From time to time our non-Catholic brothers and sisters confront us with the saying of Jesus, “Call no man, father.” (Matt. 23:9) This saying has caused many a Catholic no small amount of confusion. We ask
ourselves, “Then why do we call a priest, ‘Father’?” A further question which is just as valid would be, “Why do we call our male parent, ‘father’ or by the more familiar variation, ‘Dad’?”
These are good questions to raise as we celebrate Father’s Day this month because it leads us to a better understanding of a role which is sadly misunderstood today. The Church has always understood that these words of Jesus are not to be taken literally any more than the words, “If your hand is your difficulty, cut it off.” (Mt. 5:30) The point Jesus is making is that no one is ‘father’, ‘teacher’, or ‘master’ on their own authority. All authority in heaven and on earth belongs to God. God is the Author of all things. But one of the greatest signs of the dignity God has bestowed upon human beings is that God chooses to share His authority; he chooses to accomplish His work, through the cooperation of human beings.
God calls certain men to exercise a kind of spiritual fatherhood in the world, giving his people new life in Baptism, strengthening them through the Sacraments, teaching and guiding in the name of the Church and praying with and for them day by day. This is why priests have come to be addressed as ‘Father’.
God calls other men to share His Fatherly role as they join their wives in bringing forth new life and creating a family. We are only beginning to appreciate how important the role of the father is in the healthy development of a child. Psychologists tell us that even our very image of God depends in great measure upon our experience with our human father. True, God is not male or female, but there are sufficient qualities that God has shared with fatherhood that Jesus could find no better title under which to address God. He spoke to God as ‘Abba’, ‘dear father’.
Very often today single mothers are left to raise a family. They deserve a great deal of credit and respect for the job they do both in supporting their children and in raising them on their own. But they will be the first to tell you themselves what an important part a father has to play in providing for children a secure and healthy environment; in modeling wholesome male relationships and behavior, not to mention the importance of demonstrating how to live in the complementary unconditional life-giving covenant of marriage.
It is right that we take a moment to thank the Lord for revealing his Fatherly care for us through our earthly fathers. For most of us he made his presence very personal and real in the human father he gave us. May God be with our fathers! May he help them to know their tremendous dignity! May God help us to represent His fatherhood well!