know we treated each of you as a father treats his children.” (1 Thes 2:11) St. Paul saw himself as the spiritual father of Timothy; he wrote to the Corinthians, “I am sending you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord” (1 Cor 4:17). On many occasions in the pastoral latters we see references to Paul as Timothy’s spiritual father, “Timothy, my true child in faith” (1 Tim 1:2), “I entrust this charge to you Timothy my child” (1 Tim 1:18), “to Timothy, my dear child: grace, mercy and peace.” (2 Tim 1:2) St. Paul is also the spiritual father of Titus, “to Titus, my true child in our common faith”, and Paul is the spiritual father of Onesimus, “I urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment.” (Philemon 10) So on many occasions the spiritual fatherhood of Paul is referenced in the New Testament and on some occasions the word “father” itself is used to describe that spiritual relationship between Paul and his flock. St. Peter also uses the language of spiritual fatherhood. In 1 Pet 5:13 Peter writes that “my son Mark” sends greetings. This is Mark the evangelist who used Peter as his source to write the Gospel. When Mark wrote his Gospel he consigned to writing the teaching of his spiritual father, St. Peter. Finally one Old Testament example; when the Prophet Elisha saw the Prophet Elijah who had mentored him, ascending to heaven he cried out “my father, my Father.” (2 Kings 2:12)

Christ condemned hypocritical use of titles but spiritual fatherhood is bringing people to Christ and calling a priest “Father” describes his role rather than being a mere title. The Greek word ἄγγελος (angel) means messenger. It is not just describing a spiritual being but telling us the role of the spiritual being, to be a messenger. When we call a priest “father” we are referring to his role as our spiritual father. Like St. Paul and St. Peter, a priest is the spiritual father of his flock.

© Fr. Tommy Lane 2014

This homily was delivered in Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.