“Call no one on earth your father, you have but one Father in heaven” (Mt. 23:9) Jesus’ words from Matthew’s gospel are often used to question Catholic tradition of referring to priests as “father”. As Catholics though, whenever we interpret Scripture we must ask, “What is the context? What does Jesus really mean? Is Jesus speaking literally?” For example in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, “if anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26) So is Jesus literally saying that we should hate our own dads and moms and children, otherwise we cannot follow him? Of course not! Not everything in the bible is meant to be taken literally!
Sometimes, Jesus uses a figure of speech called hyperbole or exaggeration to make a point. Even in English, we say, “It’s raining cats and dogs”. We do not literally mean that it is raining cats and dogs, but it is an exaggeration to point out very heavy rain.
So in this passage, Jesus obviously does not mean that we cannot call our own dads “our biological fathers”. Instead Jesus wants to teach the disciples that we cannot confuse anyone with our Heavenly Father in heaven. God’s Fatherhood is far superior to anyone else’s in the world. He warns them not to be like the Pharisees who love places of honor and seek to be higher than everyone. In order to follow Jesus, we must be humble and serve. God is God and we are not.
To add to this, the New Testament offers many examples of the apostles referring to themselves as spiritual father-figures. St. Paul famously called others his children in the faith and that, “I become your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:14-15).
In the Catholic Tradition we call our priests, “Father”, because it refers to their Spiritual Fatherhood. As a priest, I am called to teach others the gospel way in word and deed as a good father would do. I welcome new children into the faith by the sacrament of baptism. Priests nourish the flock through the celebration of the sacrament of the Eucharist and giving Holy Communion. As a Spiritual father, priests provide care and services for the people. We see the role of this spiritual fatherhood. In closing, I ask that you please pray for us priests, that will be good spiritual fathers to our people. God bless!