Excerpted with permission of Lay Witness magazine.

If we want to be Christians, we have no choice but to pray "Our Father." When the first disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, He taught them using those very words. To pray as a Christian means to pray "Our Father."

Yet, as I learned in my first days of ministry, the word father has become a stumbling block for some people. Divorce is common, as is birth outside wedlock. I live in a country that one popular book described as "Fatherless America." So, for a growing number of people, father has never meant "provider," "teacher," or "guardian." It has meant only an aching absence.

Moreover, even children who have grown up with a good father are all too aware of his defects, problems, and sins. The best intentions of the most virtuous dads too often get botched in execution. What we human fathers wouldn't give our kids! But we don't always have what they want or need, and when we do have it, we don't always know how to give it to them without spoiling them.

This is why Tradition tells us to go beyond our earthly experiences and memories of fatherhood when we pray "Our Father." For, though He is a provider, begetter, and protector, God is more unlike than like any human father, patriarch, or paternal figure. The Catholic Catechism puts it this way: "God our Father transcends the categories of the created world. To impose our own ideas in this area 'upon him' would be to fabricate idols to adore or pull down. To pray to the Father is to enter into his mystery as he is and as the Son has revealed him to us."

How has Jesus, God the Son, revealed the Father to us? As "Our Father, who art in heaven." By adding that prepositional phrase, "in heaven," Jesus highlights the difference in God's fatherhood. The Father to whom we pray is not an earthly father. He is "above" us; He is the one we profess in the creed as "Father Almighty"--that is, all powerful. Though we are weak, limited, and prone to mistakes, nothing is impossible for God.

God's power, then, sets His fatherhood apart from any fatherhood we have known or imagined. His "fatherhood and power shed light on one another" (Catechism, no. 270). Unlike earthly fathers, He always has the best intentions for His children, and He always has the ability to carry them out. Jesus wants us to know this, so that we could always approach Our Heavenly Father with childlike trust and confidence. "[W]hatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith" (Mt. 21:22).

The Catechism concludes that "God reveals his fatherly omnipotence by the way he takes care of our needs." We know God as Father because, over a lifetime of prayer, we experience His care for us. We come to see for ourselves that He is mighty and that He will deny us nothing that is good for us.

Earthly fatherhood at times reflects these characteristics, as do those offices that assume "fatherly" roles in society: the priesthood, for example, and the government. Yet earthly fathers can perfect their fatherhood only by purifying themselves of earthly motives-such as greed, envy, pride, and the desire to control. They can become true fathers only by conforming themselves to the image of their Heavenly Father, and that image is His first-born Son, Jesus Christ.

In governing, in parenting, or in priesthood, we come to exercise a more perfect fatherly role as we "grow up" in the Family of God: "We are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ" (Rom. 8:16-17). This process is a divine corrective to the world's distorted notions of patriarchy and hierarchy.

An ancient Christian writer, Dionysius the Areopagite, described hierarchy as something that originates in heaven, where divine light passes through the angels and the saints as if all were transparent. God's gifts, then, are passed from one person to the next, undiluted. Those who are closest to God-and so "higher" in the hierarchy-serve those who are lower. At each stage, they give as God gives, keeping nothing to themselves.

For this to take place "on earth as it is in heaven" requires the perfection of earthly fatherhood, which can take place only if we earnestly pray "Our Father, who art in heaven." God is the primordial Father, "from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named" (Eph. 3:15). He is the eternal model by which all human fathers must be measured.

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