Among English-speaking Christians today, priests are very often called “Father” by their fellow congregants. This is a relatively new tradition for Anglicans, and even among Roman Catholics the title ‘Father’ used to be used more specifically than it is today. Nevertheless, there is a strong analogy between fatherhood and priesthood which has its echoes throughout Church History. Returning to the book On the Priesthood by St. John Chrysostom, I want to share some more quotes on the subject.
These [priests] verily are they who are entrusted with the pangs of spiritual travail and the birth which comes through baptism: by their means we put on Christ, and are buried with the Son of God, and become members of that blessed Head. Wherefore they might not only be more justly feared by us than rulers and kings, but also be more honored than parents; since these begot us of blood and the will of flesh, but the others are the authors of of our birth from God, even that blessed regeneration which is the true freedom and the sonship according to grace.
Although it has been understood through most of history that any Christian may baptize someone in the case of an emergency, the normal practice of baptism is that a priest conducts the rite. This highlights a spiritual parental relationship between the priest and the new-baptized, which fits with other parental images in common use, such as the Church being our spiritual mother, and the baptismal font being the womb of the Church from which we are born again.
What Chrysostom points out here is that because our new birth of baptism into Christ is far more important than our first natural birth into the world, we should esteem our spiritual fathers even more than our natural fathers. In conducting the rites of Baptism, the priest becomes the “author of our birth from God.” As I’ve written before, this is not because the priest is magical, or the Baptism liturgy is magical, but because Baptism and the priest are instruments through which God has told us He’ll work. As Chrysostom himself points out here, Baptism works only “according to grace.”
But now here’s another example of how spiritual fathers are greater than natural fathers.
For not only at the time of regeneration, but afterwards also, they have authority to forgive sins. “Is any sick among you?” it is said, “let him call for the elders of the Church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up: and if he have committed sins they shall be forgiven him” (James 5:14-15). Again: our natural parents, should their children come into conflict with any men of high rank and great power in the world, are unable to profit them: but priests have reconciled not rulers and kings, but God Himself when His wrath has often been provoked against them.
Similar to how priests have the role of being authors of new birth in Baptism, Chrysostom points out here that priests are given authority to forgive sins. This has already been touched on in a previous post, focusing on the dignity of the priestly vocation. Here, the same point of authority is cited, this time invoking yet another quote from the New Testament, to emphasize how much more profound it is to be a spiritual father than a natural one.
Fathers cannot save their children if they get into trouble with early authorities. They can try to help, or even intercede on their behalf, but ultimately the solution is between the child and the authority. Priests, on the other hand, are given a ministry that enables them to effectively mediate between their spiritual children and the highest spiritual authority: God. Once again, this raises objections from many Protestants today – is not Jesus our only Mediator and Redeemer? And once again the answer is the same – the power and authority of Jesus is exercised through his priesthood. The priests themselves do not have authority and power; they are invested (or entrusted) with the authority of Jesus, and through them, the power of the Holy Spirit carries out the work of God.
So while the relationship between a priest and a parishioner is like that of a father and a son, the effectiveness and profundity of that relationship goes far beyond what a natural father can do for his children!