What does it mean to be a father? A standard definition of an ideal father is that he acts as a leader, protector, and provider. In a perfect world, seeing these traits would be more common than they actually are. Growing up, I remember waking up for school just as my dad was leaving for work. Even though he just worked retail, I loved going and spending some of his Saturday morning shifts with him. My dad is a gentle soul, and I’ve never heard him say a bad thing about anyone, yet he still portrays an image of strength, both physically and emotionally. In his own individual and gentle way, he executed his duties as a loving father.
Like all fathers, my dad isn’t without his faults. Nobody is perfect, and each good father executes his duties in an individual way. A military father will portray the paternal role of leader differently than my dad who grew up on a farm.
Even to men and women that didn’t grow up having a dad active in their lives, it still seems pretty obvious how one could fulfill these criteria of quality fatherhood. But why, then, do we call priests “father”? They have no biological children, and often wear the more impersonal hats of the property manager, social worker, or sacramental distributor in a parish. Yes, they are a spiritual father and called to love a parish broadly like a family, but how does he observe the fatherly roles of leader, protector, and provider? I’m glad you asked!
A priest being a leader seems relatively straightforward. They lead the prayer on Sundays, have the final say and organize events that happen in the parish and act as a general manager of a parish. This is how a priest exercises his Kingly office within the church. I wish I was able to count the amount of times I’ve heard of people leaving the church because of an uncharitable priest or poorly run parish. A priest being a leader in this sense is essential. A good pastor needs to be strong in virtue and leadership.
A biological father protects. I remember a time as a child when I was having trouble with a bully in school. For no discernable reason, this older kid didn’t like me. He was rude and seemed to enjoy embarrassing me in front of my friends or other peers. After a particularly bad day, I came home angry and told my dad all about it. We sat down and talked about standing up for myself. He told me the things that I needed to hear but reminded me that in life, I have to fight my own battles. I don’t remember if this improved the situation, but I remember him being there for me. He gave me the tools to protect myself.
A good priest protects his children from similar attacks on a spiritual level. A priest gives advice when it’s needed, but he can’t fight the battles of all his children. If a woman comes to a priest about her marriage problems, all he can do is give her tools for her to help herself. He listens with a loving ear and gives resources such as counselors or advice about healing the marriage. He prays for the protection of his parish and by being an example of virtue, gives them the tools to work through it.
The priest as provider is stated best in the Vatican II document Apostolicam Actuositatem, which states,
The Church was founded for the purpose of spreading the kingdom of Christ throughout the earth for the glory of God the Father, to enable all men to share in His saving redemption, and that through them the whole world might enter into a relationship with Christ. All activity of the Mystical Body directed to the attainment of this goal is called the apostolate, which the Church carries on in various ways through all her members. For the Christian vocation by its very nature is also a vocation to the apostolate….
…Since the laity, in accordance with their state of life, live in the midst of the world and its concerns, they are called by God to exercise their apostolate in the world like leaven, with the ardor of the spirit of Christ.
It is the job of each person, depending on their state in life, to spread the gospel to the world. As a biological father, this means giving an example of Jesus Christ to his family. But one cannot give what they do not have. The role of the priest is to give the Gospel and example of Jesus to his people so they can spread it to the world. The priest provides to families what the world needs. And nourishes them with the sacraments to provide strength.
Just like the father to every family, a spiritual father leads, protects, and provides for his family in a profoundly particular way. A way nobody else is able to. Jesus is the ultimate example of fatherhood for the world. The priest has the responsibility to teach and act in persona Christi be being a window to Christ’s love. But the priest is not able to reach everybody. The parishioners at a parish are called to hear the word of God and spread it to their workplace, schools, and friend groups. In a particular way, a father of a family is called to be a good Christian example, and bring his family to heaven.