Calling Priests Father
Question: Why do Catholics call priests Father?
Answer: One of the common objections evangelical Christians have to Catholics is our practice of calling priests by the title Father. They will often cite a passage in Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus tells his followers: “Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven” (23:19). It seems pretty straightforward, but when we put this verse in context, we see that Jesus is speaking out against religious leaders who had forgotten what their proper role was and who were bad examples through their own hypocrisy and elitist attitudes.
In other Gospels, we find Jesus himself using the title father for different characters, such as in the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31]) and the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). If we put the verse from Matthew into the full scope of Jesus’ teachings, he isn’t saying that we can’t use words like “father,” “rabbi,” or “master.” Rather, he is telling us that we should be mindful of the full meaning of those titles and not to misuse them.
To call a priest “Father” is more than a sign of respect for the office of the priesthood. It goes all the way back to the way St. Paul understood his own work as a missionary and evangelizer. Paul wrote, “I am writing you in this way not to shame you but to admonish you as my beloved children … It was I who begot you in Christ Jesus through my preaching of the Gospel. I beg you, then, be imitators of me. This is why I have sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful son in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 4:14-17).
Yes, we have God alone as our heavenly Father, but there are also those here with us who nurture and nourish our faith through their teaching and care. This is why the title of Father has been applied to the church’s pastors in different ways since the earliest days of the Church, including monks and nuns using the title “abbot” and “abbess” (from abba) for their spiritual leaders and Christians around the world recognizing the “Holy Father” or “pope” (from papa) as the head of the family that is the Church. The title Father is a reminder that priests have a special responsibility to care for, protect, feed, listen to, and nourish those who have been entrusted to them, all after the example of our Father in heaven who never ceases to give us what we truly need.