Posts

Why do Catholics Call Priests “Father”?

Last year, I gave you several examples in this column of answers to the question of “Why do Catholics do that?” It was wildly popular, so I’ve decided to give you more! Actually, I don’t think any of you ever commented about it haha. Anyway, I’ve been doing the same Q & A with the fabulous group from RCIA at the start of each of our weekly meetings. We’ve gone over why we make the Sign of the Cross, use a crucifix, pray the rosary, use statues of saints, and receive ashes at the start of Lent. Feel free to ask me about these anytime!

Why do Catholics call priests “Father”?

We heard in the Gospel (Mt 23) at last Tuesday’s Mass Jesus say to the crowds, “Call no one on earth your father”. Protestants like to bring this up to Catholics when asking why we call priests “Father”. They take this saying of the Lord literally and isolate it which is their common practice with certain Scripture verses. That can be dangerous because lines like this taken literally and by themselves contradict Scripture itself. The Bible calls men on earth “father” all over the place. For example, the fourth commandment is “honor your father and mother”.

We have to take Mt 23:9 in the context of the entire passage. The Church asks us to do this with each Scripture passage and with the whole of Scripture. In other words, we are to have a “global view” when reading the Bible. This global view helps us to see what Jesus is saying in Matthew 23. He is railing against the scribes and the Pharisees for loving the salutations of “Rabbi”, “Father”, and “master”. They are into the prestige of being a religious leader, and have gotten carried away with spiritual pride. So, he is basically saying that we should call no one on earth “Father” who only loves the title of father.

Jesus shifts quickly to the real fathers on earth: those who reflect the “one Father in heaven”. And, the greatest example of this is Jesus Christ himself. His whole mission is to reflect the Father in heaven. He is referred to as the Word (Logos in Greek). He is the Word of the Father. He speaks of the Father and communicates the Father to us. He is the knowledge of the Father. His whole mission is to reflect the Father so that we come to know the Father through him. So, any father on earth that lives Christ is reflecting God the Father.

Every Catholic priest is known as alter Christus (another Christ). Everything I just wrote about Christ becomes true about Catholic priests, especially in the sacraments (when priests act in persona Christi – in the person of Christ). So, we call priests “Father” because they reflect the love and mercy and goodness of God the Father in Christ. We know that the early Church referred to the Apostles (the first priests) and their successors as “fathers” by the following passages:

“Even if you should have countless guides to Christ, yet you do not have many fathers, for I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel”.

  • 1 Cor 15:4–“Even if you should have countless guides to Christ, yet you do not have many fathers, for I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel”.
  • Acts 7:2–“And he replied, ‘My brothers and fathers, listen…”
  • Acts 22:1–“My brothers and fathers, listen to what I am about to say to you in my defense”

There’s no doubt that we should not use the term father lightly. The term carries great significance to us when it applies to our biological and spiritual fathers. But, the ultimate point that the Lord is making and that the Church has honored for 2,000 years is that we call fathers all those who show us God the Father.

May you know the freedom of Christ this Lent,

Fr Greg