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Why We Call Them Fathers

Posted by Theology of Home on
Why We Call Them Fathers
“At the sight of the crowds, His heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like  sheep without a shepherd.”
Matthew 9:36

By Denise Trull

This past Lent, I was determined to do one thing well: to attend and pray the Stations of the Cross. My Church, the Oratory of St Francis de Sales, gave me this wonderful opportunity each Friday evening for six weeks, and with the miracle that is grace, I managed to find my way to a pew at 6:00 pm each of those nights. It was intended as a sacrifice to God on my part, but as is the way with the graciousness of the Lord, it ended by being an overflow of mercy and love to me on His part.

I had not yet been to the Stations at the Oratory, but was surprised to find that the people, one and all, are encouraged to walk along with the priest and candle bearers as they make their slow, deliberate, and solemn way around this large, dim, Gothic beauty, stopping at each station to pray. Thus it was that I found myself on that first Friday surrounded by all sorts of people: old, young, babies in the arms of their mothers, wide eyed six-year-olds taking it all in as only a six-year-old can, seminarians mixing quite contentedly with all of us as we moved as one -- praying, genuflecting and walking on once again.

From the center of this roaming flock, there rose the processional cross above our heads, and a solemn voice tinged with an accent I could not quite make out, floating through the crowd leading us in prayer. At first, I could only hear his voice, but that seemed enough, and I followed it as he spoke, feeling rather like a sheep who instinctively knows the voice of its shepherd.

The prayers are solemn, demanding, and soul-searching. Each station becomes its own examination of conscience, going straight to the matter at hand, giving us full knowledge that yes, we each have done our part to crucify Jesus, to hurt his mother by our pride, to shame Him, deny Him, and only after being pressed to do so, have we reluctantly helped him to carry His cross.

That first night, I felt crushed by these prayers. I felt a complete failure, an inadequate lover, a guilty bystander more in love with the world and all its pomps than with this Mighty Man of Wonders who would not give up His way of sorrow, though I had abandoned mine so many times. I felt a kind of despair as we walked on -- ashamed that I would never measure up in my weakness to the greatness of my call. I truly was overwhelmed with the futility of myself. I felt very much troubled and alone with my sinfulness that night.

Then that voice -- that priestly voice again. A young, strong, gentle voice praying, leading, encouraging us on as we moved as one. I felt a sudden and powerful consolation that this priest would not let me be lost. He would do all in his power to take care of me. He would forgive my sins, he would feed me with finest wheat, he would encourage my inspirations and console me in my falls from grace. Sometimes he would admonish me uncomfortably and I would learn to be grateful that someone cared that much to say the hard things that needed to be said. I only needed to take my place in his sheepfold and I knew he would do his best to shield me from the wolves of despair and discouragement. I caught glimpses of him as he moved slowly along in the midst of us -- this shepherd of souls. This good shepherd who knew his sheep and loved us with a serious earnestness. I was filled with certainty that He would not let us get lost. He would keep us for Christ.

The priesthood is just this. Men who are determined that the rest of us not be lost. Each one of them must have, somewhere on his spiritual journey to the Father, experienced in a deeply impressed way, moments where people seemed utterly lost, like wandering sheep without a shepherd, people troubled and abandoned and in need of care -- and each of these men felt in his heart the overwhelming pity of Christ. Each finding themselves, at that defining moment, determined to be a father and thus a shepherd to those who felt abandoned and troubled and in such great need of protection. It was an answer to a call. Feed my sheep.

I have met many priests over my lifetime. They had many gifts between them. Some wrote beautiful sermons. Some were impressive and efficient stewards of their parishes. Some celebrated exquisite Masses and convinced me that the spiritual life was a poem we each speak to the Father. But it is always the priests who most exemplified fatherhood that have stayed so firmly in my memory. Those whose greatest talent was being a father to their people.

In this world of moral ambiguities and the disintegration of family life, the notion of fatherhood has been trampled underfoot and left to languish. Never has the world experienced so much the scattering of sheep, each going his own aimless way for lack of solid fathers to lead and teach and guide them. Lost and on their own.  Priests have the beautiful opportunity in this time we live in, to define fatherhood for us once again and to show us how it is lived out. It is a wild paradox that each of them has made a vow of celibacy, the sacrifice of a wife and physical children in order to become this different sort of father. But somehow the mystery of this self denial, this acceptance, has filled them with the strength of fatherly qualities to be imitated by other young men, even those planning to marry. These qualities are there. I have seen them. 

Even very young priests can be strong fathers. They can suddenly look old and wise and instill peace, consolation, or even wield an admonition or two when needed, to much older parishioners than themselves without causing offense. The elders, no matter how white their hair may be, feel like children being tenderly fed at that communion rail on Sunday by a father three times younger than themselves. I have felt this, being one of those elders. It's a beautiful gift when a young priest surrenders to the graces of his priesthood and becomes a leader of his flock. 

It fills me with so many memories of priests who did just that. Quiet and unassuming, some. Others quite funny with the absolute gift of gab. Some so short and skinny, and so charmingly boyish.  Some I knew well. Some I only saw in passing but they made a great impression on me. All of them determined to rise to the full, magnificent height of their chosen fatherhood.

There was a little priest with black glasses framing quick and interested eyes,  named Father K. He was fresh from ordination, and you could barely see him over the pulpit, but I will never forget the Sunday morning when he blazed a sermon out into the Church on the evils of contraception. No holds barred. Straight shooting it right out there to a silent and stunned congregation. This was a sermon I had been awaiting for years! And here he was, this priest no bigger than a minute: kind, insistent, but speaking truth quite loudly for such a small frame. It was a singular experience of courageous fatherhood in a man much younger than most of the people there. The good he did was immense! Brave fatherhood.  

There was another young, cheerful priest with glasses named Father G. who gave the most wonderful sermon to a bunch of awkward, boasting, shy, insular, Lord-of-the-Rings-crazed middle and high school pups at a school where I taught drama. He spoke that day of Christ's Kingship. And he told them that since Christ was their brother, they were now princes and princesses and needed to be treated by each other as such. They all knew what that meant -- they knew Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Galadriel. The images were bright in them.

Father G. wisely knew his audience. He had done his homework. He eventually brought up the uncomfortable fact of “cool kid” cliques and how those destroy the dignity of our royal status. How everyone must be treated as the royalty they are in Christ. He went into detail about how we were not to bully or make fun of others or exclude them from our group, giving quite astute and pointed examples. That sermon was perfect and it hit home. I saw much squirming from the 'popular' set and from the quieter, more 'nerdy' students a look of stunned gratitude -- at hearing someone unaccustomedly taking their part and actually seeing them. Almost a look of -- unbelief. This was a fatherly act if there ever was one. A father’s charitable admonition, recognition and expectation.

There is the young priest who used to put out the picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help on Tuesdays with loving care and who lit the candle carefully before kneeling with all the faithful old ladies to pray for their needs and the needs of his parish. They encouraged him afterwards to eat more and placed a banana bread in his hands. And he took it with good cheer and asked about the recipe. He visited for a while, patiently hearing their same stories for the fourth or fifth time. He at that moment was a father and they young children seeking his smiling approval. It was beautiful to watch. Selfless, fatherly attention.

There is another priest, Father A., the oldest of a large, Catholic family who gave out the funniest but wisest advice in the confessional. He ‘got’ it, those foibles of the large family, and made you laugh out loud sometimes with stories of his own mom’s trials and tribulations, juggling boys and their trying ways. He was also one who,  when he told you he would pray, you knew he would. And you were absolutely certain it would be efficacious. You left that confessional rejuvenated. The encouragement that flows from fatherhood.

Finally, there is Father Rice, who was my pastor for many years before they made him a Bishop. He had short, pithy sermons that struck home and stayed with you all day. His finest hour came during the dark days when the priest sexual abuse scandal cast a huge, black shadow on the Church and even in our parish where our associate priest had been caught and convicted which sent us all reeling in shocked surprise -- especially Father Rice. He was devastated and spent the night in the tiny Eucharistic Chapel with the door locked weeping for the Church. But he didn't hide there and let someone else 'handle it'. Like an adult father who had to bear bad news to his children, he admitted to us the next morning at Mass, in such humble sorrow, that he didn't think anyone was going to show up for Mass. And he had tears in his eyes because we had come. He thanked us and expressed an overwhelming, heartfelt sorrow asking our forgiveness in the name of the Church. This is the bravest, most fatherly thing I have ever witnessed a priest do.

Father Rice was there for everything. Stations, Mother of Perpetual Help devotions, all the beautiful Masses, singing the Exultet on Holy Saturday with such a beautiful joy that it made you glad you were his son or daughter. He had a caustic wit, no doubt honed by being the last of a huge Irish family. He was the king of banter and wasn't above wearing striped Elf tights at the Parish Santa Christmas Party. My daughter still plans on asking him to be the priest officiating at her wedding someday. And even though he’s a Bishop now, I’ll wager he says yes. He wears that mitre very lightly on his head! Madeleine was always grateful that he never let her get lost among her six brothers. He always had a funny, commiserating word for her. The accessibility to each child that is fatherhood. 

None of these priests would ever be accused of having a huge following of FOMO devotees. They aren't cool, or “up and coming,” nor are they in any way idol-esque. Charisma is not a word you would use -- except  maybe for Father Rice. He had it in spades. But it was so tempered by a self deprecating humor that it was approachable. These priests are just cheerful, quiet, and unassuming in real life. Priests who never talk about themselves, but get the job done -- like any good father would. Plain. Some, so short and boyish. All so well brought up by their parents. Polite. Kind. Funny. And filled with amazing grace. Men who once mysteriously experienced the great need of those who were abandoned and alone. Men who could not bear that any be lost, and with the alacrity of fatherhood, promised to devote themselves to their sheep like the shepherds they are: those who admonish, protect, encourage, engage, and bravely remain steadfast in hard times. 

That is priesthood to me. Fatherhood. Leadership taken up and taken seriously, even by very young men. It is what is going to save the Church. I am certain of this. It is what consoled me that Friday night in Lent and gave me courage that I was not alone in my spiritual journey. I had a father who has devoted himself to guiding and protecting me. 

Christ, our Divine Shepherd, thank you for our spiritual fathers, our priests. May you, in your great mercy, continue to send us more and more like them until we find ourselves safely home with you. Amen. Alleluia.  

Denise Trull is the editor in chief of Sostenuto, an online journal for writers and thinkers of every kind to share their work with each other. Her own writing is also featured regularly at Theology of Home, and has appeared in Dappled Things. She also can be found at her Substack, The Inscapist. Denise is the mother of seven grown, adventurous children and has acquired the illustrious title of grandmother. She lives with her husband Tony in St. Louis, Missouri. 

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