This delightful question serves as a reminder that fathers—and mothers—are not just biological realities but symbols as well. The role and work that parents perform in the raising of children naturally lends itself to this symbolism. When we think of good parents, we think of kindness, nurturing, and unconditional love. They bring to mind strength, protection, loving care, and attentiveness. We use the symbols of parenthood to describe other contexts as well. Mary is the mother of the church. Mahatma Gandhi is the father of Indian independence. The early leaders of our nation are referred to as Founding Fathers.
This symbolic understanding of parenthood goes back to biblical times. In 1 Cor. 4:15, St. Paul uses his own life as a model for Christian living. Paul reminds the Christians of Corinth that it was he who brought the faith to them. “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel,” he writes. Though he sometimes has to engage strong emotions in his letters, Paul seems to prefer a tone of gentle reproof: “I am writing you this not to shame you but to admonish you as my beloved children” (1 Cor. 4:14). It is easy to see why he presents himself as a spiritual father.
Those who tend toward biblical literalism sometimes express concern for Paul’s presentation of himself as a father of the church, a concern that carries over to using the word “father” in other religious contexts as well. This is due to a passage in the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus cautions his listeners that they should “call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven” (Matt. 23:9). But when read in context, it is apparent this commandment comes after a story where Jesus contrasts a sincere religious leader, who practices what he preaches, with one who fails to follow the teachings he conveys. Jesus is not insisting that we avoid using the word father in all metaphorical senses but that we recognize that only God can be perfect; only God can fulfill the role of the sincere religious leader.
Given the ways in which they serve the community, it seems a natural and even holy development that we see priests as symbolic parents. Their sacramental service runs parallel to the sacrifices given for us by our biological parents. Priests baptize us, bringing us into the realm of Christ and incorporating us into the family of the church. They pronounce words of healing and forgiveness. They feed us and counsel us.
Of course, we should also recognize the limitations of this terminology. People are not perfect, and this applies to both biological and sacramental fathers. And fathers (or mothers) don’t accomplish their work alone. Entire families and communities are necessary to raise a child. This fact serves to remind us that everyone has a place in the church and everyone has a job to do, not just the fathers.
This article appeared in the October 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 80, No. 10, page 48).