The Spiritual Fatherhood of Priests

Why is it that Catholics call their priests by the title “Father” and the Pope is called the “Holy Father” when we are told to call no man our father?

What is being cited is Matthew 23:8-12: “As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Messiah. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” The language that Jesus uses is a form known as Hebraic hyperbole, stressing matters to absurdity for exclamatory purposes to make a point. It is not dissimilar from when he says that if your eye causes you to sin then pluck it out or if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.  Jesus does not mean for us literally to maim ourselves.  Note also that the apostle Paul refers to himself as a father to those whom he has brought the new dispensation.  Further, I am always perplexed as to why critics of the Catholic practice see no problem with calling earthly biological and adopted fathers by this title of endearment.  Jesus says at the same time not to call any man (master) teacher and yet we also do that all the time.  The point that Jesus is trying to make is that there is no true fatherhood that does not on some level reflect our Father in heaven.  Ultimately, there is no authority that can compete with God.  There is no authentic teacher that can propose truths in conflict with what God reveals to us.  Further, no human fatherhood can displace the caring role of God and his love for all of us as his children.  The priest is called Father because his vocation involves a spiritual paternity.  He watches over and cares for those entrusted to him. Scripture makes it abundantly clear that any notion of an absolute prohibition of the title “father” is absurd.      

Matthew 15:4-6 – “For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘Whoever curses father or mother shall die.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to father or mother, “Any support you might have had from me is dedicated to God,” need not honor his father.’ You have nullified the word of God for the sake of your tradition.”

Matthew 19:5 – “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?’”

Matthew 19:19 – “… honor your father and your mother’; and ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Matthew 21:31 – “Which of the two did his father’s will?”

John 8:56“Abraham your father rejoiced to see my day; he saw it and was glad.”

Luke 16:24, 30 – “And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me.’ …He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’”

Acts 7:2 – “And he replied, ‘My brothers and fathers, listen ….’”

Romans 4:11-12 – “Thus he was to be the father of all the uncircumcised who believe, so that to them also righteousness might be credited, as well as the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised, but also follow the path of faith that our father Abraham walked while still uncircumcised.”

Romans 9:10 – “And not only that, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one husband, our father Isaac— ….”

1 Corinthians 4:14-16 – “I am writing you this not to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 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.”

James 2:21 – “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?”

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Mass for the 22nd Sunday of the Year

[126] Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29 / Psalm 68:4-5, 6-7, 10-11 / Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24a / Luke 14:1, 7-14

The first reading this weekend is short but very meaningful.  We read again:

“My child, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts. Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.” 

As I reflected upon this I recalled a few wonderful insights given by Pope Benedict XVI on the value of humility.  He tells us, “A key point in which God and man are different is pride. We, who are little, desire to appear great, to be first; while God, who is truly great, is not afraid to humble himself, and make himself last.”  This is an intuitive appreciation of both the attitude of fallen man and the truth about God.  Indeed, it sets the stage for understanding the incarnation where the infinite and all powerful God makes himself a vulnerable child.  If any of us would doubt this reality, thirty-three years later we would witness just how much our God gives up to save us.  Jesus tells his apostles that “if anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” But his friends have trouble understanding.  Pope Benedict adds about this, “It is clear, that between Jesus and the disciples there is a deep interior distance; they are, so to speak, on two different wavelengths.” I suppose the same could be said about us.  At the very heart of who we are there must be a genuine humility that acknowledges God and our dependence upon him as his creatures.  There have been too many men and women in history who thought they were gods and yet we follow the God who makes himself a man.  Pope Benedict teaches that “following the Lord requires of each person a profound conversion, a change in his or her way of thinking and living, it requires us to open our hearts to be enlightened and to be inwardly transformed.”  This is important.  Many imagine humility as simply an external way of acting but we know all too well that some deceive themselves and others by pretending to be humble. 

There is a joke about this in clerical circles.  There is an ambitious priest who works hard to always say and do the right things. He makes every effort to sound wise and to get himself noticed.  When it comes to vestments and liturgy, he always stands out.  Well, his efforts seem to pay off because he is called in by his ordinary one day and given a happy announcement. The bishop announces that he is sending his name to the Pope so that he might become a bishop. Secretly, the priest is overjoyed.  This is what he has prayed for since seminary.  But then he thinks, how should I respond to this news? It should not appear that I am prideful.  He decides to feign humility.  He tells his bishop.  “Your Excellency, while I am grateful, I am really most undeserving and there are so many better priests for such an office.” Now, while expecting an argument, he is surprised to hear the ordinary say, “Oh well then, I’ll select someone else.”  And there the story ends.  Did it ever happen? I cannot say.  But it reminds us all that true humility must be truthful or it is neither humility nor the truth. 

Yes, humility means a certain level of debasement; but more than anything else, humility is a profound appreciation about God and our own status.  We neither ignore our faults nor do we devalue our gifts.  Humility is a genuine connection to the truth, especially the peculiar spin on the truth that emerges from the parables.  The Holy Father puts forward the Virgin Mary as a wonderful witness as to what humility is all about.  He says that she shows us how “to follow Jesus faithfully on the path of love and humility.”  Despite her singular role in the history of salvation, she is always a signpost to her Son.  As the handmaid of the Lord, she rejoices in her Lord, knowing that everything she has is a gift.  Of course, the greatest gift of all is Christ. 

Today’s Gospel speaks to this theme of humility on many levels. First, our Lord tells a parable about guests who “were choosing the places of honor at the table.”  He warns them about the embarrassment this will bring if told to move and urges them to take the lowest place instead.  This message is for the crowd. Second, he turns to his host, the Pharisee, with a message for him.  Inviting a celebrity like Jesus as well as wealthy and influential neighbors feeds his pride.  Jesus tells him instead to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” to a banquet, the ones that cannot repay you.  In return, Jesus promises a far greater reward, a share in the “resurrection of the righteous.”

Pride is a dangerous sin. I am not speaking here about a healthy sense of one’s value as a child of God, but rather about an exaggerated sense of one’s worth and importance.  The trouble with pride is that in order to make oneself larger, that person has to make everyone else smaller.  I suppose that is why Jesus urges the rich man to give everything away. Humility makes us aware that we are all loved by God the same and that everyone is precious and has dignity.  We are all sinners who need mercy. We are all wounded needing healing.  There are no self-made men— just self-made sinners.  Genuine humility allows us to put out our hands with other poor men and women— beseeching grace and mercy. 

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The Pope & Christ

If Jesus is the Lord then why do Catholics follow the Pope?

There is no conflict as the Pope is the successor of Peter, made by Jesus as the ROCK or head of his Church.  The Pope does not displace Christ but stands for him as his vicar on earth.  Jesus is the invisible head of the Church and the Pope is the visible head.  The Pope, sometimes called the Holy Father, but not to be confused with God our heavenly Father, is not the master of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition but rather is their divinely protected servant and interpreter. It is true that Peter denies Christ three times but he is forgiven and with three affirmations of love is told by the risen Christ to care for his flock.

The pattern of the New Testament is retained in the life of the Church.  While the Pope usually speaks from his ordinary magisterial authority, he is also empowered by God to make special infallible statements.  This preservation from error serves the mission of Christ who said that he came to proclaim the truth.  Public revelation ends with the death of the last apostle, but the Church under the Pope transmits these truths and reflects upon them in time. The doctrine of infallibility is frequently misunderstood.  It does not mean all his practical decisions are guaranteed correct or that every personal idea or assumption is correct.  The notion of infallibility might seem incredible but most Christians, Catholic and Protestant, also believe that the Sacred Scriptures are inspired by God and are preserved from error in terms of necessary saving truths.  This can be misunderstood as well, as when people wrongly try to use the Bible as a science text.  The inspiration or infallibility of the Bible comes from God, even though the human authors were sinful and weak men. The Holy Spirit inspires the Bible (indeed the whole process in its formation), the bishops who gather in council and the papacy.  Note the unity of the Catholic Church in the universal truths that it teaches century after century.  By comparison there is a vast fragmentation in the non-Catholic or Protestant churches, as well as a wide divergence in what they believe.         

Matthew 16:18-19“And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. l I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

John 14:15-18 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.”

John 21:15-17“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He then said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’”

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Catholicism & the Bible

How can Catholics say they are Christians if they do not believe in and follow the Bible?

The Catholic Church is the mother of the Bible.  The bishops of the Church gathered at the synod or council of Hippo in 393 AD and compiled what is the current canon of books for the Bible.  We believe that the Holy Spirit inspires the Scriptures and protects the Church in teaching revealed truths.  All necessary saving truth can be found in the Bible, although not everything may be explicit. While we do not deny the value of God’s Word, most Protestants reject the value of Sacred Tradition and the necessary “authoritative” role of the Church.

Until the invention of the printing press, most believers did not have access to a Bible and even if they did many were illiterate.  That is why the stained-glass windows of churches often detailed important stories from biblical salvation history.  Bibles were originally made by hand and the production of one might take a scribe several years.  Some churches chained these Bibles to pulpits, not to keep God’s Word away from the people but to insure that no one stole the Scriptures regularly proclaimed at Mass.  Disagreements among believers (regarding truth and heresy) were not resolved by the Bible but by an agreed consensus of bishops in council.  This is a pattern we see from the earliest days.

Acts 15:1-29 – The Council of Jerusalem

The magisterium (the Pope and bishops in union with him) constitutes the essential interpreter of the Sacred Scriptures and the Sacred Tradition.  We believe that the Holy Spirit preserves the Church in the truths of Christ.     

1 Corinthians 11:2 – “I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold fast to the traditions, just as I handed them on to you.”

2 Thessalonians 2:15 – “Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.”

2 Thessalonians 3:6 – “We instruct you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who conducts himself in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us.”

2 Timothy 1:13-14 – “Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard this rich trust with the help of the holy Spirit that dwells within us.”

2 Timothy 2:2 – “And what you heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will have the ability to teach others as well.”

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Mass for the 14th Sunday of the Year

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Mass for Junipero Serra

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Mass for First Martyrs of Rome

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Mass for Saints Peter & Paul

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Mass for St. Irenaeus

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Mass for Monday of the 13th Week of the Year

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