Blog # 304 Father's Day
The Catholic custom of referring to a priest as "Father" is and has been a serious obstacle in the minds of many of our fellow believing Christians. It is worthwhile noting that the Bible verse in question,
(Mat. 23: 9), is immediately followed by another verse that reads: "Avoid being called teachers. Only one is your teacher, the Messiah". (Mat 23: 10). There is a history to the problem of course.
In the early ages of the Church, before and during the time when the New Tesetament was being composed there was no problem. Nor was there a problem as the Church moved through the centuries until on the American scene fundamentalistic preachers developed it into a major issue. It is not a ommon problem among Scriptural scholars, nor is it a problem in other parts of the world where the American influence has not prevailed.
Certainly the Catholic Church knows the words of the Gospel with regard to Jesus' statement. We know, however, as well, the meaning of the statement. Taken out of context, we would no more have taken up the custom of calling a priest Father, let alone tolerate it for centuries, than we would have taken up or tolerated a custom of stealing, telling lies, or murder.
The Bible itself, the inspired word of God, makes use of the term father both in regard to God and to natural human fathers on earth. In the Hebrew Scriptures ( the Old Testament), the word father is used 706 times, but only 10 of these refer to Yahweh (God). In the Christian Scriptures, ( the New Testament), the word father is used 359 times, of which 229 are in reference to God. On the surface it would seem the Bible itself contradicts the command of Jesus, which we know is impossible.
For St. Paul, who explicitly referes to himself in the Bible as a father of believers, the use of the term was a blessing rather than an obstacle or a wedge between himself and God. This is true because for him it was a definite reminder and proclamation of the fact Christian believers through faith and Baptism experience a second birth, becoming children of God, heirs with Christ of the Father's eternal love. Our use of the term for the ordinary minister of the Sacrament of Baptism (a priest) is the same. It seems a lack of knowledge, both of the meaning of Scripture in this instance and of the meaning of our Catholic tradition and the reasons we retain the tradition are at the root of any problem a sincere Bible-reading person would have with it.
Here are a few samples of references in the Bible using the word father for someone other than God: 1Cor 4: 14 - 17. I am writing to you in this way not to shame you but to admonish you as my beloved children. Granted you have ten thousand guardians in Christ. you have only one father. It was I who begot you in Christ Jesus through my preaching of the Gospel. I beg you,then, be imitators of me. This is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful son in the Lord. Rom 4:16,f. "Abraham is father of us all, which is why Scripture says, "I have made you father of many nations... Rom 9 10. "for when Rebekah had conceived twin children by one man, our father Isaac... Acts 7:2; James 2: 21; Acts 2: 29; and 4: 25.
Aware the gift of new life into which we are born by faith and Baptism is a share in the life of the Resurrected Jesus, it is always helpful to reflect upon how that life is identified and proclaimed in the Scriptures. The Resurrected Jesus is the same person as the historical Jesus who walked among us, ate our bread, needed and enjoyed the sleep we need and enjoy but is now revealed in His glorified state. Jesus was constantly aware of the Father's presence to him. Though divine and from all eternity united with the Father in divine love, like us, Jesus while on earth was called to discover and respond to God humanly in the physical world, in people, and in the human experience of prayer. It was to this response to which Jesus was referring when on the night before He died in obedience to the Father's plan for Him on the Cross He said His obedience was evidence to all that He loved the Father. His invitation to all was to join Him in that love.
Not all would understand. Not all would be willing. In the course of Jesus' life as given in the Gospels we find Him so perfectly obedient to the Father's will that all who heard Him speak and saw Him act should have known His love for the Father was the supreme value in His life. This could only be total love. Nothing and no-one could take the Father's place as Creator of all that exists. No-one should be thanked as the Father should be thanked, no-one worshiped in His stead. No-one could asssume his authority or His Name."Do not call anyone on earth your Father. Only one is your Father, the one in Heaven."
Sadly, it seems that our Catholic practice of referring to a priest as Father remains a problem of such major proportions as to preclude on the part of some any serious possibility of investigating and discovering the richness of our faith, history, and tradition. All that we would ask of anyone who would want to enter into discussion with us with regard to a justfiication or condemnation of the practice on our part is an open mind, a willingness to accept our word as sincere, and a prayer for the light of truth for us both.
First of all it should be said most clearly we as Catholics profess faith in One God, Father,Son, and Holy Spirit. There is no other God. Statues are not God. Mary the Mother of Jesus is not God. Angels and Saints are not God. The Pope, priests, nuns. and ritual are not God. Not being God, they neither deserve nor are offered the praise thanks adoration love and worship we offer to God alone. We do not believe in any competitor for God's glory. We don't even come close to being tempted away from our conviction here. The official texts of the Mass illustrate and give clear evidence of our awareness of the Father's place in our life our love, and our devotion to Him.l
Here are a few samples from that text. "Father, it is our duty and our salvation always and everywhere to give You thanks." "I believe one God, the Father almighty." " You are indeed holy, O Lord, the fount of all holiness ". "Our Father...Hallowed be Thy Name...Thy will be done." And the final proclamation at the most solemn part of the Mass is: "Through Him (Jesus), and with Him, and in Him, to You, O God, Almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, is all honor and glory , for ever and ever. Amen!"
Back in 1990 I was living down in Manassas. Georgia. I was scheduled to offer early Mass in Statesboro, twenty-five miles away. I was out before dawn feeding the chickens in the pen in the back yard. They were just chickens, but they were mine, and they gave me special joy. I was happy to be very careful not to make any noise or fuss when I was placing their feed, careful not to wake them up. In some notes I wrote later that morning I saw this incident as a reminder of how God relates to us. How happy I was to care for the chickens. How 'happy' God is to care for us, and how much more perfectly and powerfully He does. "Look at the birds of the air...Your Father feeds them." How much more love, wisdom, and care our Father shows for us! God delights in us when we are good. (Prov 2: 31) "...and I found delight in the sons of men." Happy we should be! That is God's plan, all the way to the end. Those who discover it and follow it need not be afraid. Do you ever think we might come to a day here in the United States when we will celebrate Our Father's Day with a joy like we have on Christmas?