Our Lord does not mean that the word “father” can never be used in reference to men on earth. After all, Scripture itself contains such references (cf. Heb 12:7-11; 1 Cor 4:15). So our Lord must be doing something other than restricting our vocabulary. Indeed, He is using hyperbole to capture our attention. Then He speaks a fundamental truth: “[Y]ou have but one Father in heaven” (Mt 23:9). Far from eliminating earthly fatherhood, He points us to its ultimate source and meaning God Himself.
An analogy exists between earthly fathers and our heavenly Father. But we tend to confuse that analogy. We observe that certain men are fathers, and then conclude that God as “Father” must be like them. But the opposite is true. God is the true Father. His Fatherhood exists in eternity. Before the creation of the heavens and the earth, He is already the Father of the Son. Before a child ever spoke the word “Daddy,” God’s Fatherhood already exists. God is not “like” a father. He is the only perfect and true father. “No one is father as God is Father” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 239). A man, therefore, is “father” only to the extent that he is an image of God the Father. Among other things, this means that a man’s fatherhood must be spiritual, eternal and loving like God’s.
First, fatherhood is spiritual. Fatherhood exists in eternity, prior to material things. It is the Father’s spiritual generation of the Son. For earthly fathers, this demands a spiritual concern for their children for their souls and salvation. It takes great effort and self-sacrifice to teach children to pray, to instruct them in the faith and to bring them to the sacraments. Nevertheless, to bear the title “father” means to occupy oneself with these spiritual tasks for the salvation of souls.
Second, fatherhood is eternal. The First Person of the Trinity was, is, and will be the Father of the Son. His Fatherhood will never cease. Nor will He ever cease, through the Son, to be our Father as well. To be His faithful images, therefore, earthly fathers must communicate to their children that their fatherly love will not cannot end. There is no such thing as conditional fatherhood. Children must know that no matter how far away they may be spiritually, emotionally, geographically they always have a father.
Finally, fatherhood is loving. The Trinity, that perfect community of love, begins with the Father. He is the principle and source of all divinity and therefore the beginning of love itself. Thus, as one spiritual writer put it, “To be father is to take the initiative in love.” Again, this truth is first taught and learned in the family. A father has many tasks to provide, protect, instruct, discipline and correct. But his most important task, and the one that gives meaning to all others, is to establish the family as a community of love to take the initiative in love.
Blessed Pope John XXIII once stated, “Within the family, the father stands in God's place.” This is not cause for boasting or arrogance, but for humility and even fear. It means that a father has the task of being God the Father’s image, and he will be judged on that basis. We have but one Father, in heaven. Yet He has given us many images, men with the mission of “revealing and reliving on earth the very fatherhood of God” (John Paul II). Let us pray for these men, that God will make them faithful images.
Fr. Scalia is parochial vicar of St. Rita parish in Alexandria, Virginia.
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)