The Spiritual Fatherhood of the Priest in Patristic and Medieval Pauline Commentaries
(FKTh 2020-2, p. 80–100)
In several passages of his epistles the apostle Paul describes himself as a father to his church communities (especially 1 Cor 4:14–16, 1 Thess 2:11–12). This relationship is based on his having „begotten them through the gospel“ (1 Cor 4:15) and continuing to be close to them with fatherly care. Patristic and medieval exegesis saw in these verses a description of the spiritual fatherhood of the priest. However, is a priest allowed to be addressed as „father“, since Christ expressly forbids calling anyone on earth „father“ (cf. Mt 23:9)? According to the exegetical consensus, this is indeed possible as long as the priest does not claim with this title an authority that is due to God, but rather understands his office as a service. The interpretative tradition develops a quite uniform conception of spiritual fatherhood, which is distinguished by four main characteristics: the spiritual father serves the faith of the people, which is founded in Christ and not in human affection; he provides a model of faith and virtue through his own life; he is devoted to his people with a “motherly” care and guides them, among other things, by loving correctio paterna; the aim of his ministry is to guide the faithful so that Christ may take form in them (cf. Gal 4:19). The understanding of the priest as spiritual father is a powerful stimulus for a deeper understanding of the priestly identity and for overcoming one-sided, reductive views of the priest (e.g. as manager, administrator, theologian, liturgist).