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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