People call me Father, but I don’t have kids. And when folks call me Father, they sure as heck don’t mean that I’m God. When Jesus says, “Call no one on earth your father” (Mt 23:9), he means do not replace God with anyone or anything. And we certainly call one of our parents Father.
The older I get, the more in awe I am of the witness and self-sacrificial love parents have for their children. Such love reveals who and how God is. When Jesus wanted to let us know what God is like, he told us about a good and loving parent (not about a priest. We priests should think about that!).
Like good parents, God wants the best for us and labors to provide. Good moms and dads do so much for their kids. For 15 years I lived in first-year college dorms and watched moms and dads lug everything from water to furniture into a kid’s room.
They came back throughout the year to take their kid to watch a volleyball or lacrosse game or see a play or just take their stellar son or darling daughter to dinner. And, they pay college costs!
Such parents inspire me to live out my call to be a priest, a “father.” As a member of the community who is called to preach the word and preside at sacraments, I often am in awe of how God can connect us as believers, often in and through the actions and words we sing and say at Mass. And the Mass sends us to serve one another.
Parents usually have more than enough to handle with their kids and their sacrament of marriage. Moms and dads concentrate on their family’s needs. Priests are charged with caring for everyone and everything in the community.
When I took a course in pastoral care at Harvard University, Sharon Parks taught us that “pastors care for the whole.” Priests and ministers are the ones people come to when the experts have run out of answers.
Unlike other professionals who concentrate on some aspect of society, like the law or education, priests care for everyone and everything. We try and hold things together. When things threaten to fall apart, we remind all to remember God is with us, despite it all.
In a youth group years ago, the kids had to come up with symbols of the sacraments. A waterfall for baptism, an emergency room for the sacrament of the sick, etc. When it came to holy orders, they looked at me. I said, “This is your activity. You come up with what you think symbolizes priesthood.”
Egiberto, a lovable, goofy, 13-year-old, said, “Draw an ear.” We all looked at him, a little confused, wondering what he was getting at. He said, “Yeah, an ear.” “An ear?” one asked. “Yeah, an ear. Because priests listen.”
As a priest, I think one of the most fatherly things I do is listen. Listening helps people live with, sometimes just survive, the painful mysteries of life.
Why does a 53-year-old father of three die of cancer, leaving his wife to care for the kids, one with extreme special needs? Why does unemployment crash upon us? Why can I not overcome my addiction? Why could we not hold our marriage together?
In such situations, we priest listen and encourage and suggest ways to try and make a better tomorrow. Sometimes the best we can do in such situations is just be there, the way the young priest sticks close to Walt in the movie “Gran Torino.”
On the other hand, we priests get to celebrate so much that is wild and wonderful, beautiful and bold, happy and hopeful.
Marriage vows as a bride’s eyes glisten with tears of joy as her stunned new husband realizes the enormity of the transcendental moment. First Communions, when cool little boys in blue suits and shined shoes, and little girls in white dress with their hair carefully coiffed, receive Jesus. Teen retreats. Parish picnics and dances. Family gatherings. On and on.
Priests too are given the gift of time to study the endlessly fascinating realities of our faith: Scripture, theology, spiritual reading and the history of the church. We then have the privilege and pleasure of sharing what we’ve learned.
Priesthood and fatherhood are relational realities. We mutually help and save one another. We sacrifice for one another. One of my favorite images of a father is from an old movie, “Spencer’s Mountain.” Henry Fonda plays a miner who burns down and sacrifices his dream house so his son can go to college and have a better life.
We priests give up a family and children of our own, but we are given so much more. We get to learn the lessons of our God of love and share them with all peoples to whom we are sent. The community of the church makes all this possible. Thank you.
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(Jesuit Father Richard G. Malloy is director of mission and ministry at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Baltimore. He is author of “Being on Fire: The Top Ten Essentials of Catholic Faith.”)