In a society that not only misunderstands fatherhood, but especially misunderstands the call to celibacy, this is a powerful message. Fecundity is not limited to biological fathers. In a very real way, the call to spiritual fatherhood bears much fruit.
For the past three years, my husband has been a professor at our diocesan seminary. With a disclosure of full bias, I truly believe that this particular seminary is one of the finest in the country. The faculty is comprised of both lay men and women, as well as priests, and there is a recognition that the seminarians benefit from the time spent with lay people and their families. After all, this is the very population that a diocesan priest is called to serve.
What results is a mutually beneficial relationship. The priests and seminarians befriend and accompany the lay faculty and staff on their faith journey. All are invited to Mass at the seminary, to seminary events, and even to occasional meals at the seminary, and the seminarians and priests go out of their way to make families and their children feel welcomed.
What has resulted is beautiful – a microcosm of the church and a witness of the mutual benefit of the vocation of marriage and the vocation of the priesthood to each other.
Another beautiful aspect of this experience has been seeing men grow into the call of spiritual fatherhood. Brand new seminarians, many fresh out of high school, are still growing into that vocation. A man in his final year is comfortable and confident in that role, knowing how to pray for and support the families he encounters. In watching them, I have learned so much about what a spiritual father is– what that sacrifice, made from love for God, looks like.
The priests and seminarians I know, wear this vocation of spiritual fatherhood with immense joy. In addition to those who I have gotten to know from the seminary community, I have also known many other remarkable priest spiritual fathers throughout my life. I have had pastors who have guided me through times of grief or transition. I was blessed to know many fun-loving priests of the Congregation of Holy Cross during my college years – men who would walk the campus, black cassocks blowing in the breeze, ready with a smile and greeting to the students they passed. These same men lived in resident halls, available for Confession, spiritual guidance, or just a quick, “Hi, Father!” thrown in passing. They weren’t above sitting with a flummoxed freshman trying to figure out the game of “Snaps,” or being amused at her delight when she finally figured out the trick. (Thanks, Fr. Dan.) They would happily say late night Mass for college undergrads, and then wake up early the next morning to do it all over again.
As a married woman and mother, I have experienced some remarkable experiences of this spiritual fatherhood. I have had priests who stood beside me and embraced me when I miscarried my third child. I have had a priest shout in absolute joy in a Confessional, upon finding out that I was pregnant with a long prayed for baby. I have had priests bring Jesus in the Eucharist to me in the most unexpected places – a priest who said Mass in my hospital room after I gave birth to my second child, and another who said Mass in my living room when I was pregnant with my fourth child and suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum. I have had priests anoint me in times of sickness during my pregnancies. I have seen a bishop friend delight in the antics of my children, and have had my joy and gratitude for my children renewed by it. I have had a priest give me a hanky during an emotional Confession, and others who have heard my Confession at a moment’s notice. I have had a priest friend come to our home for dinner, and spend the time after dinner helping my husband repair a leaky sink. I have had a priest come to a baby shower type party, to bless my unborn daughter and me. I have had a different priest friend doing manual labor alongside my husband, sharing in that friendship and helping doing much needed repairs in our home. I have had kind, gentle priests who con-celebrated my miscarried son’s funeral Mass, and other priests who baptized my living children with much joy.
I was blessed during childhood to grow up with a father who truly loved me, comforted me in times of anxiety, prayed for me daily, and rejoiced in my triumphs. Throughout my life, I have been blessed with spiritual fathers who have done the same.
Recently, my husband and I have been watching the BBC version of Chesterton’s “Fr. Brown Mysteries” on Netflix. Although the media and TV shows often portray the priesthood in a negative light, this particular series shows off spiritual fatherhood in an accurate and beautiful way. Fr. Brown knows his parishioners, and he genuinely cares for each one. He will go to great lengths to bring a lost sheep back to the Good Shepherd, and more than he is concerned with solving each mystery (which he does successfully, every time!) he is concerned with the redemption of each soul he encounters. “It is never too late!” he counsels, again and again. His fatherhood, if summarized in one word, would be characterized as one of “mercy.”
However, Fr. Brown is also down to earth and humorous. He is a human being, with quirks that are endearing and reassuring to his parishioners and to viewers.
A similar portrayal of the priesthood as spiritual fatherhood would be the beloved Fr. O’Malley in The Bells of St. Mary’s. Fr. O’Malley embodies joy. He is quick to laugh and joke with religious sisters and children alike, genuinely desires the good of each, and humbly repents of his mistakes.
Thankfully, there are real Fr. Browns and Fr. O’Malleys out there. There are real men who have laid down their lives for the sake of spiritually fathering the Church. They are men with joy, a sense of humor, a desire for growth in humility, genuine concern and love for the faithful, total devotion to Christ, and eager to work tirelessly for their spiritual children. They are men of every generation – from the youngest of priests to the oldest on his death bed. Like the work of biological fathers, their work is often misunderstood and hidden. But like biological fathers, their work is not in vain, and the world is better for having benefited from their spiritual fatherhood.
This Father’s Day, remember the priests in your life. Send them a Father’s Day card, or offer them thanks on the day. (And if you know a newly ordained priest, enjoy his delighted expression when you wish him a, “Happy first Father’s Day!”) Take time to let these dear men know that we love them, too.