What does it mean to be a spiritual father? For me, the answer is found in the experience of fathers that I have known or know. Some are biological fathers, others are father-figures, such as older relatives and friends, priests, and religious brothers. Each in his own way showed me how to love in a fatherly way. Spiritual fatherhood is loving universally, not particularly. The love of Christ that urges us on is one that loves all, no matter what. That is not easy to do, and I fail more often at it than I succeed. The only way that spiritual fatherhood is possible is through cooperation with the grace of Christ.
A spiritual father is one who is aware of the working of grace in his life and assists others in recognizing the movement of grace in their own. Good spiritual fatherhood does not just happen. Yes, for me, after ordination to the priesthood, people started to call me “Father.” It is true that one is configured to Christ in a unique way through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Cooperation with the grace of the Sacrament is over a lifetime, though. One grows into spiritual fatherhood, even as a priest.
In the first few years of priesthood, I tried to be of service to others by being present to them in their sorrow and their joy. The most profound moments were in listening and accompanying others. I learned not to say much, but simply to be with them, to walk with them as they deepened their life in Christ.
Today, my approach to spiritual fatherhood is similar, but with the experience of walking with others sometimes for many years. I have found that they choose to be in such a relationship with me, not simply as a priest, but also as one who is a flawed follower of Christ. A good spiritual father does not claim perfection, but instead is very aware of his faults and failings, as well as the grace of Christ that is working in and through him. Pope Francis offers this consideration in Christus Vivit:
“An especially important quality in mentors is the acknowledgement of their own humanity – the fact that they are human beings who make mistakes: not perfect people but forgiven sinners” (246).
Good spiritual fathers are keenly aware that they are “forgiven sinners.” When that is forgotten by a spiritual father, then the focus becomes on self, not on Christ. He is the one who forgives sin and gives the grace to love unconditionally and universally for he, and he alone, is God, the Infinite Love.
Click here to read more reflections on fatherhood during the Year of St. Joseph.
Pope Francis eloquently writes in his post-synodal exhortation Christus Vivit, “After this brief look at the word of God, we cannot just say that young people are the future of our world. They are its present.” In the last decade, and especially since Christus Vivit was promulgated in 2019, the Church has sought to help the Church’s youth become protagonists in their own right. This is seen in many parish, diocesan, and archdiocesan initiatives to form young Church leaders. Some examples of this include creating new diocesan offices for youth and young adult ministries and the growth of many high school and collegiate campus ministry offices. Nevertheless, young people crave young role models for the Faith. Pope Francis recognized this and listed many examples, including Mary, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Joan of Arc. In this blog, I wish to discuss three saints in particular--Bl. Carlo Acutis, St. Jose Sanchez del Rio, and St. Therese of Lisieux—and how their witnesses are a model for young people (especially youth leaders) who wish to dive deeper into a relationship with Christ and his Church.
Young people everywhere crave to see an aspect of themselves in the people they look up to, and Bl. Carlo Acutis is a soon-to-be saint who allows young people to see commonalities between themselves and the saints. Carlo was a typical Italian teenager who played soccer and video games. Nevertheless, he also made great strides for God in his work, uploading Eucharistic miracles to a website to spread devotion to the Body and Blood of Christ. He was called “an influencer for God” by his mother in an America Magazine article. Bl. Carlo stands as a soon-to-be saint accessible to the Church’s youth because of his young age and his connectedness to 21st-century culture. Bl. Carlo Acutis models for youth leaders how evangelization must occur within the culture and modern media, not from an ivory tower of formal theology and scholarship. The Gospel must be spread in a way that all generations can appreciate, and Bl. Carlo accomplished that with the creation of his website.
Another young person who bore witness to the Faith in the context of his own time was St. José Sánchez del Rio. Saint José was a young man growing up in Mexico during the Cristero Wars. The Cristero Wars were a series of conflicts between the Mexican President Plutarco Calles's secularist government and Cristero fighters (formally known as the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty). The Calles government imposed the 1917 Mexican Constitution, which contained anticlerical policies and sought state atheism. Catholics across the country opposed this and began resisting through liturgical services and military resistance against the Mexican army. Saint José was a young man during the war and wanted to fight to defend his Faith. His mother, however, refused to let him formally join the Cristero Movement. This made St. José contribute to the movement indirectly and attend Mass whenever possible. Nevertheless, when a Cristero General lost his horse in battle, young José offered his, and this led to his imprisonment by the Mexican army. After being tortured to renounce his Faith, José refused and was martyred. St. José Sánchez del Rio’s witness to the Faith is one of the best examples of what a Catholic is called to do by Christ: witness the Faith within your own culture and times while not renouncing our Lord. Despite his young age, St. José believed in Christ’s love and graces, and that gave him the strength to be countercultural and stand with Jesus instead of with the popular culture and the government that stood against Him.
Finally, St. Thérèse of Lisieux remains one of the most commanding forces in the Church’s lexicon for youth witnesses. Becoming a Carmelite at age fifteen, Thérèse began to pray incessantly and pioneered her famous “Little Way” for the spiritual life. St. Thérèse’s “Little Way” seeks to help people encounter Christ in their day-to-day activities and pray to Jesus with childlike dependency. St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s powerful devotion to the Eucharist, prayer, and a joyful attitude allow many to realize that one can be close to Christ no matter what they are doing. St. Thérèse stands as a strong role model for young Catholics since her relationship to Christ reached such profound depths at her young age.
Young people crave role models in the Church, and older generations can find powerful witnesses and wisdom from young Catholics as well. The Church has been and must remain dedicated to telling and promoting the stories of young saints to inspire every generation to become protagonists in the Church and saints for Christ’s kingdom. Young people can be inspired by these saints since they can “…offer the Church the beauty of youth by renewing her ability to ‘rejoice with new beginnings, to give unreservedly of herself, to be renewed and to set out for ever greater accomplishments’” (Pope Francis, Christus Vivit).
Faith is a gift. The ability to practice that faith, to worship freely, to share our faith in the public square, is also a gift. Each year, the Church in the US observes Religious Freedom Week. This year, we focus on Solidarity in Freedom. In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis writes, “Solidarity means much more than engaging in sporadic acts of generosity. It means thinking and acting in terms of community” (Fratelli Tutti, 116). The theme of Solidarity in Freedom forces us out into a global mindset, to one of community and fraternity. I’d like to focus on Religious Freedom Week through the stories of two men 400 years apart, Safa Al Alqoshy and St. John Southworth.
At the 2018 Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, Safa Al Alqoshy, the only youth delegate from Iraq to the Synod, shared the story of the struggle of Iraqi Christians. While I didn’t meet Safa in my time at the 2018 Synod, I was around him during the 2019 Post-Synod Forum in Rome on Christus Vivit. His stories from the Synod followed him back to Rome where he was met with great admiration. Even though he had to arrive at the Forum late, the community that formed with him was immediate.
Safa said to Crux, “It’s very important to pay attention that there is not only persecution by killing, there is a persecution by psychology, by feelings. You feel that you are alone, that you are not supported” (Crux). Safa expressed the reality of friends and family fleeing from Iraq, likely not to be seen again. He wasn’t just speaking generally about the people of Iraq, but from his own personal experience. He shared about two of his friends who were killed in a car bombing in 2009 and how Safa and his friends shared the common experience of saying, “see you next week” only to never see one another again.
The temptation can be to take Safa’s story, and the story of so many Christians like him across the world, and to use it for our own advantage. To share it as an example, but one devoid of the personal reality which courses through its proverbial veins. When we share Safa’s story as just another example of the terrible persecution that Christians face, even worse as a “look what could happen to us next” story in relation to religious freedom in the US, we fail to show solidarity. We dehumanize those who have died, those who have been separated by the flight for freedom and safety, and we turn our suffering brothers and sisters into objects whose story we use for our perceived gain. No, instead, Pope Francis urges us to be in true solidarity with Safa and his friends and family, to think and act in community. We must pray for them, we must give when we can give, but we cannot use them as pawns in a game of politics that is antithetical to true solidarity.
About 400 years before Safa there lived an English priest by the name of John Southworth. John was born around 1592 and was ordained in 1618 at the English College, Douai in France. St. John was arrested and imprisoned multiple times throughout his life, all for being a Catholic priest. Between his imprisonments, St. John would serve the plague victims of Westminster and provide sacraments to the sick and dying. St. John was arrested for the final time in 1654 and was sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered. His body was returned to France in 1655 and buried after having been, literally, put back together. During the war between the English and French in 1793, St. John’s body was buried in an unmarked grave where it remained until 1927 when the grave was discovered. He was canonized in 1970 by Pope St. Paul VI.
John’s story is one of perseverance and solidarity. He was arrested multiple times and, eventually, killed for his Catholic faith. All throughout that time, he remained in solidarity with the English people, serving them through the sacraments, refusing to allow his own persecution to stand in the way of his Gospel mandate to be Christ to the world around him.
Religious Freedom Week invites us to be, like St. John, fervent in our faith. It reminds us that, even in times of persecution, we carry on in sharing the Gospel. The week also invites us to remember those in our days who are persecuted, such as Safa and our brothers and sisters in Iraq. Solidarity means that we are united with them in prayerful community, but never using them for our own means- detaching their story from their persons. May we pray for all persecuted Christians and reflect upon the meaning of religious freedom this week with the hope of growing in solidarity with our brothers and sisters across our Universal Church.