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.