Janet E. Smith
Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest
By Father Carter Griffin
Emmaus Road Publishing, 2019
215 pages, $24.95 (hardcover)
To order: StPaulCenter.com
Because God is infinitely greater and altogether other than we his creatures, we speak of him by using a multitude of “names” (“descriptions”), hoping to catch some element of his being with each one. Philosophers speak of God as being One, Good, Infinite, Intelligent, Truth, Free, Love and so forth. The Bible gives much more anthropomorphic descriptions of God: He is Lord, Creator, Husband, Healer, Avenger, Shepherd and Father, for instance.
The relationship of his creatures to an infinitely rich God also requires a multitude of analogies; in the Bible we are spoken of as God’s creatures, his sons and daughters, his servants and slaves, his “baby chicks” and so on.
The mystics love to speak of Jesus as the Bridegroom and the souls who love him as bride. When I taught seminarians, it didn’t surprise me to learn that they balked at thinking of themselves as brides, but I was taken aback at their resistance to thinking of themselves as “bridegroom” — it was a role they had renounced for themselves and which they found excessively “romantic.” Even thinking of themselves as bridegroom “of the Church” taxed their imaginations, for what a bridegroom does in their minds is simply to show up for the wedding ceremony.
The image that best captured their view of the priesthood was “shepherd”; they very much like thinking of themselves as “leaders.” It is a good image but does not convey the very personal love that a priest should have for his “children.”
Father Carter Griffin, in Why Celibacy? Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest, makes a powerful case for understanding “fatherhood” as best capturing the heart of and multifaceted roles of the priesthood.
Professor Scott Hahn’s foreword and the author’s own introduction collect and comment upon the passages from Scripture that speak of the fatherhood of God and of Jesus himself. The book labors not only to show that the priest who understands the obligations of spiritual fatherhood and who fulfills them will be an excellent priest, but will also grow in holiness and experience profound satisfactions.
The intent of Father Griffin’s book is to make a compelling argument that spiritual fatherhood and celibacy are a natural fit:
“The conviction expressed in these pages is that priests embrace celibacy as a radical choice to give themselves to God and neighbor in such a way that they are enabled to generate new spiritual life. Priests are celibate, in short, because their celibacy — when lived well — is a privileged way of embracing a fatherhood that transcends nature alone; it is ‘supernatural’ fatherhood in the order of grace” (xxiii).
In part, he does so by showing how the role of spiritual fatherhood and the commitment to celibacy — to a single-hearted focus on a love relationship to Jesus that issues in zealous concern for souls — enable priests to perform their threefold mission of sanctifying, teaching and governing. In each instance, he draws a parallel between the natural duties of a father and a priest and maintains that celibacy will help the priest better fulfill his duties since he is able to extend his love to the wide varieties of souls that come his way, and even intensely so.
From my experience working with seminarians, I believe Father Griffin (whose experience is much greater than mine) has provided a blueprint for seminary formation that will assist men in understanding the roles to which they are called. With sensitivity but also firmness he explains why those who have deep-seated same-sex attraction should not be admitted to the priesthood: Their personal struggles with chastity and feelings of inadequacy are not conducive to the confident chastity needed to meet the demands of the priesthood, which requires a male well-suited to being a spouse and father.
Father Griffin rightly maintains that the attempt to have seminarians appreciate the centrality of spiritual fatherhood should permeate all of seminary formation. I believe that recommendation should be fleshed out as fully as possible. If most seminarians were raised in homes with strong father figures, the task would not be difficult. But, sadly, all too few are. Seminarians should spend time with fathers who are very conscious of the responsibilities of fatherhood and intentional in fulfilling them. They should perhaps be paired with families — preferably, when possible, with the families of their siblings and get involved in the formation of the children. Recently I read of a basketball coach who is teaching his players fundamental manly “skills,” such as changing tires, putting a lock on a door and simple plumbing repairs. Seminarians should learn such skills — and others. In fact, I think there should be a period of time in their formation dedicated to learning about fatherhood and even keeping a journal on what they observe, as well as for being mentored by and observing how priests who are good spiritual fathers live their priesthood. The seminary in which I taught had seminarians work at a summer boys’ camp where they were responsible for building, repairing what was broken, and amusing and disciplining boys.
Another strength of the book is its acute awareness of the various malformations that can creep into a priest’s life when he attends too much to administration, when he allows need for affirmation to dwarf his service to others, and when he fails to build intimate relationships with other priests and men of the parish.
The book is very readable and filled with inspiring quotations and references to works on celibacy. Formators, priests and seminarians should all read this book, in order to expand their appreciation of the fatherly nature of the priesthood, to serve better, and to rejoice in the calling that is theirs.
Janet E. Smith, Ph.D., is a moral theologian who speaks and writes on life issues.