Why we call priests “Father”
Today’s Gospel is sometimes quoted by people who want to challenge the practice of calling priests “Father” observed in Catholic and Orthodox Churches today. The argument goes something like: “well Jesus said not to, so Catholics are going against Jesus when they call priests ‘Father.”
That’s really misses the point of the very rich, and very deep truth Jesus is telling us in today’s Gospel – not only why we should call no one our father on earth, but also what it means about those men whom He has called to be our “Fathers”.
It’s simply not the case that Jesus forbade His disciples to use the word “Father” to address another human being. If that were the case, Christians should not buy Father’s Day cards. And the practice of using the title “Father” in a spiritual relationship goes right back to the Apostles themselves.
St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:15-16 says:
“For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
And St. John the Evangelist in his first letter, 1 John 2:13-14 says not once, but twice:
“I am writing to you, fathers”
So what was Jesus saying? He was drawing our attention to the fact that all fatherhood – whether biological or spiritual, as the Catechism tells us, has God for its “origin and standard,” who “transcends human fatherhood… no one is father as God is Father” (CCC 239).
And what does that mean for priests? It means that the measure of a priest is not his outward appearance, knowledge, eloquence, efficiency, or even personal piety. The measure of a priest is simply the degree to which the strong, loving, nurturing Fatherhood of God that Jesus came to reveal becomes tangible to us through His priests. That’s why we call priests “Father.”