Priests join Pope Francis for the celebration of the chrism Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican March 28, 2024. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Called ‘Father’

Our success hinges on being ‘sons’ of the true Father in heaven

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Bonnar (new)Do you remember the first time someone called you “Father”? How did that make you feel? That moment, no doubt, occurred on ordination day. Perhaps it was not as riveting, given all that happened on that day, as well as the following day with the first Mass of Thanksgiving. But in the days after, especially when one assumes their first assignment, the title can become more real and ever so humbling.

As someone who was ordained at the age of 26, I must confess that being called Father, especially by people my senior, was a real adjustment. Moreover, given the strong standard of fatherhood set by my father, I found myself unworthy of such a title. And yet, I needed to embrace this new identity in which I was now being called, “Father Dave.”

It is not just the title, but the awesome responsibility that comes with it. After all, a father is expected to be present and lead much like St. Joseph. Sometimes, it is not with words but simply with presence. As a child, I always felt safer and calmer when my dad was at home. A father provides and protects and usually carries some tidbit of wisdom in his pocket that he is ready to share when needed. Facing this job description as a young, inexperienced, newly ordained priest was humbling and intimidating. Even after more than 30 years of priesthood, the title sometimes remained daunting.

What always helped me bridge the gap from my humanness to this incredible calling of fatherhood was my relationship with my own father. He reflected to me again and again the essential qualities of fatherhood — namely patience, confidence, trust, fortitude, humility, forgiveness and wisdom.

One day after my dear mother died, Dad and I were sitting on the porch. Out of the blue, he shared with me that his favorite Bible story was the one of the prodigal son. He loved how the father was waiting for the son’s return, ready to embrace him. Dad particularly enjoyed the part about killing the fatted calf and having a feast, not just because he was a butcher and loved to eat, but because he knew that the most sacred place in the home was the table where the family came together to be fed and to feed each other.

Now that I have been a bishop for three years, it is rare that anyone calls me Father. Some of my former parishioners may refer to me by this title. The only other time I hear it is out of habit, you might say, when people greet me after a Mass in a parish. I not only get that title, but I have been called “Your Holiness,” “Your Eminence,” “My Lord” and even “Monsignor.” God has such a sense of humor.

As a bishop, the title Father still applies, as I am called to be a father to my priests, many of whom are my senior and possess much more wisdom and experience than me. While on a handful of occasions I have referred to the men in my presbyterate as “sons,” I know that this is not an easy thought for some priests to embrace, let alone the bishop himself. Nevertheless, this is the reality, for a bishop is called more than anything else to be a father to his priests.

A bishop as a father to priests is part of our tradition. Christus Dominus notes that a bishop should regard his priests as “sons and friends” (No. 16). Lumen Gentium acknowledges that priests should view their bishop as a “father” and the bishop behold his priests as “sons” (see No. 28).

The ordination rite for priests also highlights this father-and-son relationship between the bishop and his priests. In addition, during the Renewal of Priestly Promises at the Chrism Mass, the bishop addresses his priests as “beloved sons.”

In recent years, this beautiful relationship between a bishop and his priests has faced its share of challenges. I think we can make it better if we all, priests and bishops alike, take a moment to prayerfully reflect on our shared call to be fathers, especially forgiving fathers, with the humble realization that our success hinges on our ability to grow every day in being sons of the true Father in heaven. Perhaps we share more in common than we could ever imagine!

BISHOP DAVID J. BONNAR, editor of The Priest, is bishop of the Diocese of Youngstown.

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