The Paternal Order of Priests


There is a famous homily of St. Augustine in which he refers to the fathers in his audience as "my fellow bishops." He startles his congregation, which certainly included many busy fathers of families, by telling them to be faithful to the duties of the priesthood.

"Fulfill my office in your own homes," he says. The word "bishop" means supervisor, and since "a man is called a bishop because he supervises and takes care of others, every man who heads a household also holds the office of bishop — supervising the way his people believe, and seeing that none of them fall into heresy, not his wife, or son, or daughter, or even his servant." 1

Augustine spoke these words as the Church faced its first real wave of clericalism. Christianity had been legal for almost a century and compulsory for almost a generation. The clergy, who had once been reviled and persecuted in the empire, ere now respected and even exalted. This newfound respect was welcome, of course, and it was their due as priests of Jesus Christ.

But clerical exaltation had a downside, too. In fact, the empire so revered the clergy that the lay state seemed insignificant by contrast. As great a churchman as St. Jerome once quipped that he approved of marriage, but mostly because it was the breeding ground for future celibates. So it's little wonder that ordinary Christians began to lose sight of the sacramentality of marriage and the sacred vocation to family life.

Imagine, then, the shock when Augustine addressed those overworked and under-appreciated married men as "my fellow bishops." In an age of rising clericalism, such words must have seemed so exaggerated as to be scandalous.

Today, we live in a different sort of world. It's almost an inversion of Augustine's world. While he faced a budding clericalism, we're looking at a full-grown anti-clericalism. Whil his contemporaries felt free to sneer at marriage and treat it as an occasion of sin, our contemporaries miss no opportunity to sneer at priestly celibacy and treat it as an occasion of sin.

Our world is Augustine's world turned upside-down. Yet I think we can learn much from Augustine's approach. He could speak so truly of priesthood and fatherhood because he could see a reality beyond the visible. That is the very definition of a Catholic worldview, a sacramental worldview. And so, in the spirit of Augustine, I want to address priests and seminarians as men who are "my fellow fathers."

Metaphysical Evidence

One of the marvels of God's plan is that He has given fathers a priesthood and priests a fatherhood. Within the family, the father stands before God as a priest and mediator. Within the Church, th priest stands before his parish as a father. A priest's fatherhood is not merely metaphorical, it is something metaphysical. It is a supernatural participation in God's fatherhood and in Christ's high priesthood. How did Christ exercise His high priesthood? He became the New Adam, the father of a new human family in the Church. He thereby became the perfect image of the Father on earth.

Priests of the New Covenant conformed to Christ in a unique and powerful way. Christian tradition speaks of ordination in the most astonishing terms. We commonly say that the priest is alter Christus, another Christ. The Catechism tells us further that the priest acts "in the person of Christ" and, like Christ, he is a "living image of God the Father" (nos. 1548-49). Through the ministry of ordained priests, the presence of Jesus Christ "is made visible in the midst of the community of believers" (ibid.).

Theologians refer to the ontological change &151; a change in the man's very being — that occurs with the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Ordination "confers an indelible spiritual character" that is permanent and "imprinted . . . for ever" (Catechism, nos. 1582-83; cf. Heb. 5:6; Ps. 110:4).

The great Cappadocian Father Gregory of Nyssa compared this change to the transubstantiation that occurs in the Eucharist. "The bread," he explains, "is at first common bread. But when the sacramental action consecrates it, it is called the Body of Christ, for it becomes the Body of Christ. . . . The same power of the Word makes the priest worthy of veneration and honor. The new blessing separates him from common, ordinary life. Yesterday he was one of the crowd, one of the people. Now, suddenly, he has become a guide, a leader, a teacher of righteousness, an instructor in hidden mysteries. And this he does without any change in body or form. But, while he appears to be the man he was before, his invisible soul hasreally been transformed to a higher condition by some invisible power and grace."2

This permanent character, this communion with Christ, this share of God's fatherhood, is not merely metaphorical. Indeed, it would be more accurate to say that my fatherhood is metaphorical. The truth is that both priests and dads are fathers. In different ways, their fatherhood is a metaphysical and theological reality. It is something sacramental, a living sign of God's presence and power.

If this comes as news today, it's only because so many of us have unwittingly become religious empiricists. Since a sacramental character is invisible, we may be tempted think of it as less real, less permanent, merely propositional. But because it is sacramental, it is more real, more permanent, and much more than propositional.

This demands of us a deep faith, an act of faith sustained over a lifetime. St. Thomas Aquinas said: "We do not believe in formulas, but in those realities they expess, which faith allows us to touch. The believer's act of faith does not terminate in the propositions, but in the realities which they express" (Catechism, no. 170). We do not put our faith in theories or abstractions, but in realities.

The Buck Stops Here

The New Covenant is itself a sacramental economy of the supernatural order that is more real than the world we see around us. The reality of a priest's fatherhood, like the reality of my fatherhood, should be more real than an oncoming tractor-trailer. Such realities are powerful. They demand our attention. We ignore them at our peril.

Priests are called to put faith in their fatherhood. Pope John Paul II has written: "[T]he great family which is the Church . . . finds concrete expression in the diocesan and the parish family. . . . No one is without afamily in this world: The Church is a home and family for everyone" (Familiaris Consortio, no. 85). Priests must be fathers to that "great family" — what an overwhelming task!

To my six children, I am a father. What that means is that I provide for them. I give them a name, a home, and food to sustain them. I teach them, guide them, and discipline them. I love them unconditionally; I forgive them for the trouble they cause. I pray for them daily. And all that is true of my fatherhood must be much truer — not less — for ordained priests. Philosophers through the centuries have always understood paternity as the highest degree of causality, the very communication of one's own nature and life.

If this is true of natural fatherhood, it is truer of a priest's supernatural fatherhood. As a natural father, I've communicated biological human life — but by administering the Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, priests communicate divinelife, the very supernatural grace of Christ's own divine sonship.

Priests must be fathers to a much larger family than mine. And this fatherhood, like mine, means far more than mere begetting. Like any father, priests must take responsibility for thousands of souls in hundreds of households. They must provide for them, teach them, exhort them, discipline them, guide them, correct them, and forgive them. They are their fathers. Spiritually speaking, the buck stops with them. In my home, I expect my children to assume responsibilities as they grow older; but as their father, I am the one who has to assume ultimate responsibility for them and for my household.

Building on Nature

We will be called to account for the guidance we've given. The thought of that makes me tremble for my fatherhood. It shouldmake priests tremble for theirs. The time in the seminary is so important to their priesthood and fatherhood. I cannot be a good father unless I make a constant effort to learn, to study. As head of a household, I have had to educate myself in many remote and obscure corners of unfamiliar academic disciplines. To take on a mortgage responsibly, I had to become something of an economist. To stand responsibly by a child's sickbed, I had to become an amateur physician. To keep it all together, day after day, I've had to read as deeply as I could in the doctors of prayer and morals.

Tomorrow's priests need to prepare today for a lifetime of learning. The time they have in the seminary is probably the best opportunity they'll ever have to immerse themselves in study. And priests cannot be good fathers without such preparation. If a seminarian hasn't made the most of his time up till now, he should make an Act of Contrition and start his life over tomorrow. He needs to rol up his sleeves, open his books, get down on his knees and pray.

Priesthood and fatherhood demand a wealth of knowledge and wisdom that takes a lifetime to build up. In prayer, we draw on the infinite wisdom of God — and that's indispensable, but it's not everything. God expects us to correspond to His grace in an active way, with our work and our study.

Grace does not destroy nature, but builds on it, to perfect and elevate it. Priests need prayer; but they also need to study. God has given each of us a mind. Priests must put it to good use, and give Him something to build on.

I beg seminarians and priests to heed the words of an experienced teacher and a former student: If you're not studying right, you can't be praying well. If you're praying right, you're going to study better. And if you're studying right, you're going to pray better.

So I urge seminarians to pray and study well. One will help to fortify the other.

The Secret of Fatherhood

The secret of fatherhood is this: One should strive to fall more in love with his bride every day, and with the children she has given him. We've all known many married couples who have "fallen out of love." We've also known workaholic or self-absorbed fathers who live lives detached from the cares of their children. There are no newlyweds, no new parents, who plan for this to happen. No couple embarks upon marriage with the hope that they can make each other miserable and share that misery with many others.

But misery descends upon a staggering number of families daily. Some of them we can tally up in divorce statistics; others stay together, though in separate and distant orbits. The analogy applies just as well to the priestly fathers who abandon their bride, the Church, and her children — and tothose who stay with her, grudgingly and in misery. Falling in love is usually involuntary. Staying in love, however, demands will and work and help from almighty God. But the rewards are well worth the effort.

As the years go by, I find myself falling more in love with my wife Kimberly. We're coming close to a quarter century together, and I suppose I know her faults better than anyone alive. But I've come to know that I never go wrong in trusting her. I always go wrong in distrusting her. My bride is lovely, but the Church is still a lovelier bride. My bride is trustworthy and faithful, but the Church is ever more so. Priests are called to gaze upon the Church supernaturally, to walk beside her, by faith and not by sight.

For priesthood, like my fatherhood, is not a job; it's not an administrative role. It's a vocation from God. There's a big difference between a job and a vocation, and it manifests itself in countless ways. Every year I take a vacation from my ob, but I never take leave of my family. In fact, when I go on vacation, my family goes with me.

Though priests will often take their restful time away from parish life, they must always take their priesthood and fatherhood with them. For a priest's family is larger than mine. A priest's family is everywhere. Wherever priests go, they must always be a father to the great family of the Church.

True priestly fatherhood is the only sure antidote to the recurring ecclesiastical illness called clericalism. We must always remember — priests and fathers — that we are not bosses, not managers, and not administrators. We are fathers. So what's the difference? A boss can be threatened by the achievements of his subordinates. But a father finds only fulfillment in the successes of his sons and daughters.

I often tell my kids that I'm not just raising children; I'm raising up brothers and sisters. I am a rung in the ladder that they must climb in order to reach he one true Father of us all. If a fellow's priesthood is fatherly, he will raise up sons and daughters to be his brothers and sisters in Christ. As fathers, we must not create and sustain dependency in our children. We must be dependable so that they can depend ever more on the Lord. For it is from Him that all fatherhood in heaven and earth receives its name (cf. Eph. 3:15). Our fatherhood is great, but it is only an image of His, only a share He has granted us by grace.

Like Augustine, like Gregory of Nyssa, one must strive to be a realist. A priest must be a man who knows he is a father, and knows that his fatherhood is something real, something metaphysical, something theological, and something permanent.

The world needs priesthood and fatherhood as never before.

In his heart, the priest must hear the call that is as old as the Old Testament. For the priesthood of the New Covenant is not an innovation. It stands in continuity with the priesthood of the Jerusalem Tempe, the priesthood of the tabernacle in the desert, and, most importantly, the priestly fatherhood of every household in the time of the patriarchs. Priestly fatherhood and fatherly priesthood are timeless covenant structures of the Family of God. Yet they are ever in need of renewal; for we do not father as we should.

In the Book of Judges, we read that, when a Levite appeared at the door of Micah, Micah pleaded, "Stay with me, and be to me a father and a priest" (Judg. 17:10). A chapter later, Micah's plea was echoed, almost verbatim, by the Danites as they invited the Levite to be priest for their entire tribe: "[C]ome with us, and be to us a father and a priest" (Judg. 18:19). That call echoes still today, in our hometowns and in distant mission lands.


  1. Adapted from Sermon 94 [44], NPNFI:VI.
  2. Adapted from On the Baptism of Christ, NPNFII:V.


Scott Hahn. "The Paternal Order of Priests." Lay Witness (May/June 2003).

This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.


Scott Hahn is Professor of Theology and Scripture at Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he has taught since 1990, and is the founder and director of the Saint Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He is the author of many books, including Lord Have Mercy, Letter and Spirit, Understanding the Scriptures, Swear to God, Scripture Matters, Understanding Our Father, First Comes Love: Finding Your Family in the Church and the Trinity, Hail Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God, The Lamb's Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth, A Father Who Keeps His Promises: God's Covenant Love in Scripture, Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism, and co-editor of Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God. Dr. Hahn has also written numerous articles in lay and academic publications.

Scott Hahn received his Bachelor of Arts degree with a triple-major in Theology, Philosophy and Economics from Grove City College, Pennsylvania, in 1979, his Masters of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 1982, and his Ph.D. in Biblical Theology from Marquette University in 1995. Scott has ten years of youth and pastoral ministry experience in Protestant congregations (in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Massachusetts, Kansas and Virginia) ad is a former Professor of Theology at Chesapeake Theological Seminary. He was ordained in 1982 at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, Virginia. He entered the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil, 1986.

Copyright © 2003 LayWitness

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