In a world without fathers, the "fatherhood" of the Catholic priest has lost much its meaning. Now is the time for seminarians to reclaim the spiritual paternity contained in the priest's vocation to be "Father."
This reflection on the seminarian and fatherhood is born of wonder at an obvious and often overlooked fact about the ordained priest: The Church tacitly sums up his identity and proposes him to the world in a single word—"Father." And the world, however unreflectively, actually assumes this form of address as its own in speaking to him.
Moreover, despite all efforts in the Church to identify the priest primarily with any of his various functions—liturgical presider, preacher of the Word, spiritual counselor, theological expert, collaborator in ministry, parish administrator, servant-leader, shepherd, promoter of social justice—the instinctive sense of the faithful, nonetheless, inevitably returns to the essential, "Good morning, Father."
In a culture of promiscuity, divorce, sex without babies, and babies without sex, the man as father is replaced by the detached male individual, free of commitment to, or responsibility for, anyone.
But is the priest of tomorrow being formed to understand and live up to what he is called? Strangely, the world of contemporary theological reflection, which offers so much instruction on each of the priestly functions just mentioned, finds itself almost completely at a loss to explain to the seminarian exactly how he is to become a "Father" at ordination.
What stands in the way of the seminarian fully embracing the spiritual paternity contained in his priestly vocation can be discussed under three headings: the eclipse of natural fatherhood, the flight into theological androgyny, and the fear of spiritual paternalism.
Eclipse of Natural Fatherhood
The identity crisis in the seminary and rectory has its roots in the identity crisis afflicting the family. Certainly, as late as a few generations ago, much about being a husband and father could simply be presupposed without being consciously proposed. Married life largely defined the adult male and taught him that his identity, dignity, and maturity lay in an exclusive, lifelong, and fruitful commitment to his wife and children.
For the priest, it was not a great leap of imagination to see in his promises of celibacy and obedience a spiritual image of what most men were living in the natural order as husbands and fathers. But in a culture increasingly powerless to check the rise of promiscuity, divorce, sex without babies (contracepted intercourse, gay marriage), and babies without sex (in-vitro fertilization, surrogate mothers, and, most recently, fathers dead before conception), the man as husband and father comes to be replaced by the detached male individual, free of irrevocable commitment to, or responsibility for, anyone. In a world dominated by the detached male individual, the priest now finds any ritual paternity he possesses unreflected and unsupported in the natural order by the lives of a discouraging number of males.
This contrast between the husband and father with the detached male individual neither idealizes the past nor condemns the present. The contrast highlights two views of gender difference that bear on understanding both natural and spiritual paternity: The difference of the male in relation to the female is either seen to exist fundamentally as a threat or as a gift. Either the masculine is designed to give itself, intrinsically ordered to initiate, engage, and liberate the fruitfulness of the feminine, or the masculine exists in self-enclosed neutrality vis-à-vis the feminine, carrying in its arbitrariness the ever-present threat of instrumentalization, domination, and violent alienation of the feminine.
The fatherhood of the seminarian does not exist in detached neutrality or for self-aggrandizement but rather for a kenosis...
The former view, which can be called "maleness as a gift," reflects the essence of true fatherhood and expresses in countless ways what it means to exist for the thriving of the other. As an example, one need only think of how, paradoxically, a husband makes his wife "more" of a woman, even as she makes him "more" of a man. The other view of gender difference, which can be termed "maleness as a threat," is hostile to fatherhood. It rejects in countless ways what it means to exist for the thriving of the other, in favor of preoccupation with the detached self.
When a critical mass of men becomes unwilling, or even unable, to be good husbands and fathers, the popular imagination comes to identify gender difference itself (including the very idea of fatherhood) as a threat. Observe, for example, the fate of the venerable word "patriarch." Traditionally, it signified a man whose whole life was expropriated and poured out for the fruitful flourishing of a whole people. Abraham was responsible for—was the sponsus (spouse) of—not just his immediate family but a whole nation.
Today, however, the patriarch is almost universally caricatured as the domineering, "patriarchal" tyrant, one who cares about little more than his own self-aggrandizement. Such one-sided mischaracterizations of maleness as a threat need to be challenged to affirm the truth of maleness as a gift, which conduces to a proper understanding of fatherhood.
The seminarian's understanding of his future spiritual fatherhood is adversely affected by the absence of fathers who embody and give meaning to the name. Because grace builds on nature, it is inescapable that the priest's spiritual fatherhood will rest on the natural foundations of maleness recognized as a gift and will be undermined when maleness is viewed as a threat. Discerning how these two opposing views of maleness operate in the culture is the first step toward solving the identity crisis of the "Father-to-be."
Flight into Theological Androgyny
The attempt to minimize gender distinctions into practical insignificance can take the form of an explicit promotion of the undifferentiated interchangeability of male and female, or it can be expressed in the principled avoidance of engendered language altogether.
This is the problem for the seminarian: His future identity as a priest is grounded in the revealed mysteries that constitute the Church's inner life of faith. These same mysteries disclose very specific theological interrelationships of the masculine and the feminine—ultimately of paternity and maternity—in the whole economy of salvation.
In recent theological reflection and liturgical practice, there has for some time been an attempt to minimize the significance of these interrelationships. Either the androgynous ideal has been actively pursued, or the studied silence concerning the theological value of gender distinctions has supported the ideal's tacit promotion. Such efforts have, intentionally or not, taught the seminarian to be insecure and embarrassed—or even suspicious and hostile—toward facets of the divine mysteries that give ultimate meaning to his life as a man and, one day, as a "Father."
Like every good parent, the priest should rejoice in and actively foster the mature spiritual freedom of his “children”.
Consider the patristic axiom, "He alone can have God as his Father who first has the Church as his mother." How often in academic theological discourse or liturgical compositions are the truths of this affirmation purposely passed over in silence, relativized out of importance, or even explicitly disparaged? In each of these cases, the impression is created that the fatherhood of God and the motherhood of the Church are little more than humanly generated metaphors arbitrarily projected onto the Ineffable (largely for the assertion or denial of human power).
Historically, so the argument goes, these culturally conditioned masks placed on the Faceless Divine have tended to over-exalt the dignity of men and belittle the worth of women. They have included some by excluding others. In such a view, a male priesthood necessarily becomes a structure of sin; the power attached to it is seen as both symptom and cause of the alienation of men from women. Needless to say, the world created in this image of theological androgyny provides rather inhospitable soil for the seminarian's priestly vocation to take root and grow.
The solution to the problems associated with the flight into theological androgyny must begin with recognition that God can and does redeem wounded human experience by the very mysteries of his revelation, which transcend—even as they embrace—human experience. These healing, salvific mysteries of revelation have as their center Jesus Christ, who is not a humanly constructed metaphor used for the conferral or denial of power, but the divine Person who, in His incarnation, becomes the living form and measure of what being human truly is.
Returning to our patristic axiom for illumination, it is Jesus Christ who grounds the affirmation that God is our Father and the Church embodied in Mary is our mother. In a twofold gift, Christ entrusts each and every disciple whom he loves undividedly to God the Father ("When you pray, say this..." [Luke 11:2]) and to the Church embodied in Mary, our Mother ("Behold your mother..." [John 19:27]). And within this twofold gift, Christ establishes Himself as the concrete norm for all engendered bodily relation, the "mega mysterion" of which St. Paul speaks (Ephesians 5:32). As the embodiment of the Father's love, Christ the bridegroom penetrates and pours himself out into the bridal Church, surrendering to the freedom of her fiat, which he evokes, initiating her fruitfulness and liberating her distinct creativity as the very completion of His own. In this perspective, the ministerial priesthood established by Christ can be seen as placed from the beginning at the service of God's loving plan for the thriving of the ecclesial mother of all the faithful.
It is imperative for the seminarian to recognize that his developing spiritual fatherhood is deeply rooted in precisely these divine, revealed mysteries. In doing so, he will see how the view of maleness as a gift is affirmed and deepened: It does not exist in detached neutrality or for self-aggrandizement but rather for a kenosis aimed at nothing less than the liberation of the other's distinctiveness, freedom, and fruitfulness. The seminarian will also see that the mysteries of the faith are neither the symptom nor the cause of the view of maleness as a threat—they, in themselves, have nothing to do with any instrumentalization, domination, and violent alienation of the other.
In dwelling for a moment on the mystery of God the Father and, earlier, on that of the nuptial relation of Christ to the Church, my purpose is to emphasize that for seminarians, the mysteries of the faith touching on gender are not first an embarrassment to be excused, as often results when the androgynous ideal guides one's thinking. One need not be ashamed to call God "Father." Neither, for that matter, need one demur from hailing Mother Church as a personalized "she," instead of a depersonalized "it."
The seminarian must have great confidence in the redemptive efficacy of these mysteries, not only for his own identity as a future priest but also for the healing of those who are entrusted one day to his care. In a culture in which so many men and women are so deeply wounded by countless distortions of true engendered bodily relation, the priest simply cannot abandon people to the exceedingly perilous task of discovering by their own lights what fully human fatherhood and motherhood really mean. He must know from within and propose with loving precision the central mysteries of Christian revelation that ground his own spiritual fatherhood. In so doing, he will serve the transformation of culture instead of merely mirroring it or capitulating to it.
The priest’s paternity is ultimately located in the sacramental mysteries, for it is precisely these sacramental mysteries that generate Christian personhood.
To understand properly the priest's service in redefining our culture's view of fatherhood in light of the mysteries of faith, we must address the final obstacle to the seminarian's embrace of the spiritual fatherhood distinctively contained in his priestly vocation—the fear of spiritual paternalism.
Fear of Spiritual Paternalism
It is obvious that any paternity the priest possesses must be a spiritual paternity, flowing from the revealed mysteries. Indeed Christ says at least as much when he relativizes all natural claims of fatherhood: "Call no one on earth your father" (Matthew 23:9). Thus, any priestly paternity must explicitly flow from the new dispensation Christ comes to introduce. It is only out of this redeemed order that Paul can call himself the "father" of his communities (1 Corinthians 4:15; cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:11; Philemon 1:10). But yet it is just this claimed fatherhood of the community that is so scandalous for many in the Church today to accept. There is the nagging worry that calling the priest "Father" will "reduce" the nonordained members of the Church to the status of children. How then does priestly fatherhood distinguish itself from spiritual paternalism, which seeks to keep others in a perpetual state of immaturity to wield power and influence over them?
The answer lies in that dimension of childhood that is almost invariably overlooked, namely that of the adult son or daughter. Life is so ordered that children eventually—and all too quickly—come to have an adult relationship with the parents whose child they always remain. And in this relationship, they may very well be smarter than their father, holier than their father, stronger than their father, and so on. But none of this changes the fact that they retain even in the full flowering of adulthood their filial status as son or daughter. In an analogous way, the spiritual paternity of the priest need not be seen as thwarting the mature freedom of his people. On the contrary, like every good parent, the priest should rejoice in and actively foster the mature spiritual freedom of his "children."
In what sense, then, is the priest still "prior" to his children? What makes him ever "Father," even in the midst of other adult Christians? The priest's paternity is ultimately located in the sacramental mysteries he is commissioned to administer, for it is precisely these sacramental mysteries that generate Christian personhood. Each Christian's eternal life in Christ begins in one's rebirth in baptism and continues in one's incorporation into Christ's body effected by the Eucharist, ratified in confirmation, and restored in penance (the latter being the continual return to both childlike innocence and adult maturity). As the mediator of these constitutive and formative graces of redeemed human personhood, the priest "fathers" his children into being and into maturity—liberating, as it were, the fruitfulness of Mother Church. From this perspective, it is also possible to see the spousal significance of the priest's expropriation of himself in holy orders for the service of the outpouring of sacramental grace. This expropriation "betroths" him to the Church and allows him to become a real image of Christ the bridegroom, whose kenotic sacrifice liberates the fruitfulness of the Church, His bride.
From another perspective, one also sees the limited, transitory nature of the priest's service in the Church. The sacramental mysteries pass through him and out of him, allowing the drama of growth in Christian personhood to find its center not in him but in the individual believer in the world: It is not ordination that makes the priest a God-bearer (Theotokos) but baptism. The dignity of being the bearer of Almighty God—of being holy—belongs to every child of God, and the priest, too, must continually receive his personal holiness from his own reception of the sacraments, including that of penance. Thus, as Pope John Paul II wrote in , the final safeguard for the priest against spiritual paternalism is the profoundly humbling truth that the "better gift, which can and must be desired, is love (cf. 1 Corinthians 12-13). The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are not the ministers but the saints."
What can be done in the formation of seminarians to allow them to understand and embrace the spiritual paternity that comes with ordination to the priesthood?
First, seminarians should be given every opportunity to experience what life in the most fully thriving Christian families looks like. As more seminarians come from family situations increasingly reflective of the secular culture, it is crucial that seminarians see fatherhood lived radically and robustly, in homes that exemplify what it means to be an ecclesia domestica. Seminarians must be allowed to observe firsthand how these families pray, work, and resolve problems together. Such experience will confirm the seminarian's emerging paternity and give him, as a future priest, positive ideas to offer to struggling families (rather than merely generic lamentations about the depravity of contemporary culture or exclusively negative moral prohibitions).
Second, those in charge of seminary formation—be they professors, spiritual directors, or field education supervisors—must be conscious that they are about the business of shaping seminarians to be spiritual fathers, not simply generic ministers or asexual collaborators. In other words, the natural, healthy male imaginative and appetitive dynamisms of seminarians to be husbands and fathers must be proactively engaged and transformed at every turn by the program of priestly studies they are pursuing; the whole man—head and heart and loins—must be taken up in the call to be called "Father."
Those in charge of seminary formation must be conscious that they are shaping seminarians to be spiritual fathers, not simply generic ministers or asexual collaborators.
In the academic curriculum and spiritual conferences, there must be a principled attempt by faculty to discern and privilege those authors and texts that support the seminarian's emerging spiritual paternity and unfold most clearly the central dogmatic mysteries of the faith in which this paternity is grounded, particularly the nuptial mystery of Christ and the Church.
Third, priests forming seminarians must themselves be confident, contemplative witnesses to what it means to be a spiritual father. Distance must be maintained, without a faculty priest appearing to be "just the professor," and nearness must be fostered without becoming "just a peer." A consciously embraced spiritual paternity already contains within itself the dynamic balance that must be struck between distance and nearness. True spiritual fatherhood modulates organically the relational "boundaries" that must be alternately observed and overcome, transforming by its radiance every suspicion of relational deficiency or deviance that the world (today more than ever) is tempted to attach to those in the ordained priesthood.
In this hour of the Church's history, the time is ripe for a substantive retrieval and renewal of the priest's vocation to be "Father." So many of the implications of the great mystery of Christ and the Church still remain to be embraced and lived. And there is no surer way to bring to light this enduring face of the priesthood than to entrust its future to the Father of mercies, "from whom all fatherhood [patria] in heaven and on earth"—including the spiritual paternity of the priest—"takes its name" (Ephesians 3:15).