Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


Priest/pastor as spiritual father

posted by Rod Dreher

I was thinking this morning after a post-Lenten breakfast with some Catholic friends how rarely, no matter which parish I’ve attended, or church I’ve been part of, I have thought of the priest or pastor as a spiritual father. Credible confector of sacraments? Yes. Presider over the congregation’s Sunday worship? Check. But someone to whom I could turn for authoritative guidance with a moral or spiritual problem — in other words, a spiritual father? Well, it’s happened a couple of times that come to mind, but mostly, not at all.
I suspect this feeling is common among churchgoers, though I would hate to generalize from my own experience. Is it that way with you? If you think about it, it’s very strange that one would not look to one’s priest or pastor as a reliable guide. Catholics and Orthodox (at least) have a different relationship with their priest, in that the most important thing he does is dispense the sacraments. Protestants demand more of their pastors, because the pastor is expected to give a good sermon. I’ve not been Orthodox long enough to say what the expectations the faithful have for homiletics from their pastors are, but among Catholics, nobody expects a good, or even a decent, sermon. It ought not be that way, but it is, and it’s part of the theology. On the occasion I got a good Catholic homily, it was lagniappe, but mostly, I considered the sermon the dull time before the Eucharistic prayers.
Anybody validly ordained can be a dispenser of sacraments and/or a presider over a congregation, but it takes something different to be a spiritual father. What is that quality, or qualities? A Catholic friend suggested to me this morning that it requires a quality of personality that can’t be taught, only refined. I thought about my own father, and how he, though not a conventionally religious man, possesses a gift of moral seriousness and authority that people have gravitated to all his life. Wisdom, I guess you’d say. We also talked this morning at breakfast about how a priest or pastor who is terrible at preaching can nevertheless have a powerful gift of consolation that comes out when his parishioners are in distress.
But that is not the same thing as having the authority that is required to be a real spiritual father to one’s flock. Nor is having the gift of giving good sermons the same thing as having that authority. Nor, for that matter, is ordination and the education that prepares one for that step.
So, what is it? Can it be learned, or otherwise acquired? What makes some men (and women) spiritually authoritative, but others not? What has your experience been? What qualities do those you’ve turned to for spiritual leadership have?
Briefly, I have never trusted priests or pastors who give the impression that their role is to soothe and to “therapize” me. If a religious leader gives me the sense that he thinks life is all about comfort, I don’t trust him. For me, the paradigmatic negative example is the priest who, on Ash Wednesday, delivered a homily whose point was that Lent is about learning to be kinder to ourselves. On the other hand, as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned more about what it means to be “pastoral” — in the sense of being able to have human sympathy for the suffering and the difficulties people go through. Doctrines are important, but nobody was saved through doctrine. They were saved through love. To be able to speak hard truths in paternal love, as my father has always been able to do, is for me a prerequisite for being a spiritual father. We don’t want a father who will tell us what we want to hear. We want a father who will tell us what we need to hear. At the same time, we want in our spiritual fathers men who know what it means to suffer, and who are aware of their own limitations — in other words, men who have humility.
It’s a tall order for any of us to achieve, becoming someone who walks the line between love and discipline, and who has the humility to know of one’s own limitations, but to still be able to speak with confident authority. How many of us are like this? I wish I were. I know I’m not.



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Richard

posted April 5, 2010 at 9:18 am


Speaking the truth in love is indeed God’s biblical demand of us, but I agree with you that it is not something Christians are very good at actually doing. A missionary visiting my church told me that even among very committed disciples, that sort of truth-telling from a spiritual persepective is too often lacking.
I am fortunate enough to have two wonderful pastors. The senior pastor is very approaqchable, but also a very serious guy: I would absolutely trust him with a serious moral problem and be very confident (maybe too confident) that he’d give me the best possible guidance based on the Bible along with his wisdom and experience.
My other pastor is actually a close friend and we’re in the same small group together. Again, having brought some struggles to him, he was encouraging, but had no problem warning me about letting my footsteps stary from the straight and narrow.
In the fellowship of committed Christian friends I’ve gotten a lot better about truth-telling, but it is still hard. To be maximally loving and maximally honest at the same time is a delicate balacing act, I think.



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Richard

posted April 5, 2010 at 9:19 am


Geez, you’d think I’d learn to proofread – sorry about all those typos!



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Kim

posted April 5, 2010 at 9:20 am


I have only been a catechumen since January 1st, but I do consider my priest a spiritual father. I have no prior experience with this concept as a Lutheran (and Methodist way before that), but one of the reasons I chose my Orthodox church was because I liked the priest. He doesn’t sugar coat anything, yet can still be kind when necessary. And he does deliver a good homily most Sundays.



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Therese Z

posted April 5, 2010 at 10:07 am


I very much appreciate your point – our pastor is distant, indecisive, easily swayed by the opinions of whoever is with him at the moment. his homilies aren’t so hot. We also have a part-time priest (teaches locally, but helps out) who is AWFUL. I don’t mean he’s not holy, but he’s flippant, lazy and not reverent. His confessions are mechanical.
Thankfully, we tend to have another priest on staff at all times who IS a wonderful homilist and confessor.
The pastor will eventually retire or be transferred and we’ll see what we get next time.
But our physical parents have faults, too, which limit our ability to take things to them, or get comfort or teaching or modelling from them.
When I realized that, I made a leap of progress in my faith, because I was expecting the people of my parish to be, essentially, perfect, complete for my needs in every way. Heck, my family isn’t, no different from the Church! In everyday life, I seek out friends and other family to be my comfort, teacher and shoulder. In church life, I seek out priests and religious that can do the same. In the meantime, I participate fully in my parish, because it’s my family in Christ.



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Bill

posted April 5, 2010 at 10:18 am


Up until about 10 years ago, the pastors in churches we attended (Presbyterian) did indeed serve as our spiritual fathers. We sought their advice, shared our family stories with them, took them into our confidence and relied on them in a wide variety of circumstances (from individual counseling to book recommendations to matters of sickness and death). Several times a week, we interacted with them on a one-to-one basis.
But for the past 10 years, we’ve been unable to find such pastors either in the local Presbyterian churches (my tradition) or the local Lutheran churches (my wife’s tradition). As a result, currently we attend worship but are not otherwise active in a church congregation (obtaining most of our spiritual nourishment from non-clergy sources such as lay-led Bible studies, this blog and the Mars Hill Audio tapes).
My wife and I have been discussing this for a while, and we wonder whether its a generational thing. Each of the pastors who served as our spiritual fathers were from pre-Baby Boomer generations and had seen considerable adversity in their own lives (the Depression, wars, etc). They viewed themselves as “enablers of ministry,” preached deep sermons and worked hard to walk the Christian talk. By contrast, pastors of nearby churches are now all Boomers or post-Boomers and seem (to us) to be self-centered and shallow, with very narrow life experiences. These younger pastors, almost without exception, have bought into the “seeker sensitive” fad. We seek little contact with them, because they don’t seem to be on our wave-length. Again and again, we ask ourselves: “What the heck are they teaching in our seminaries?” Or, is it just another symptom of a larger generational malaise?



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Leah

posted April 5, 2010 at 10:24 am


After briefly leaving the Lutheran church of my childhood, I attended an Episcopal church for about a year. The priest insisted on standing in the aisle during the sermon and all of his sermons were short and very generically upbeat. They were never based on scripture and he wouldn’t go near the concept of sin at all. I don’t know why he didn’t use the pulpit. Some misguided sense of getting down with the people, I suppose. It was not very reassuring.
One day I accompanied my aunt to my old Lutheran church. Later that week I got a call from the pastor. “Many hearts were gladdened to see you last Sunday” he said. That, I thought, was exceptionally good pastoral work. By one simple, gentle sentence he shepherded me back into the fold.
I do expect a bit of authority from my pastors. I expect them to be well educated. I expect to be able to see them during the sermon. I expect the sermon to be based on scripture and relevant to life. Would I go to them with personal problems? No. Because each time I go to church and hear God’s word and receive the sacrament, I am filled with such a sense of renewal and peace that personal problems are put in perspective anyway.
I am always leery of the sort of pastor or priest who seems to think too highly of himself (or herself). The sort of person T.S. Eliot describes: “Half of the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm. But the harm does not interest them.”



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the stupid Chris

posted April 5, 2010 at 10:29 am


You should watch A Serious Man. It’s a Coen brothers movie, so a dark comedy, and one of the things taken aim at is spiritual advice from the Rabbis.



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Rod Dreher

posted April 5, 2010 at 10:32 am


Bill, that’s a pretty interesting insight. I wonder if the men who came up in the Depression, World War II, and the immediate aftermath have about them a moral seriousness that was the result of being shaped by their times. Perhaps I’m wrong here, but my prejudice is that whenever I hear a pastor or religious leader speaking in “seeker-friendly” cliches, which seem to be endemic today, across denominational lines, I immediately consider them a bad bet for serious moral and spiritual counsel. Why? Because it seems to me that lacking substantive experience with suffering and the spiritual life, and perhaps without a reflective nature themselves, or the habit of reflection, they’re substituting advertising for wisdom.
You can’t really expect a young man in his late twenties and early thirties to have the life experience or maturity to be a good spiritual father. But I have known young men (I myself was not one) who, whatever they lacked in experience, worked to make up for it by thoughtful reflection on the best that had been said in their own spiritual tradition, and by seriously trying to live a holy life. A Catholic priest friend once told me about an order priest who lived (and who lives) a spartan life. If memory serves, this ascetic told my priest friend not to trust a priest who gives no evidence of denying himself, ever. Good advice, I think, and not just for evaluating the wisdom of religious leaders.



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Cheeky Lawyer

posted April 5, 2010 at 10:52 am


I am the exception I guess. A cradle Catholic, since college, I’ve been blessed with real spiritual fathers, first at the Catholic Student Center, then in law school at a Catholic University, and then in a parish in NJ and now in the Archdiocese of D.C. The homilies have been great. The director of the Catholic Student Center had a Ph.D. in philosophy and was an incredible homilist. His associate directors were great too. My spiritual father in law school is a Patristics Scholar. The pastor in NJ was a true father who walked the parish boundaries, knew people’s names, invited us to spend Christmas in the rectory in case we weren’t able to make it to be with family, and truly love his flock. He spent 18 years in that parish. The pastor of my current parish is much like the pastor in NJ. A great homilist and a true father. People have switched to our parish because of the way he approaches liturgy and the manner in which he makes sure to be present after Mass to get to know people. I know this isn’t the experience of many, perhaps most Catholics, but I wanted to share some good news because it can be easy to get down on the Church.



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Matthew

posted April 5, 2010 at 11:10 am


Rod,
There are two resources in this area that I have found helpful. The first is a lecture given at a priests retreat a few years back by Fr. Josiah Trenham on the subject of confession, in which he spells out the roll of a spiritual father in parish life:
http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/frjosiah-trenham-talks-to-clergy-about-confession-and-repentance.aspx
Secondly, pick up a copy of the Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus. While specifically written for monastics, there are many qualities that we should all search for in a spiritual father. As I just read from the Ladder during Holy Week, one should not only consider the life of the spiritual father himself, but also consider those under his charge.
I personally have come to the conclusion that *in general* the Christian East sees the role of the spiritual father and confession as a therapeutic action where diseases are diagnosed and spiritual medicine (e.g., prayer, fasting, change in life) are given to heal the person, whereas in the Christian West, confession is seen more as a juridical act (form, matter, and intent) than healing. Again, this is *in general* – I have encountered Roman Catholic priests who were concerned with healing, and have heard of Orthodox priests who are much more juridical in their approach to the sacrament.
-Matthew



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Matthew

posted April 5, 2010 at 11:20 am


Rod,
I just reread your original post and wanted to be clear that my use of “therapeutic action” in my response has nothing to do with the type of “therapy” you mentioned. The type of therapy I was referring to specifically has to do with a priest accurately assessing one’s spiritual diseases, and making the appropriate prescription to remove the disease and begin healing. Unfortunately, there are some “spiritual doctors” who would prefer to give asprin to one with a spiritual cancer than prescribe chemotherapy.
Fr. Josiah says this much better than I can. If you can spare an hour to listen to his lecture, it is highly beneficial toward understanding this.
-Matthew



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Hector

posted April 5, 2010 at 11:53 am


Rod,
It’s interesting you bring up the whole ‘priest as therapist’ deal.
I don’t live in my home city on the East Coast anymore, but I go back for vacations and such, and when I do, I go to a church presided over by a Episcopalian priest that I’ve known since high school (since long before I was a Christian, in other words). I don’t see him all that often, but I do treasure those occasions, because he’s been an important spiritual influence on my life and my faith, and is a big part of why I’m a Christian today.
He would very much agree with your views about ‘priests as therapists’ and likes to tell this story about when he was doing marriage counselling in a midwestern city, back in the late ’60s-early ’70s. (The height of the divorce revolution, in other words). This young married couple kept coming into his office, complaining about the most trivial things, and things never seemed to get better over the course of months, even as he tried to be understanding and gentle, the picture of fatherly/priestly compassion as it was understood circa 1968, and it looked like they were heading for a divorce. Finally one day he had a bad headache and couldn’t deal with this couple anymore, and they got to him so much that he flew off the handle. He said “You two are the most immature and self-centered people I’ve ever had the misfortune of meeting. It’s always nag, nag this and nag, nag that. You two deserve each other. Now get out of my office.”
About a week later my priest receives a letter in the mail, saying “Father, you saved our marriage!” It turned out a bit of anger and harsh criticism was exactly what this couple needed to see how childish they were being. They still send my priest a Christmas card after all these years (at least, they did about 10 years ago when I heard the story) and are still married.
Tough love.



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Steve K.

posted April 5, 2010 at 11:54 am


Rod,
I concur with comments about Catholic priests in this role (sadly) until I started attending an FSSP parish (traditional Latin rite). For the first time in my Catholic life, I’ve got a priest who really is a spiritual father to me (and now, increasingly, my wife). He takes interest in the spiritual lives of his flock, and most importantly, he is available for and stresses frequent use of the confessional. Our parish has daily confession. He gives great sermons, due in no small part of his frequent discussion of the four last things.
Many Catholic priests since V-2 have lost the sense of sin and the need for redemption of souls. No one can be a good spiritual father without that. The Church at large have much to learn from the FSSP.



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Erin Manning

posted April 5, 2010 at 12:04 pm


I think that Bill is on the right track, but I think the spiritual disease of the West goes deeper than we can see at first glance.
We have lost, in a very real sense, the notion of what a father is. If we have a hard time seeing a priest or pastor as a spiritual father, it may be because we are among the many people who don’t know what it is to have a father, or who have strained or distant relationships with our fathers, who have only known stepfathers or “father figures” or substitute fathers, etc.
Our society thinks of a father as an optional accessory to a family–nice to have if you’ve got one, but not at all necessary for a good and complete life. The narrative of divorce and serial remarriage, of single parenthood, etc. says that fathers don’t count, and our demand that adults be able to rearrange their social and sexual lives regardless of children’s needs requires us to continue to hold that view.
Even in families where the biological father is still around, society (via the media) tends to see this figure as a clueless, bumbling laughingstock of a person–incapable of authority or dignity, unworthy of respect. The idea that anyone would approach his or her actual father with a serious problem requiring wisdom and the insight of experience is ludicrous; serious problems require one’s teacher, one’s girlfriends or boyfriends, one’s coach (occasionally), one’s school counselor or, in some circumstances, the local Planned Parenthood office staff; “father” not only isn’t in the top ten, he doesn’t make the list at all.
To be able to see one’s pastor or priest as a spiritual father, one first has to have a healthy understanding of fatherhood. A father is not a walking bank machine/barbecue grill operator who is amusing in his cluelessness and incompetence, regardless of common social narratives (and just look, come late May, at the Father’s Day card offerings to see what our society thinks of fathers). But one element of the problem is that even our priests and pastors and ministers often come from family backgrounds where their own fathers were sorely lacking, and did not model the kind of actual fatherhood that they can base their spiritual fatherhood on.
This may be why my current pastor does seem like someone I could take a serious problem to–he is not from this country, and he has spoken about his family and upbringing in ways that show how traditional that upbringing was, and it’s easy to see how good his relationship with both of his parents was. It is not a stretch of the imagination to see him as a spiritual father, even though he’s quite young for this role, only a little older than I am.



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Pat

posted April 5, 2010 at 12:10 pm


One of the real challenges for any pastor is making their advice usable by the individual. Like a father, the pastor must know each child’s needs and how to meet them – but too often, pastors never get to speak to the parishioners as individuals. So what should the public message be?
Some people apparently need to be scolded, and will leave churches that are too ‘therapeutic’; others scold themselves plenty already and will do anything to make the pastor stop scolding them too, until they realize nothing will be enough, upon which *they* leave the church. So from a cynical perspective, the pastor has to decide which group s/he is more willing to lose from the church rolls. If it were me, I’d try to keep the ones with tender consciences. They’re the 20% who do 80% of the church work, anyway. I belonged to a church with a scolding pastor once, and the commonest statement I remember from church governance meetings was ‘why are the most active people leaving?’
What that would come down to, it seems to me, is making public preaching non-confrontational and downplaying the rebuke in open sessions – saving it for the individuals who need it in private consultation. But for a pastor to do that, those individuals have to seek private consultation and be up front about what they need from it, rather than writing the pastor off because the sermons aren’t fierce enough for them. We have to set aside our initial judgments and give the pastor a chance to be our spiritual parent in private – which is where all the good conversations between parents and children happen, anyway.
My current pastor is ultra-soft and often says things that I think are too fluffy to believe. But when I set aside my embarrassment and try any of those suggested disciplines, they turn out to be much more difficult than they initially appeared, and hit me right in the area that needs work. I wonder if that’s true of other ‘therapeutic’ messages like the one to be kinder to yourself during lent. If you asked the pastor just what was involved in that and tried it, you might find it was hard and worthwhile.
After all, ask any injured athlete or stroke victim how soft and fluffy therapy is. Even if the nurse wears cartoon-printed scrubs, the work is hard and you only get out of it what you put into it.



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Rod Dreher

posted April 5, 2010 at 12:10 pm


Great points, Erin. My own father was not raised by a “good” father. His dad had to be on the road a lot during the Great Depression, making money to support his family, and when he came home, he was emotionally remote. But my dad had a good mother, and was raised in a culture that was confident about what being a Good Father meant. I have in the past strongly differed with my dad on this or that question, and have chafed at his strong belief in his own point of view (the idea being that he was, in my opinion, closed minded, and unwilling to at least consider the justice of another opinion). That said, my dad’s self-confidence was what made him such a good father. From the time I was a little kid, I knew that when he said this is Right and that is Wrong, that it was. He lived a life of integrity — by which I mean he did not exempt himself from the high expectations he had of others — and that’s what made me eager to trust him, and to follow his advice.



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deb

posted April 5, 2010 at 1:36 pm


Matthew gives what I consider potentially terrible advice concerning the Ladder of Divine Ascent.
Wise priests I know have strongly discouraged laymen from reading that book. It is, as Matthew notes too casually, REALLY meant for monastics, and pretty advanced ones, at that. It contains stuff that can be damaging to ordinary laymen who read it and get scared to death by it. Seriously. Even if not scared into spiritual neurosis by it, one can just be confused and depressed by it. It’s not for most of us.
Also, I am quite wary of Matthew’s comments about how to evaluate and search for spiritual fathers. My Orthodox priest has made it clear that he and most parish priests are father confessors, not spiritual fathers, and most parishioners need father confessors; they don’t need to go searching out some monastic elder as a spiritual father (which is of course the kind of spiritual father St. John Climacus is talking about, because he is addressing *monks,* and Orthodox laymen who put themselves in the place of St. John’s audience are mistaken.)
I appreciate the difference in these concepts, and so prefer to think of these two titles–father confessor and spiritual father–as denoting these two distinct, if overlapping, roles. I realize that many commenters here are using the term “spiritual father” more generally for “good pastor,” and that’s fine. Matthew’s comment shades into territory where many recently converted Orthodox (and by recent, I mean maybe even 10 or 20 years in the church) get into trouble, though, so I’m addressing that.
I think it can be pretty comical, actually, for us ordinary garden-variety sinners to think we need to seek out some kind of deep, mystical spiritual fathering, when really we need spiritual preschool teachers. I would suggest Orthograph No. 63 in Steve Robinson’s most excellent series of cartoons about Orthodox life as a perfect catechetical reality check on this matter:
http://pithlessthoughts.blogspot.com/2010/03/orthograph-63-4th-sunday-of-lent.html
Spiritual fathers? Right. As if most of us would even apply what they told us. What most of us need to help us up onto our Fisher-Price Stepstools of Divine Ascent is a spiritual preschool teacher.
Having said that, I want to clarify that I appreciate completely the comments made here lamenting the sorry pastoral skills of so many priests and pastors. Christians should get better pastoring from their clergy, for sure. But this is all part of what a decent father confessor should be able to do. (I’m not including homiletic skills in my thoughts here. That’s another topic.) He doesn’t need to be a clairvoyant elder or monastic-grade guide to the spiritually advanced just to be a good pastor, one who can be compassionate, discerning, and willing to challenge his parishioners to take up their crosses, recognizing individuals’ varying capacities for cross-bearing.



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deb

posted April 5, 2010 at 1:38 pm


Sigh. Editing fail. Sorry about some repetition in previous post.



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MikeW

posted April 5, 2010 at 1:52 pm


I like the idea of a spiritual father…I really do, but there’s the whole trust thing, and I can’t get past the idea. I suppose it goes back to my own rotten dad, and some other authority figures in my past, or maybe it is just something inherently wrong in me, but the idea of revealing my true self to someone other than my dear wife is just too much to risk, and then taking advice from them on a regular basis…well, I just can’t imagine it. On the other hand, I do know that this is something I’ve missed. And I’m not just talking spiritual father, I haven’t had the father, grandfather, older male I respect that I can go to for advice, and that has been terrifying. I can still remember standing on the beach at Golden Gardens in Seattle. My wife and I had just signed papers on our first house, we were adopting our first child and I wasn’t sure how I was going to scrap together the money to cover all the fees. I was also worried that I might suck as a dad, and trying to keep my head afloat at a new job. So, as I stood there on the sand, I thought and felt like I was going to shatter. I suppose I should have shared all of this with my wife, but she was equally terrified and I felt like I needed to be strong and figure it out without burdening her. And so I didn’t. What I would have given to have someone I respected listen to my worries, offer some advice, and, perhaps, more importantly, tell me it was going to be okay…
As it turns out, I’ve discovered I’m not alone. A few years ago, I took an informal poll of my friends and they were all in the same boat as me, and what was most interesting, we all had this deep seated longing to have someone like that in our lives…some older mentor that we could go to for advice and counsel.



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Anita

posted April 5, 2010 at 2:12 pm


Rod, your post reminds me of something Fr. Gregory Jensen says on his blog (www.palamas.info). In a post titled “The Perils of Obedience” he says in the comments thread:
“This is why in my own pastoral work and writing I stress the importance not only of catechesis but spiritual formation. It isn’t enough that people know what to believe or the practice of the
Church. All of this is important to be sure–but it isn’t sufficient.
“Spiritual formation means helping people come to know who they, personally and uniquely are in Christ, what Christ has called them to do. And then, building on self-knowledge in Christ, we have to help
people actual live out faithfully their identity and vocation. In my view, this isn’t happen in our parishes. Or, if it is, it is rarely happening intentionally. I’m less concerned about the
standout men and women who would do well anywhere–think the genius in the inner city school who is able to get into and thrive at an Ivy league school–and more concerned for the average person
who is not self-directed or naturally gifted for the life of virtue.”
So the ability to help foster spiritual formation is an important quality in a pastor/priest, I think.
I like what deb says about about the difference between father confessors vs. spiritual fathers and that we mostly need spiritual preschool teachers instead of a spiritual father. And I love the
Orthograph deb links to about the Ladder of Divine Ascent. :-)



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Mac S.

posted April 5, 2010 at 2:17 pm


Spiritual fathers? Right. As if most of us would even apply what they told us. What most of us need to help us up onto our Fisher-Price Stepstools of Divine Ascent is a spiritual preschool teacher.
Deb – thank you for this, for a million reasons just thank you.
Erin – column worthy post. I don’t agree with all blame on a few stereotypes, I think absent or lacking fathers existed throughout history so perhaps it is more complex than that but, point made. I also never knew of anyone else who disliked Father Day cards — my Dad did not fish, golf, fancy himself a grill-master or swill beer. And the pastel, textured sappy odes still make me cringe.



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Jasper

posted April 5, 2010 at 2:47 pm


I could not agree more with Rod’s observation re the across-the-board mediocrity of homilies at Catholic services. On the rare occasions when I’ve found a priest who delivers a good homily, that homily becomes the highlight of that Sunday’s worship. The Eucharist and the readings from Sacred Scripture are a constant at any Mass on a given Sunday; it makes no difference where I worship regarding those elements of the service. But the good homily is so rare an occurrence that I treasure it and replay it in my thoughts again and again.
The good news: after six decades of attending Mass, for the first time in my life, I discovered a priest who delivers consistently outstanding homilies. He has stretched my boundaries and deepened my faith. The bad news: he is being re-assigned.



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bill holston

posted April 5, 2010 at 2:58 pm


I have more in the nature of Spiritual Brothers. I have lead a men’s small group at my church for many years. We study the Bible Together, pray together challenge each other. We have been through every life experience you could name, almost.
I have never really had an older man, who served as much of a spiritual guide. I’m 53, I suppose I’m now the older man..
I quote ST. Augustine’s words as our guide:
Let all who are truly my brothers love in me what they know from your teaching to be worthy of their love, and let them sorrow to find in me what they know from your teaching to be occasion for remorse. This is what I wish my true brothers to feel in their hearts. But my true brothers are those who rejoice for me in their hearts when they find good in me, and grieve for me when they find sin. They are my true brothers, because whether they see good in me or evil, they love me still. To such as these I shall reveal what I am.” St. Augustine, Confessions



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BobSF

posted April 5, 2010 at 4:26 pm


Isn’t it pretty presumptuous to think that a priest or pastor who serves a congregation of hundreds should be your spiritual father? Of course, I assume most of the parish isn’t looking for one, but still, it’s asking a lot, no?
The purpose of a shepherd isn’t to make sure that every sheep is the bestest sheep he can be. It’s to get the sheep from here to there, caring for the herd as a whole and, only when a particular sheep is in crisis, going the extra mile for that individual.



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Mark

posted April 5, 2010 at 5:05 pm


Some thoughts from the pastor side of the fence. The congregation many times does determine the approach. St. Paul’s, “I became all things to save a few.” The size, demographics and maturity of the laity change the ministerial style or at least they should.
Producing a good sermon takes about 1 hour of prep for every minute your intend to speak. (I laughed at that too one time.) If you want a good sermon on Sunday, don’t crack jokes about why the minister is in the study all the time.
If you have a “seeker” type minister it is probably because he is looking at the weekly offering and realizing that for every WW2 tither he is burying he needs to attract 10 gen x’ers (I won’t talk about the boomers here) just to continue paying the bills. As the spiritual maturity has decreased, so has the financial support creating a spiritual death spiral in many places.
Then you get to the really hard truths. Exactly the people that this thread wants in the pulpit are the people who the modern seminary systematically weeds out. They are too edgy and risk taking for the professional academics. The modern church has disregarded the qualifications for the ministry in more ways than gender (divorce, managing of house, respect of community, not new believer) – go read 1 Tim 3:1ff. When the spiritual decline started the church decided to lower standards to keep numbers in the ministry. It is reaping the reward. And we shouldn’t forget that the WW2 generation that has funded the church for a long time, seemingly failed to teach the faith to their own kids. And those are the kids, if they are still around, who nag the pastor to become “relevant” and start making worship an entertainment experience and don’t bum us out with too much talk of sin, repentance and redemption.
That may seem negative, but you start with the truth. And every one of those things is a material problem. Nothing that the blessings of the Spirit can’t overcome. But it requires a congregation consciouly rejecting the surrounding culture’s materialism and individualism, recognizing the body of Christ in that congregation, and being very judicious and wise in calling a pastor. Too often congregations (and whole churches) get the pastoral care they deserve and not what Christ wants to send them.



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Leah

posted April 5, 2010 at 5:08 pm


BobSF
I agree with you. That would be a heavy burden to place on a pastor, but of course, indicative of the “me, me, me” culture. (Which is not to say it’s wrong to long for fatherly guidance, by any means, but we should take care when, where and how it’s appropriate to make our longings someone else’s duty.)
That’s why I felt that one phone call from my pastor (see above), a little casting of the crook to bring me back into the fold, was enough shepherding for this little lamb.



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Cecelia

posted April 5, 2010 at 5:20 pm


While at college I knew several outstanding priests – who gave great homilies and who were “spiritual fathers”. On the parish level – not so much – only two I would say were truly outstanding in all categories. But how many people do we meet who are truly outstanding?
I think a piece of it is the age of the priest as well as your own age – this relates to experience as well as how one might relate to say – a 20 something priest versus a 50 something priest. I think too that many priests have been encouraged to get graduate degrees in various sorts of counseling so they do tend to be persuaded that they must approach their relationships in “therapeutic mode”.
But I do think the main issue at least for Catholics – is that priests have too much to do – we expect too much from them especially given that there are less of them. My parish once had 4 priests who shared the workload – now we have two and one is quite advanced in age. They are responsible for running what amounts to a medium size business – the bills, the finances, the building maintenance, overseeing dozens of groups, teams, activities, sometimes even being coaches for kids teams. They have to say daily mass, novenas, etc.,administer sacraments, visit the hospitals and shut ins,attend diocesan meetings etc etc. I think that sometimes the more important aspects of their role – as spiritual adviser – gets overlooked in all the administrative work.



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Charles Curtis

posted April 5, 2010 at 6:32 pm


I think the problem is that few priests – Catholic or Orthodox – radiate holiness. The Catholic priesthood and episcopacy – is not anywhere counter cultural enough. I’ve met more Orthodox priests who strike me as serious – I think it’s due to the greater asceticism of Orthodox practice.
You want a priest who can tell you what holiness is. Who can give you counsel out of his own experience and prayer. You want to sense that he denies himself, his own will and pleasure. Again, the Orthodox have an edge, by a wide margin, on the Catholic presbytery.
The downside of Orthodox practice is that in some cases, the spiritual father relationship can become pathological. Being told to repeat the contents of your confession to your spiritual father by a priest who doesn’t know you (as I have been) strikes me as potentially problematic.. The common Catholic practice of confessing outside your home parish to a priest who doesn’t know you – the opposite extreme, where there is no “accountability” or knowledge across confessions, and so not much spiritual guidance – has the benefit of leaving little to no room for malpractice on the part of the confessor.. Something I’ve seen evidence of in some Orthodox contexts..



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Hector

posted April 5, 2010 at 6:44 pm


Charles Curtis,
I didn’t know that Catholics commonly confess outside their home parish.
Perhaps I should try that- the Episcopal church I currently attend has a woman pastor. Without getting into the whole thorny issue of women’s ordination (on which I see good arguments on both sides), I don’t personally think that women priests are not priests, or whatever, and I have no problems with my pastor. That said, in general I’m more comfortable confessing my sins to a male priest.
Rod,
I’m wondering, obviously only ordained priests can hear confessions, but is there a requirement that your spiritual father/director has to be a priest? Couldn’t we, in some sense, serve as spiritual guides for each other? That might go somewhere to addressing Bob SF’s point. It’s true that a priest is expected to be a spiritual father to those who need it, but perhaps he could use some help.
On a similar note, obviously only ordained priests can confect the Eucharist, but is there a requirement that a clergyman has to deliver the homily? It seems to me that if we allowed lay preaching (as opposed to laypeople handling the sacraments, which is abhorrent) we might get some better quality preaching. Not every priest can feel inspired by a given reading on a given day, and it may be that one of his lay friends might feel more inspired to say something original and heartfelt.
Feel free to correct me if there is something in canon law that forbids either of these things.



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CAP

posted April 5, 2010 at 7:39 pm


it would be interesting to more fully consider mark’s comment;
“If you have a “seeker” type minister it is probably because he is looking at the weekly offering and realizing that for every WW2 tither he is burying he needs to attract 10 gen x’ers (I won’t talk about the boomers here) just to continue paying the bills.”
. . . on some future thread.



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Gordon Zaft

posted April 5, 2010 at 7:50 pm


Note to above poster — it’s required that the homily be given by clergy, yes.
For myself I have felt a certain spiritual fatherhood with several of my pastors (though not all), even one that one perhaps might not have expected it from. I think it depends a lot on the personality of the pastor and of course the perception — not so much of holiness, as wisdom.



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Jon

posted April 5, 2010 at 7:52 pm


Re: Our society thinks of a father as an optional accessory to a family–nice to have if you’ve got one, but not at all necessary for a good and complete life.
As always when this subject comes up, let’s not forget that through most of history a good many families lacked a father, or a mother, or both because of premature death. Today’s fatherless families are nothing new under the sun and there was never an era when children could absolutely count on having both parents in their lives until they reached adulthood.
On the original topic, in the Orthodox tradition it was rather unusual for people to seek a spritual father in their parish priest. People generally sought out monastics, or lay hermits, for that purpose. Of course our great woe in America is that we do not have very many such people.
By the way, this may not qualify as an example for Rod’s first question, since I was not seeking advice, but when my step-mother died suddenly last year I did call my priest seeking his prayers for us and his blessing on my journey to Michigan.



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Corry

posted April 5, 2010 at 8:01 pm


My family converted to the Catholic church in 2005. We no longer go to church. The priest at our parish gave excellent homilies but was not friendly at all. We sent my mother in law to a Catholic hospice when she was near death due to cancer. The priest that was to be on duty when my mother in law was taking her last breaths. We had to call her Lutheran pastor, and he came right away. Why does it seem that priests are unfriendly and aloof and show no signs of the fruits of the Holy Spirit?



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MMH

posted April 5, 2010 at 8:38 pm


Priests are functionaries and the percentage of priests likely to be adequate spiritual guides is about the same as the percentage of lay people so likely, i.e., it’s a small number. I suppose it never occured to me to consider my parish priest my spiritual father. Of course I respect him as standing in for Christ in the liturgy, but I’d never accept his advice unquestioningly. I think the charisms of the priesthood and those of spiritual counselors are different things. It’s nice when the 2 coincide, but I suspect it’s not often that they do. The big question is, when you don’t consider your priest your spiritual father, where do you find him or her? That’s a real question, though also partly rhetorical, as I believe firmly in “seek and ye shall find,” i.e., that a sincere search will find an answer



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Rod Dreher

posted April 5, 2010 at 8:48 pm


Well, when I say “spiritual father,” what I mean is not someone with whom I have a close and ongoing discipling relationship — though I wish I did have someone like that! — but rather simply a father figure I could look up to as a wise spiritual and moral guide. I don’t think that’s too much to ask of one’s priest or minister. You know, someone I could go to when I have a question or a problem, and ask for counsel and guidance I could rely on.
But I appreciate very much what Mark had to say from the clergy perspective. It is no doubt that case that many, maybe most, of us really don’t want that in a priest or pastor. We think we do, but we really don’t.



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Andrea

posted April 5, 2010 at 9:05 pm


No, it wouldn’t occur to me to think of a priest as a “spiritual father” or an authority figure. They’re mainly deliverers of the sacraments and of homilies and run things on the parish council, etc. Sort of a spiritual CEO who are also vessels of god’s power when transforming the holy eucharist or delivering absolution, etc. The men themselves don’t have to be particularly holy or likeable, though one would hope that they are. It’s what they represent that matters. I like some priests and dislike others. I spent a lot of time arguing with the one who taught my confirmation class when I was a teenager. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to go to him for advice. Now I cover school board meetings where the priests from all four parishes each have a voice and it has occurred to me that one of the priests, while very sincere in his faith, is probably the boss from hell based on how people react to him. It doesn’t help that most of the priests are around my age or slightly older. I see them as contemporaries, not as father figures. I see most priests mainly as people. For guidance I talk to my friends or my parents or pray and hope for insight directly from God.



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MMH

posted April 5, 2010 at 10:53 pm


Rod, yes it would be nice to be able to turn to one’s priest as “a wise spiritual and moral guide,” but priests, no less than the rest of us, are part and parcel of the modern world with all its ills. I suppose I don’t expect from most priests personally (vs. sacramentally) more than basic morality and a solid understanding of key doctrines. I think that to withstand the pressures of the contemporary world one has to be either a saint or remarkably acute intellectually so as not to be taken in by the siren song, and I consider it too much to ask from most priests. Thank God there are other holy and/or intellectually acute people in other positions around us to act as influences and guides, highly principled people such as your father, or immensely disciplined and intellectually acute people such as mine, to provide examples.



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bill holston

posted April 6, 2010 at 8:29 am


There are very many downsides to a small independent congregation like the Bible Church I attend. There are some advantages, I believe. I was an elder in my church. Because of that I routinely visited and prayed for the sick. In addition I preached several times a year. I believe it was quite helpful to the congregation to hear from a ‘lay’ person, that is serious about the study of Scripture. I also think hearing someone speak about Biblical justice from the perspective of a lawyer (my profession) and being a dad from a Father was helpful. I think it is a disadvantage of denominational structures. As I said, I realize that there are many disadvantages as well.
I think all churches are going to have to up the commitment to the use of lay persons. I view that as a good thing



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