Every Man Is Called to Fatherhood

A question which is often asked of us as priests is whether the priesthood is a lonely life. I am quick to reply that “the priesthood is very…very…lonely…if you are a bachelor.” I say it with a lot of feeling and the other person looks so quizzical at me. Then I complete the statement, “…but if you are a father…then it is anything but lonely.” Every man has a natural desire to be a father, to give life, to want to teach the next generation, to make a difference in someone else’s life. That is why if you are a bachelor—which means—that you are more focused on your life, your fulfillment, your needs being met, your comfort, your self-actualization, then you will be lonely in the priesthood, as you will be lonely as well in marriage or being unmarried as a bachelor.  But, if you are a man for others who wants to give his life away, to make a difference, to give life, to be a father, then your life is difficult, challenging, but not boring nor without meaning. The question is not, am I called to be a father? Every man is called to be a father. The question is not, am I called to be married. Every man is called to marriage. The question is what kind of father is God calling me to be? To which marriage is the Lord calling me?

Scripture: I Corinthians 4.14-18: St Paul speaks of his spiritual fatherhood in the Corinthian community.

Appendix 11: Every Man Is Called to Fatherhood

A question which is often asked of us as priests is whether the priesthood is a lonely life. I am quick to reply that “the priesthood is very…very…lonely…if you are a bachelor.” I say it with a lot of feeling and the other person looks so quizzical at me. Then I complete the statement, “…but if you are a father…then it is anything but lonely.” Every man has a natural desire to be a father, to give life, to want to teach the next generation, to make a difference in someone else’s life. That is why if you are a bachelor—which means—that you are more focused on your life, your fulfillment, your needs being met, your comfort, your self-actualization, then you will be lonely in the priesthood, as you will be lonely as well in marriage or being unmarried as a bachelor. But, if you are a man for others, who wants to give his life away, to make a difference, to give life, to be a father, then your life is difficult, challenging, but not boring nor without meaning. The question is not, am I called to be a father? Every man is called to be a father. The question is not, am I called to be married. Every man is called to marriage. The question is what kind of father is God calling me to be? To which marriage is the Lord calling me? There is a natural desire and attraction toward biological marriage and fatherhood. I don’t understand how God works, and why he calls one man to marry this woman and not the other. I don’t know why He calls some to have biological children and he calls others to the marriage of priesthood and the rich fatherhood of parish life. The important thing is to follow the call and understand that no matter where the Lord sends you, you are called to marriage and to fatherhood. As a priest, a man is called to marry the Church as his bride, and with that comes many, many children.

A humorous way we bring this point across to young men is to say that when a man dates, he can choose from many different women, but when he gets serious about dating, he can date only one. When he gets married, he must give up all other opportunities to date, and has to give up the possibility of marrying all the other women in the world except this one woman—his wife. There really isn’t that much difference now between the man who gives up all women but one and the priest who only has to give up one more than the man who marries. Sometimes it is good to make this point, because it is easy for a young man to think that the man seeking marriage has the whole world to choose from, when in fact, whether in marriage or in priesthood, marriage requires a commitment and exclusion to other possibilities. Both Sacraments, both vocations, require total commitment, sacrifice, and self-giving.

Young people will ask if we priests ever regret becoming a priest. My answer is, “I hope that I don’t regret becoming a priest any more than your dad regrets that he married your mother.” Once we experience the meaning of our marriage and our fatherhood as a priest, we could never give it up any more than a parent would give up their children. Every priest can give story after story of the people whose lives were forever changed through their priesthood. These are our children. I find the older we get in the priesthood, the more we see our lives intertwined in the community of the people and the parishes where we have served. That fatherhood now defines us.

“By His law of celibacy, the priest so far from losing the gift and duties of fatherhood rather increases them immeasurably. For although he does not beget progeny for this passing life on earth, he begets a spiritual family. Every man wants to be a father. The option he has is what kind of fatherhood he will experience. This is the capstone, as only priests who are faithful to their celibacy know their genuine fatherhood. And let no one steal that mystery from our faith. The priest is emphatically not a pious bachelor. He is wedded to the Savior’s work in this world. And celibacy is the obvious, and if only people would believe it, congenial, happy, enjoyable expression of the priest’s relationship to God and man. All of this, however, requires deep faith in the priests. It requires discipline of his senses, especially his eyes and his sense of touch. He must be a disciplined man. No one else can remain celibate. It requires much prayer and an easy communion with God. Above all, it requires a great love of Jesus Christ. And of course, a great deal of grace from the Savior who called him and ordained him to the priesthood.” –Pope Pius XII

One priest said the following after seventeen years as a priest in parish life, “When I begin in a parish for the first time, I look out at the people and know maybe a few of them. I haven’t done this before, but next time I move into a new parish. I would like to say something like, ‘I want to say that today we begin a very sacred relationship together which I do not take lightly. During the years that I am your pastor, we will face so much of life together. We will have to make decisions about budgets, repairs, school issues, education and formation of our young people. Mostly though, I am very aware that as pastor I will be linked with you in the most sacred moments of life: the birth of your children, baptisms and first communions; I will be with you every week sharing with you the presence of Christ in the Eucharist; I will have the blessing of giving you God’s grace of forgiveness in the confessional; I will visit you in the hospitals and nursing homes. You will call me to come and anoint your loved ones who are sick and dying. I will be with many of you as you prepare for death and eternity. Our relationship, through the Sacraments, will impact your very eternity and mine. For that reason I want to state clearly, I consider this a great blessing and privilege to serve you as your pastor and spiritual father. Pray that be worthy of this mission.’”

There is a fatherhood the priest accepts every time he begins a new assignment that should give him pause, and to realize that the gift of his priesthood is essential to the life of grace for all the people he serves.

Story example: As a teacher in a Catholic high school I had one particular year which was very difficult and I wanted to get out of teaching but was too afraid to ask the bishop. One night I went to visit an elderly priest of our diocese, Father Joe Martinson. He would die the next week of cancer. I asked him what he would have done differently if he could do his life over again. Not knowing of my disdain for teaching, he said, “I would have taught high school longer.” I couldn’t believe he was saying that and then I shared with him how I was tired of teaching and just wanted out and away from the students who were the most troublemakers. Father Martinson, answered with a strong voice, “Do not stop teaching until the Bishop asks you to. These are the years of your fatherhood. The young people will test you. That is what young people do. But don’t give up on them. They need your fatherhood. Stay with them and later in life, they will come back and you will see that these spiritual children will be a part of the rest of your life, and they will strengthen you in the future.” I prayed about what he said and some time later asked the bishop to keep me in teaching as long as possible. I would never have chosen to do that had Father Martinson not shared his sense of spiritual fatherhood with me.