Spiritual Fatherhood (and Motherhood)

I have been blessed to have many fathers: my biological father, my father-in-law, and numerous priest friends whose friendship I have cherished for a very long time. I have been similarly blessed with mothers: my biological mother, my mother-in-law, and very dear religious sisters and religious mothers with whom I feel a genuine bond of friendship.

Sometimes my children (not kids anymore) tease me, “Most of your friends are priests and nuns, fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers.” They’re right; I earned degrees at a pontifical university in the nineties, and it was in Rome that I forged a good number of my lifelong friendships with fathers (and sisters – some of whom have become mother superiors of their orders).

During the early nineties, not many lay women studied theology and ecclesiastical history at pontifical universities in Rome, especially at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, otherwise known as the Orientale, part of the Pontifical Gregorian University consortium. There were women, but most of them were religious sisters.

We were the John Paul II generation: young people from every corner of the world, East and West. There were students who had lived through the terrible Communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe, who had received the sacrament of the Holy Orders in secret like the early Christians of the catacombs. They had a tremendous sense of gratitude that their people had earned freedom and maintained a vibrant, hard-tested Catholic faith.

The majority of my classmates – fathers and sisters – returned to India, Lebanon, Poland, Georgia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Russia, you name it, after graduation to serve their religious orders and communities. They are proud to be fathers and mothers to the people of God.

Well, this was the JPII generation of fathers and sisters, who wanted to be called by their titles – Father A. and Sister Z. Although I remain close to many of them, I have never ventured to call them by name, and I think it ought to be that way. There is so much in those titles.

Let me explain.

Catholic priests, after ordination, become adopted fathers for their communities. In fact, the priest acts in persona Christi capitis as the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it (1548). They are representative of God the Father on earth, spiritual fathers to the flock; priests initiate the faithful into the Christian life – they baptize, confess, marry, and bury us.


This is a lifelong commitment, different from that of biological fatherhood, but a grave commitment all the same, one that comes with the holy orders and vows of celibacy and chastity. That is why St. Paul said: “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.” (1 Corinthians 4:15)

It is a serious responsibility given to priests by our Lord; that is why St. John Chrysostom wrote in On the Priesthood: “a priest ought to be sober-minded, and penetrating in discernment, and possessed of innumerable eyes in every direction, as one who lives not for himself alone but for so great a multitude.”

Dear priest-fathers, you are not “uncles” or called by first names. Since the earliest times, the Church has used the title “Father” for religious leaders. The immediate successors of the Apostles are called the Apostolic Fathers. Church Fathers, or Fathers of the Church, are those who lived immediately after the original Apostles through the first eight centuries of Christianity. Many Church Fathers were bishops: Ambrose in Milan, Basil the Great in Caesarea, John Chrysostom archbishop in Constantinople, Clement in Rome, Ignatius in Antioch.

Many others shared these weighty offices but never relinquished their first title –­ Father. They were bishops, but they never ceased to be shepherds of the local Church community and teachers of the faith: they were both bishop and “Father.” Superiors of monasteries are called abbots-fathers (and abbesses-mothers) – a heavenly fatherhood, the most pure and angelic among fatherhoods, as St. John Chrysostom wrote (again in On the Priesthood):

For the priestly office is indeed discharged on earth, but it ranks among heavenly ordinances; and very naturally so: for neither man, nor angel, nor archangel, nor any other created power, but the Paraclete Himself, instituted this vocation, and persuaded men while still abiding in the flesh to represent the ministry of angels. Wherefore the consecrated priest ought to be as pure as if he were standing in the heavens themselves in the midst of those powers.

He had a deep sense of the dignity and importance of the office of priest, and the priest’s responsibilities for individual souls; so much so that he did not consider himself worthy of this office.

In this summer of crisis and scandal in the Church (of sex abuse, abuse of power, and cover-ups), revisiting the lifelong commitment to spiritual fatherhood (which as celibacy and chastity, comes with the sacrament of holy orders) might be instructive and healing. Perfect chastity, which is consecrated to the service of God, and spiritual fatherhood are without doubt among the most precious gifts Jesus has left the society that He established, and we have inherited.

Priests ought to be fathers who teach and nourish in faith, challenge and correct, forgive and support their spiritual sons and daughters. Priests should never shy away from being called Father. Like physical fatherhood, spiritual fatherhood is a lifelong commitment and responsibility.

Priests: your life is incomplete without your spiritual sons and daughters; our lives are incomplete without our spiritual fathers. As Pope Francis once said in a homily, spiritual fatherhood “is a grace we priests must implore: the grace of pastoral fatherhood, of spiritual fatherhood. Indeed, although we can all have sins, even many sins, not having spiritual sons and daughters, not becoming pastors, is equivalent to living a life that does not reach the end but stops half way.”

Dear priests: Stand by your post! Be fathers.


*Image: The Confession by Giuseppe Molteni, 1838 [Gallerie D’Italia, Piazza Scala, Milan]

Ines Angeli Murzaku is Professor of Church History at Seton Hall University. Her extensive research on the history of Christianity, Catholicism, Religious Orders, and Ecumenism has been published in multiple scholarly articles and five books. She edited and translated with Raymond L. Capra and Douglas J. Milewski, The Life of Saint Neilos of Rossano, part of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Dr. Murzaku has been featured frequently in national and international media, newspapers, radio and TV interviews, and blogs. Her latest book is Mother Teresa: Saint of the Peripheries.