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Priest as a Father

by Fr. Charles Willingham, O.Praem.


The priest finds the entire meaning of his existence in the Holy Eucharist. The priest is one who offers sacrifice, specifically, the One, Eternal Sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Yet that is not all. The priest himself becomes identified with that sacrifice — as the one offered.

It was Cardinal Manning who spoke of every boy having a hero. Some are true, some are make-believe.

Whoever the hero is, the boy will try to act like him, dress like him, think like him.

As time goes on the boy/hero dynamic begins to fade because the boy discovers that nothing at all of his hero was true or that the hero-like abilities were beyond his reach — he really can’t fly; he can’t shoot webs out of his arms; or he never is able to throw a perfect spiral football. Or, the boy simply develops other interests.

 If the hero was good, hopefully, when the boy becomes a man he will retain some of the traits of his hero: bravery, truthfulness, kindness, long-suffering. But although this boy, now grown-up, can retain marks of his hero and still act like him, he cannot be him; the boy cannot be his hero.

However, the Cardinal went on to say that there is one place and one place only where a boy becomes his hero. And that is when a boy, having fallen in love with Jesus, and hears His call, and is ordained, and ascends the altar, and says over the bread: “This is My body,” and over the wine: “This is My blood.”

The hero and the hero worshiper become one and the same: A mere boy becomes his superhero; the mere man becomes Jesus.

And so, what happens to a man at ordination which makes him, what he was not formerly?

The Vatican Council said “the priest is another Christ” and “the priest acts in the Person of Christ,” and again “the priest assumes the Person of Christ.” And so it behooves us to look at our Eucharistic Lord to understand what is a priest, and what happens to a man when he becomes a priest? In other words:  Why is an ordinary, unmarried, man suddenly called “Father”?

First let us ask why are priests celibate?  Why are priests unmarried?  And don’t say: to give him more time to be with the people!  It has to do with something more essential. The right answer is:  because Jesus was celibate.

But that makes you ask the question:  Well, why was Jesus celibate? Jesus did not contract a human marriage because He Himself is that to which marriage pointed — that of which human marriage, from the beginning, was a sign. This sign value was so clear that St. Augustine said that Adam was able to read it, and knew that one day, God would become a man.

Therefore, Jesus’ masculine body is not somehow frustrated because He did not take a wife.  He is not less manly! Rather, the fact that any man takes a wife, points to the Body of Jesus in which Divinity is wedded to humanity in the Incarnation.

And this is not all.  Jesus’ Body becomes the instrument by which God unites Himself, not just to the Church as a whole, but to every human being now and in Eternity.

Furthermore, considering the sign value of marriage more dynamically, what a husband does in uniting himself to his wife, points to Christ Who, in His Sacred Passion as He hung upon the Cross, let flow from His open side His own life’s blood for the sake of His Bride the Church — perfecting her and making Her holy.

Therefore, the man who is a priest is not frustrated in his masculinity because the masculine qualities of his body will never accomplish what they were naturally designed for.  Rather, he himself, in his own masculine body, becomes that to which marriage, form the beginning, was always pointing.

In other words, he becomes another Christ.

Hence a priest’s masculinity is not a sign pointing to something else.  It is the reality! His masculinity is lived out and expressed as Christ’s masculinity.  The priest’s masculine body is Christ’s masculine body.

St. Paul said: “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church.” And he says that the relationship between husband and wife is a sign that points to the greater reality: the Bridegroom Jesus and His bride the Church; to the Lamb and His Wedding Feast.

It is Adam, the husband, to which the Fathers compare Jesus on the Cross. They say there is a new creation, a New Adam, in the sleep of death, on the bed of the Cross, issuing forth from His open side, the New Eve the Church.

And so the priest, as another Christ, is a husband, and his spouse is the Church, for whom he pours out his life in suffering, in prayers, in tears, in sweat, even in blood, all in order to bring her to perfection — to the perfection of the archetype of the Church — the Blessed Virgin Mary.

It is Mary who stands at the open side of Jesus on the Cross — in the place of the Church. It is for this reason that Jesus at the Cross calls her Woman and not Mother. Mary who is His Mother, mystically becomes His spouse by her total consecration of herself to Him, by His total consecration of Himself to her as archetype of the Church.

And there is already a progeny: the disciple John. It is to this mystery that Bishop Sheen referred when he wrote: “Mary, the Tower of Ivory, up whose chaste body [Christ would climb] to kiss upon her lips a mystical Rose.”

So then, in some mysterious manner, because the priest is configured to Christ, Mary is the spouse of priests and makes their priesthood bear fruit. And it is because of this fruit, this progeny, that priests are called Father.

It is Jesus Christ who is the perfect image of the Father on earth — the One Who reveals the Father perfectly. For this reason, Isaiah gives as a title for the Christ: “Father forever.” And in St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews the Messiah says: “Here I am and the children God has given Me.” And after the Resurrection, Jesus Himself at the lake calls His disciples “Little children.” And so in Christ, the priest becomes a father in the truest sense — as the Catechism says:  he is a “living image of God the Father.”

St. Gregory of Nyssa, writing on a man’s ordination to the priesthood describes the change in him by his new fatherly duties. He says: “Yesterday, he was one of the crowd, one of the people. Now, suddenly, he has become a guide, a leader, a teacher of righteousness, an instructor in hidden mysteries . . . While he appears to be the man he was before, his invisible soul has already been transformed to a higher condition by some invisible power and grace.

So there is a real change in the ordained man which allows him to say with St. Paul: “I have become your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.”

Which also allows the lay person to say to him with Micah who spoke to the Levite: “Stay with me, and be to me a father and a priest.”

So again, the masculinity of a priest is in no way thwarted or frustrated because he has foregone natural marriage. But rather he himself in his very own manhood becomes that to which marriage, from the beginning, was pointing. In other words, the priest becomes another Christ: spouse (husband) of the Church, and Father of a new creation — souls reborn into the life of grace.

It is through baptism, that a priest brings forth new children of God. He will feed these new children through the Holy Eucharist — the body and blood of Christ to which he has joined his own body and blood.

And as a priest is also a victim, he is both the father who feeds and the food that is given. Like the pelican who feeds his nestlings by tearing from his own flesh, the priest must feed his children by a life consumed by self-giving, by his willingness to sacrifice on their behalf, even to the shedding of his own blood.

Through Confession, the priest forgives the sins of his sons and daughters, welcoming them back into the embrace of Jesus. By anointing of the sick, the priest consoles his sick children. And by his preaching, he guides and instructs them along life’s way. And so, dear fathers (and fathers to be) it is not enough for you to see everyone as a child of God, but rather to see everyone as your own child — your son, your daughter.

Every hungry stomach, every aching heart, every wayward girl, every imprisoned man, everyone enslaved by drugs or passions, you must see and experience as your hunger, your aching, your waywardness, your imprisonment, your enslavement, precisely because this is your son, your daughter whom you must go out to meet and embrace while they are still far off, still weak, still bewildered, still confused — bringing each one back to the Father’s house.

Remember, there is no higher degree of causality than fatherhood — the communication of one’s very own nature and life. But this cannot happen where there is no love. Exhortation, discipline, corrections can only be tolerated and effective if they flow from love.  The son or the daughter must know, must experience, must feel, that these are motivated by love and not through revenge, hatred, resentment, or pride.

And so, I’ll leave you with something told me by a confrere of mine which helped me very much in the exercise of my own priesthood.  He said, “There is nothing more powerful, nothing that can strengthen and motivate a boy or a young man more than the love and encouragement of a father. It can even drive a man to take the weight of the whole world’s sins upon His own shoulders, be rejected by all, tortured and nailed to a cross, all to do His Father’s will.”

And so may you, throughout your priestly lives, be filled with this power — the power of a father’s love, the Love of God the Father, revealed to the world in Jesus His Son — Who you are by reason of your ordination.

Bishop Sheen said, “I see the more we priests love, the more we will suffer, as the distraught father suffers more than the delinquent son. But our ‘suffering love’ will take the worst this world can offer, and press it, as another drop, into the chalice of Redemption.”


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