I grew up in a home with two abusive parents. The past few years of my life have been devoted to intense grief and trauma therapy, working to heal the wounds from my childhood. I knew that a good therapist would be an important part of the process. What I did not realize was what a gift spiritual fatherhood would be to my healing.
The day after finally realizing that my biological father would never be a safe person for me to resume contact with, God gave me a spiritual father. I had been looking for a spiritual director for years, and it was truly a “Holy Spirit moment” when I finally had the courage to ask this particular priest to be mine.
Through the gift of this spiritual father, I have begun to glimpse the priesthood in a new, richer way. Specifically, I have come to see the priesthood and spiritual fatherhood through the lens of St. John.
St. John and the Passion
When in the Garden of Gethsemane, St. Peter responded to the approaching soldiers how most men would, bless their hearts. Many men have a desire to “fix” things, to protect and defend their friends and family. In trying to fend off the soldiers, Peter was trying to keep Jesus safe.
But Peter is not the Apostle at the foot of the cross. Can you imagine him standing there? It would have nearly killed him. Standing at the foot of the cross, being helpless in the face of the suffering Christ…it required a different kind of manhood. It required a manhood like John’s.
John knew, full well, that he could not (and should not) try to rescue Jesus. He had listened to the words of Christ and had begun to grasp that this was part of God’s plan. But even though he could not “fix” the situation, John was still present. He walked beside Mary as she followed her Son to Calvary. He stood firm at the foot of the cross, a shoulder for Mary to cry on and a loyal friend to her Son. As Jesus breathed his last and Mary wept, can you imagine what a consolation John must have been to her? As her heart broke for her Son, this new son received her tears, letting them soak the shoulder of his tunic. A strong, warm presence, he held her in her grief, and created a safe place for her to finally shed the tears that had been building in her since Simeon prophesied to her at the Presentation in the Temple. Three decades of suffering, three decades of anticipating the suffering of her Son—the tears were endless. Of course, she was filled with hope. Of course, she trusted in God’s plan. But that hope and that trust did not blunt the immensity of the pain that she had been carrying so long.
What would that moment have been like for Mary, were it not for John? Who would have stood guard, would have held her, would have made a space for her to weep?
As one of the first priests, John the Apostle revealed an indispensable facet of the priesthood—to be a safe, quiet place for souls to grow and grieve and grasp for God.
John and Spiritual Fathers
Although I asked this particular priest to be my spiritual director, God quickly made it clear that he was giving me more than a director. He was giving me a father.
Having been raised by an abusive father, I did not understand what fatherhood was. Through this priest faithfully living out his vocation (and sharing it with me, through his ministry) I began to see fatherhood in a way that I never had before. I began to see that fathers are safe people, guarding and protecting their children from harm. I began to see that fathers sacrifice for their children, asking nothing in return. I began to see that fathers are selfless, not wanting children for their own fulfillment but wanting children that they might point them to the goodness of God the Father.
I also began to realize that, unlike my biological father (who was always rushing in to situations with anger or trying to fix things), my spiritual father was more like St. John. Early on in our direction, I was sharing a particularly painful memory with this priest, and he began making a suggestion for how to make sense of the situation. “Stop!” I told him. “I don’t want you to fix this. I just want you to be present with me in the suffering. I want you to be a John, not a Peter!”
That moment was a turning point for me, as I began to see what a gift St. John was and what a gift the priesthood is. The priest is a man who is confronted with the most painful, most troubling, more joyful, weakest, ugliest, and most beautiful sides of humanity. Were he to rush around trying to fix every difficult situation he encountered, he would rapidly burn out. Rather, a good priest responds the way that John did. He is just present. He is present at the side of dying person, in the hospital room as parents sit beside their sick child, present in the living room of a couple trying to save their marriage, present at a graveside as a mother grieves her miscarried baby. A priest cannot and does not fix any of it. He does, however, do what John did—he allows the tears and pain of those suffering to soak into the fabric of his priesthood. He creates a safe place for souls to grieve, and grow, and grasp for their heavenly Father.
That is who my spiritual father has been for me—a St. John. And through this one particular priest, I have noticed this quality of spiritual paternity in all of the priests that I know. Priests are men who are willing to stand at the foot of the cross, for as long as it takes, to ensure that their spiritual children are not alone in their pain.
Let us pray for all priests—to have the courage and inner peace of John, that they may create a safe place for their spiritual children to find the peace of God that they seek.
image: Sculpture of Jesus Crucified with the Virgin Mary and Saint John beside Him, St Martin’s Cathedral (Bratislava) by Adam Jan Figel / Shutterstock.com