About a year ago, I elicited some raised eyebrows in a group after sharing that my first babysitter was a Capuchin friar—the priest who baptized me. I probably sounded outlandish because it occurred back in India half a century ago where Christians are a minority and vocations in abundance. It also sounded odd in a ‘safe environment’ like the United States.
More recently, browsing through the website of a group which keeps track of sex abuse among the priesthood, I noted an appeal to survivors of clerical sex abuse or collectors of clergy-related clippings requesting donation of photographs of “accused priests at various stages of his career.” They had posted a photograph of an accused priest holding a young girl in his arms as an example of how to make a “list of offenders more immediate and less theoretical”.
My initial appreciation for the initiative calling for episcopal accountability of priests accused of sex abuse quickly dissolved into heartbreaking consternation as I set my eyes on that photograph. That girl could have been me as a child but the priest holding me had been a true spiritual father, not an abuser, I noticed the priest in the photograph also held the young girl just the way a dad would his little girl.
The Church in India is by no means untouched by the scourge of clergy sex abuse. However, her ‘2002 Boston Globe moment’—although imminent—is yet to arrive. Regardless, nothing anywhere in the world can take away the authentic spiritual patrimony which belongs to generations of Catholics who have experienced the love of God the Father through the service and sacrifice of Reverend Fathers in their lives—pastors, teachers, apostolic fathers, church fathers, saints, and popes. For instance, how many of us who love and have been taught by Pope St. John Paul II have even seen him from a distance?
The Catholic Priest: Everybody’s Somebody
People—regardless of religion or how strong they are in the knowledge of their faith—instinctively recognize the spiritual fatherhood of a Catholic priest and look to them for assistance when in need. Even critics of the Catholic Church safely register their dissent to the face of the first Catholic priest they come across. Examples are aplenty: Fr. Thomas Byles, the Catholic priest on board the ill-fated RMS Titanic to whom perishing souls clung to; or St. Damien on the island of Molokai who made himself “a leper with the lepers” there “to gain all to Jesus Christ,” or St. Maximilian Kolbe, Conventual Franciscan friar, who volunteered to die in the place of a stranger condemned to die since the latter was a married man with children.
No Place for Reluctance in Priestly Fatherhood
A Catholic friend who is outspoken against corruption in the Church shared on Facebook the article by the French priest who asked not to be called “Father” with the caption “Will the Church be willing to accept this.” I suggested to him: “Why don’t you ask poor and orphaned children in Africa what they should otherwise call the missionary pastors taking care of them?” Hitherto, we only had known Protestants cite Matthew 23:9 to exhort people against calling anyone “Father”. The trend of Catholic clergy at various levels advocating avoidance of addressing priests as “Father” is lamentable. Indeed, nowhere does the Church teach this.
On the contrary, by virtue of the ordained priesthood, the priest takes the place of Christ as Priest (by sanctifying the faithful through the Sacraments), as Prophet (by teaching and spiritually forming the faithful), and as King (by shepherding the faithful to the Father in heaven). His ‘sacramental fatherhood’ of which he is reminded every time he is called “Father”, must goad him to the self-sacrifice of Christ. Although he will remain an earthen vessel, he must not shy away from holding the treasure. The most intense wound a father could cause a child would be to disown her.
A Stash of Personal Stories
As a Catholic who moved to another country, what I look for in a pastor is no different from what I would back in India—spiritual fatherhood. This is so because the universality of the Church and the priestly vocation are inseparable. Here are some personal vignettes from my family which capture the essence of the priestly fatherhood.
My dad was fatherless at three and his mother was not well-read but there was a priest in his life who guided him. He went on to do well as a career military man.
My maternal grandfather—a single-dad and an avowed atheist till his dying breath, despite having several friends, chose to task a Catholic priest he had met in course of his job in the city court with the future of his two adult children.
My mother, guided by her new spiritual father, converted to Catholicism and in course, found a spiritual family of not just her godparents, but the friendship of several priests and religious sisters. It was these people of God who arranged her marriage with my Dad, and who would comprise what my sister and I would ever know as ‘family.’
Among these was also a Reverend Grandfather. An outright father figure, older than the rest of the fathers I had. To me, he was the image of ‘God the Father’—his long, grey, flowy beard, and a baritone that still rings in my ears. During my childhood, whenever we visited him during the summer, the moment he and mom came face-to-face, she would start sobbing, holding him tight, while Dad would look on in solemn silence. Grandfather would loudly console her, stroking her hair, reassuring her how brave she was. As a child not even ten years old, I never quite caught what the backstory was, but now as a middle-aged homemaker, I think I understand all backstories are the same; we are all brave and heroic as we live out our Christian lives, although we have far fewer men in cassocks, and often none left to affirm to us the reality and possibility of Christian heroism.
Loose Bricks in the Domestic Church
The same reasons that have led to the paucity of vocations are also responsible for the ‘numb’ priestliness often experienced in our times and perhaps these anachronistic-sounding stories can remind of the ever-new ancient flavor of priestly fatherhood.
Unity of mission and personal modeling is as vital to a priestly formation as it is for the formation of children in the ‘domestic church.’ We instinctively know children are dependent on unity and a healthy emotional equation between their parents for their own emotional well-being and development. Even at school, children are dependent on the cooperation between various teachers. On the road, each commuter is dependent on the harmonious obedience of the other to traffic laws. Yet, our culture pushes a pseudo-reality that children can still lead normal healthy lives even when their parents are divorced, live in adultery, or are same-sex. It has become a trend for children to compensate for the natural imbalance caused by an unfortunate or unnatural domestic arrangement in their families with further imbalances like premarital sex, substance abuse, gender selection, and the like. Compromise and excess have come to be peddled as a principle.
Priestly formation and the priesthood itself are beset by these very ills, opening the doors to disconnection from the Priesthood of Christ and the ensuing dissipation manifested through clergy sex abuse, coverups and financial corruption.
Whither ‘Eunuchs for the Sake of the Kingdom of Heaven?’
Several years ago, while interviewing a priest who held two doctoral degrees from prestigious Catholic universities in Europe, I asked him to comment on the following words of Jesus’ with regard to modern-day priesthood: “[…] [T]here are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” (cf. Matthew 19:12) The priest got rather offended and retorted, “Why do you want to make eunuchs out of us? We are virile men who work for the kingdom of God.”
Jesus’ words from Matthew 19:12 are spoken in response to a question his disciples ask while he is still tackling a ruse (a question on the lawfulness of divorce for any cause) set by the Pharisees to prove that Jesus’ teachings are meant to overturn Mosaic law. Instead, Jesus points them to God’s law on the indissolubility of marriage that precedes even Mosaic law. He refers to “a hardness of heart” (cf. Matthew 19:8) that constrains Moses to allow for divorce. ‘Indissolubility’ of the vocation chosen out of free will is the common context of Jesus’ reference to both marriage and celibacy/virginity for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. “He who is able to receive it, let him receive it” (cf. Matthew 19:12).
I would argue that the “safe environment” systems were at the outset necessitated by a certain “hardness of heart” which had begun to sterilize the priesthood of its hallowed and essential vocation of spiritual fatherhood. Where the priestly heart was meant to remain in union with Christ’s (just as that of a married man to his wife’s), undivided in devotion to God and His people, and thereby standing apart, it was instead given to the pressures of cultural compromise. Far from addressing clericalism, here is the potent potion that reinforces the malaise. ‘God’s eunuch’ willingly surrenders his ‘virility’ (cf. Galatians 5:24) in order to be a “source of spiritual fecundity in the world.” (Lumen gentium, 42)
The Blessing of a Spiritual Father
In my growing years, my home had framed pictures of landscapes or scenery made by Dad from photo wall-calendars. The single exception was a black-and-white photograph of my parents, sister and myself with a priest. I used to think all family photos must have a priest in it. The priest, who we sisters called ‘Uncle’, wore a black cassock. The 5”x7” photograph had a shiny steel aluminum frame that oxidized over the years. But the picture was sharp and clear—of studio quality. Dad and mom looked like wax figures—solemn, formal, tensed? My sister and I had been burning with fever. The priest too had a fever. He remained with our family until he was healthy enough to travel back to his home diocese 1400 miles away.
The presence of this priest in our lives had a definitive and lasting influence on us well into our early youth. Uncle was a friend of my mother, perhaps introduced to her by the large spiritual family of nuns that welcomed her into the Catholic Church. His priestly motto, “I have become all things to all, that I might, by all means, save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22), became one of the first Bible verses that I became familiar with. It clearly pointed to the Alter Christus among us. Essentially, my parents and Uncle were to one another, friends of their middle-age, not in an exclusive but in a tender, trusting, personal, yet detached way. My memory of him is as mature, witty and erudite (canon lawyer). He was also affectionate and down-to-earth and popular among those who knew him. My parents discussed church, culture and family with him. Memorably, I once eavesdropped on them discussing whether or not to divulge to me yet that tooth fairies did not exist.
At a time when everyday photography was unthinkable to many, this priest was always seen with a camera, taking pictures of his friends (families), their children, life events and outings. In fact, if not for him, there would not be any physical memories of my early life or of my parents before my sister and I came along. This mattered a lot because there was hardly any family beyond my parents that would actively preserve or share memories with us.
A few years before he passed away, he divided his wealth of books between my sister and me. Among them were the Catholic bestseller The Cardinal and a glossy photobiography of Pope Pius X. Reading these made me fall in love with the Catholic Church forever.
Uncle lives on through his photographs among his large spiritual family. In my collection is a photograph taken on his camera by my Mom. It shows the priest Uncle along with my Dad, each holding in his arms, a little girl—my sister, 5 years old and me, 4 years old—the synchronicity of their postures reflecting the fact that priestly spiritual fatherhood and physical fatherhood go hand in hand.