Sharing in His Fatherhood
[Mal.1:14-2.2,8-10; 1Thess.2:7-9,13; Mt.23:1-12]
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, ‘Call no-one on earth your father, for you have one Father, the one in heaven.’
Why then do Catholics call priests ‘Father’?
We are sometimes criticised for this, but that reflects a misunderstanding of what Jesus is saying to us. Let me explain.
In Matthew 23, Jesus is in the Temple shortly before his Crucifixion. He is talking to the people, and warns them about the Scribes and Pharisees. These Jewish leaders know their Bible, he says, but they’re hypocrites. They like to be admired, and they love fancy titles, especially being called ‘Master’ and ‘Teacher’ and ‘Father.’ But don’t be like them, Jesus says.
Jesus is not saying never, ever, call anyone your ‘father’ or ‘teacher.’ He’s not speaking literally, because your teacher is still your teacher, and your father is still your father. But he is reminding us that everything comes from God; that God is the first of all fathers, and that Christ himself is the first of all teachers.
The Scribes and Pharisees, however, think they’re the ultimate authority on everything. Don’t be like that, Jesus says. Be humble, because everything comes from God. Then he adds, ‘Anyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will be exalted.’
Why, then, do we call our priests ‘Father’?
Well, firstly, it’s a sign of respect. In Acts 7:2, Stephen refers to ‘our father Abraham’. Jesus also calls Abraham ‘father’ (Jn.8:56), and Paul speaks of ‘our father Isaac’ (Rom.9:10). They respect Abraham and Isaac as the earliest fathers of the faith.
Secondly, priests are our spiritual fathers. Paul tells the Corinthians, ‘(You are) my beloved children …For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel’ (1Cor.4:15). He also tells Timothy (2Tim.2:1), Titus (Tit.1:4), Onesimus (Phil.10) and the Galatians (Gal.4:19) that he is their spiritual father.
And thirdly, calling someone ‘Father’ highlights the special responsibility God has given him. In the Book of Job, Job calls himself ‘…a father to the poor’ (Job 29:16). In Genesis, Joseph tells his brothers, ‘God has made me a father to Pharaoh …and ruler over Egypt’ (Gen.45:8).
In a similar way, God has given his priests a special responsibility to look after his people, with the care and humility that you’d expect from a good father.
But there are other fathers for us to consider.
The French artist Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) is often called the ‘Father of Modern Painting.’ For 35 years he lived in obscurity, producing masterpieces that he gave away to neighbours. He loved his work so much that he didn’t worry about recognition; nor did he think he’d ever become famous.
Cézanne owes his fame to a Paris dealer who discovered his paintings and organised his first exhibition. The world was amazed to discover this new master, and Cézanne was amazed by the attention he received. He arrived at the art gallery leaning on his son’s arm, and couldn’t contain his surprise when he saw his paintings displayed. He turned to his son and said, ‘Look, they’ve framed them!’[I]
Matisse called Cézanne ‘the father of us all,’ and Picasso claimed him as ‘my one and only master.’ [ii] But Cezanne always remained humble. (Interestingly, in 2011 his painting ‘The Card Players’ was sold for $274 million.) [iii]
Cezanne was the ‘Father of Modern Painting.’ Why? Because God gave him a share in his own creative fatherhood.
Another father for us to consider is St Martin de Porres. Today (5th November) is his feast day. Martin was born in 1579, in Lima, Peru, into very humble circumstances. When his mother, a former slave-girl, sent him to the market, he often returned empty-handed because he’d given the food to the poor.
At 15, he joined the Dominicans, but he never became a priest. Instead, he spent his life caring for the sick, the poor, the homeless and the dying, and he came to be known as ‘the Father of Charity’ and ‘Father of the Poor.’
Why was St Martin called this? It’s because God had given him a share of his own compassionate Fatherhood, just as God had given Cezanne a share of his creative Fatherhood.
In the same way, God gives his priests a share in his spiritual Fatherhood, and that’s why we call them ‘Father.’ But God is always the original father, the original teacher, and the original master, for everything comes from God.
As for us today, if you have received any special titles, responsibilities or blessings, don’t let them go to your head.
As Jesus says, everything comes from God.
[i] Anthony de Mello, Taking Flight. New York: Image Books, 1990:111-112.