Why do we call a priest Father?
This very good question is one that all of us ought to know how to answer, especially because it is one of the first issues that many non-Catholics will cite either as something curious or as to why they think the Catholic faith is filled with “man-made rules” or falsehoods.
As with other questions that have to do with Church practices, as opposed to doctrines, the question of calling priests “father” is often criticized as not being scriptural, or worse, as contrary to what Jesus himself taught. Many who are either confused or flat out hostile to the Catholic Church will invoke Matthew 23:1-12 wherein Jesus also says to call no one rabbi or master (teacher), that they should, “Call no one on earth your father” (verse 9). Might I point out three facts about this passage. First of all, biblical scholars acknowledge that Jesus was employing a form of communication that was used in His time whereby the exaggerating of a point would make clearer the fundamental teaching being given. Thus, by saying to call no one rabbi, teacher, or father, the more important teaching on the nature of authority was communicated: that all authority comes from God and no one with a title can lay claim to such authority without acknowledging that such is given from above. As another example of the exaggeration of a point, you might remember Jesus words in Matthew 18:8-9, where He essentially says get rid of your hand, foot, or eye, if they cause you to sin. (See also Mark 9:42-48, where Jesus is even more frank in His words.)
A second point is that if we were to take these words literally, Jesus’ own words would be contradictory where He Himself refers to the fourth commandment to “honor your father and mother” in Matthew 19:19, and when He tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16, wherein he refers to Abraham by calling him “Father Abraham” in verse 24. Clearly Jesus acknowledges the reality of both fatherhood and the right use of the title “father” in these places.
As a final point – and as a real answer to the given question of “why” do we call priests father, we know that fathers are those who give life and build up those
entrusted to them. God reveals Himself as “Father;” He is the source and sustainer of all life (among other attributes of fatherhood). As for priests and other spiritual leaders being called father, St. Paul says to the Corinthians that they are His children, and, in 1 Corinthians 4:15, “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.” Paul’s referring to himself as their “father” certainly is not a reference to natural generation – but as their spiritual father, generating the life of Christ within those to whom he brings the Gospel and the grace of Jesus Christ. Priests, for their part, share this calling with St. Paul, to preach the Gospel and to offer the sacraments to the people, that life may grow within them. Furthermore, to call one “father” points to a level of familiarity and trust that is meant to be acted upon by those who preach the Gospel. Thus, calling priests by the title “father” both is well founded in Church tradition, and as a means to invite a deeper, more trusting relationship between the priests and those whom they serve.
As a twist on this question, might I ask everyone to always remember priests in your daily prayers. Just as the call to be natural fathers and mothers in families are huge responsibilities, wherein the mutual support of one another in the home can never be underestimated, so too the call to be spiritual fathers embraced by priests needs the support of the prayers of others. I am truly grateful for all who offer such prayers.