Posted by: L. E. Barnes | April 6, 2010

A Lack of Spiritual Fathers?

We address priests as “Father,” but what makes a priest a true spiritual father? Blogger Rod Dreher tackles this in a recent thought-provoking post. First, he notes how he has rarely viewed priests as spiritual fathers:

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.


I’ve been Catholic for only three years, yet I too have already heard some homilies that were as dry as the Sahara Desert. However, even during my charismatic evangelical days, I heard more than my share of dry sermons, or even if they weren’t dry, they sometimes had far more emotional hype than spiritual substance. And frankly, it seems that many charismatic preachers substitute delivery for substance. In other words, it’s not what they say but how they say it. But what accounts for this (alleged) dearth of good preaching in our Catholic parishes?

And I certainly agree with Rod that Catholics tend to “have a different relationship with their priest” than Protestants usually have with their ministers. The evangelicals that I grew up around expected a strong preacher, not someone to administer sacraments. (In fat, many Protestants eschew the very word sacrament.) The sermon was really the main part of the church service.

The priests at my parish tend to do very well with their homilies, and I believe they both have a strong love for their parishioners and strive to provide excellent pastoral care. And believe me, in some evangelical churches, especially the large ones (a.k.a. “mega churches”) pastoral care is virtually nonexistent. The “pastor” is a distant figure who preaches/teaches and serves as the church’s chief administrator, but he doesn’t get to know his congregation well and certainly is not a spiritual father. I’m reminded of something an Asian fellow said to an American missionary: “When I meet a Buddhist priest, I meet a holy man. When I meet a Christian pastor, I meet a manager.”

Rod goes on to remark that

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.

No argument there. Perhaps that’s why it’s so important to view the priesthood as a calling, not a mere career choice. I’m sure a combination of factors go into making a man an effective priest–wisdom, piety, self-sacrifice, love, not to mention empowerment from the Holy Spirit.

What are your thoughts and experiences?


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