Priesthood and Spiritual Childhood

Spiritual pride is an occupational hazard of the priesthood, and a potentially deadly disease. Because of our current ecclesiastical environment, I think it is important to mention clergy abuse cases. Quite apart from the personal emotional or spiritual wounds of these priests, amidst the scandals we often find narcissistic personalities, a sense of entitlement, and the abuse of authority — all symptoms of spiritual pride. Most priests are good and faithful men with a genuine desire to serve. Yet without a deep self-awareness and spiritual maturity, we can allow pride to slither in the back door, distorting our relationship with God, and compromising our effectiveness in leadership of a parish and the fruitfulness of our ministry acting in persona Christi. 

One antidote to spiritual pride is to cultivate a sense of spiritual childhood, the recognition of our common identity in Christ that we share with all the baptized: we are first and foremost sons and daughters of God. Surprisingly, we may also discover that those priests who are grounded in our identity as spiritual children will more naturally imitate the Father in becoming spiritual fathers to the people of God.

The scandals of a few in the priesthood have damaged the reputation of us all, and at times priests are subject to unjust suspicions and even harsh denunciations. Thus, I would like to be as supportive as possible to my brother priests and express my solidarity. I feel it is appropriate to share some of my own weaknesses and failures, which led me in the end to the discovery of our deep need as priests to live out our identity as spiritual children.

In my first years of priesthood, I strove valiantly to be the “perfect” priest. I was sincere, but relied far too much on my own human will and intellect in pursuit of my understanding of holiness. Briefly, it eventually led to burnout, forcing me to re-evaluate not only my role as a priest, but also my relationship with God and my own self-identity. Somewhere along the way, my primary identity flowing from my baptism — that I am a child of God — was subsumed by my role as a priest. Now I am re-discovering the blessedness and necessity of spiritual childhood.

When St John the Evangelist, the great mystic, reflected on spiritual childhood, he marvelled at this mystery in disarmingly simple words: “See what love the Father has for us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are!”1

St. John was speaking of something entirely new in the world, an unimaginable gift revealed by Christ — that we are now capable of the deepest intimacy with the Father as adopted sons and daughters. It is a new identity that many of the baptized — priests included — do not fully understand or appreciate. Spiritual childhood involves an existential attitude of continual, humble receptivity of the gift of the Father of our very lives, our identity, and our destiny. It is indeed the exact opposite of the trend of modernity with our exaltation, to the point of idolatry, of a sense of identity built almost entirely on the concepts of absolute independence and autonomy.

There are signs that God wants to renew the grace of spiritual childhood in our times. For this reason He has raised up saints like Therese of Lisieux, whom Pope Pius X called “the greatest saint of modern times.” Her “little way” of spiritual childhood has helped remind the whole Church of the relationship with the Father that we can enjoy as humble, dependent and trusting little children. I also think of Catherine Doherty, foundress of Madonna House. After each Mass, she would stand before a statue of the Infant of Prague and pray, “Lord, give me the heart of a child and the awesome courage to live it out.”

Jesus Himself solemnly testifies to His disciples of the necessity of spiritual childhood, “unless you turn and become like children, you cannot enter the kingdom of God.”2 In one incident recorded by Mark, Jesus specifically refers to the example of children as a counterpoint to the spiritual pride of the apostles. They were arguing about who was the greatest, so Jesus took a child into His arms and said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.”3 Accordingly, within the Church, the leaders chosen by God — namely the priests — are called to be examples of spiritual childhood to others.

Jesus also indirectly promotes spiritual childhood by warning us of the opposite — of potential abuses of “fathers”: “Call no one your father on earth, because you have one Father, the one in heaven.”4 Some Protestants are quick to criticize the Catholic Church for apparently disobeying a clear command of Jesus in calling our priests “father.” However, is Jesus also forbidding us to call our biological fathers with the same title? Obviously not. Jesus has something else in mind. He is warning us against possible abuses of the title “father.” Priests who are called father must remember that we are first brothers with all the baptized, which also implies sons of the one Father in heaven, a recognition that promotes a proper attitude of authority employed in humble service. In Presbyterorum Ordinis, the council fathers acknowledge priests’ “essential function of father and teacher,” but that they are also “disciples of the Lord along with all the faithful . . . brothers among brothers and sisters as members of the same body of Christ.”5

Unfortunately, an over-emphasis in priestly identity as spiritual fathers can obscure our identity as sons. If a priest is consumed with external activities, all he will hear all day long from parishioners is “Father, Father, Father.” The words of the Father to Jesus, “You are my beloved son,” can only be whispered to a priest in deep personal prayer, in which he also self-identifies with Jesus as a son of the Father. Works without prayer can mislead a priest into thinking of himself only as “Father,” the spiritual head of the community, while neglecting his primary identity as a son of God and a fellow disciple with his parishioners. Spiritual pride can result, along with personal arrogance, authoritarianism, criticisms, judgements, and so on — all of which weaken the supreme law of charity, by which the priest and all parishioners should be bound together in the unity of love.

Jesus was most certainly a spiritual father to His disciples, yet He was first and foremost the Son of the Father. Jesus once told his apostles, “you call me Teacher and Lord . . . and that is what I am,”6 but we often forget that He also modeled for all priests and disciples true spiritual childhood. This is most evident in the Gospel of John in the many passages on the relationship between the Father and the Son. “The Son can do nothing on His own. He can only do what He sees the Father doing.”7 Jesus is proclaiming His own spiritual childhood, His essential identity as the Son and His total dependence on the Father. Only as the perfect Son of the eternal Father could Jesus also be a perfect image of the Father for his disciples.

If we are honest about the times of crisis and upheaval through which we are living in the Church, then we must admit that we priests lack formation both as sons of the Father and spiritual fathers to the lay people. We have many efficient administrators of parishes and effective celebrants of the sacraments. Even so, do the people experience the Father’s love radiating from the person of the priest, as in the case of the disciples before Jesus? It seems that such examples of authentic spiritual paternity are rare. Many reasons for this lack could be cited, but here I would like to focus on the need for spiritual childhood.

How does a priest become a spiritual father by becoming like a child? It seems counter-intuitive at first, but allow me another question: how does a son become a good father? He learns primarily by observing and imitating the example of his own father. It is first by becoming a virtuous son that he can become an exceptional father. Like Jesus, every priest must learn first to be a faithful priest-son if he is ever going to be a holy priest-father for others. In the book In Sine Jesu, approved by the Church, Jesus Himself touches on this theme: “One learns to be a father by being a son and, even in the perfection of spiritual fatherhood, one remains a child, a son beloved of My Father . . . ”8

Jesus also acknowledges the terrible consequences of the breakdown of the family in our times, as well as the crisis in fatherhood. Many priests, myself included, did not receive from our earthly fathers a model for the Fatherhood of God. Jesus continues: “One who has not known the joys and security in love of divine sonship cannot receive the grace of supernatural fatherhood.”9

Jesus Himself has a solution:

I am about to heal many of My beloved priests who bear, deep within their souls, the wounds of a sonship that did not unfold as I would have wanted it to unfold because of the sins of fathers, and this over many generations. . . . O My priests, I call you to Myself in the Sacrament of My love. There I will heal you of those childhood wounds that have impaired your response to My Father for too long.10

I would like to suggest that priests’ relationship with the Eucharist is crucial in terms of growing in our identity as priest-sons before we are priest-fathers. Primarily in our public celebration of the Eucharist are we priests front and center, so obviously the leaders and fathers of the community. However, we must be adorers as well as celebrants. If a priest limits his Eucharistic relationship to Jesus to his role of celebrant at Mass, then he will inevitably think of himself primarily as the leader of the congregation, the master of ceremonies, the spiritual father of the people. Yet if he takes time for daily Eucharistic adoration, he sits as a disciple at the feet of Jesus, in an attitude of humble receptivity. Christ will communicate to the priest — and to anyone who takes time to be with Him in adoration — a share in His Heart and His filial relationship with the Father. In this privileged time of silent encounter, the heart of the priest will be formed into the heart of a son of the Father, and a spiritual father to others.

I wonder what a parish would look like if the pastor, in imitation of Jesus, was preeminent in his own example of being a spiritual child, his prayer flowing from his primary identity as a son of the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In the Gospels, the disciples observed the depth and intensity of Jesus’s prayer to the Father. They longed for a share in that intimacy, so one day a disciple asked Him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”11 Consequently, He taught them the “Our Father,” the most perfect of all prayers, coming from the mouth of the Lord Himself. Acting in persona Christi, priests are naturally called to be examples and teachers of prayer, drawing others to the Father by our own witness, as Christ did with His apostles.

On-going revelations of clergy abuse cases make it clear that the renewal of the Church cannot be limited to house-cleaning or new directives for more preventative measures. Christ Himself is purifying His Church, beginning with the priests. If the biblical “heart” is the center of the human person, Christ must enter there, and once again cast fire on the earth, the burning and sanctifying fire of the Holy Spirit piercing the hearts of the priests. May all priests pray for this inner transformation, asking Christ to give us a share in His own meek, gentle, and child-like Heart, and with it, a father’s heart toward the people of God.

In my own priesthood, I have confessed to a life-long habit of spiritual pride. Now, very slowly, by the grace of God, I am re-discovering within myself the heart of a child, a child who is a son of the Father. I am praying that this awareness will transform my celebration of the Eucharist, as I learn to worship and adore the Father in spirit and in truth. In the past I was concerned mainly with the meticulous observance of rubrics, or perfect pitch in singing, or a riveting homily. Without leaving these things aside, there is something more important: the heart of a priest conformed to the Heart of Christ, lifted up in adoration, in child-like self-forgetfulness, wonder and awe. Then the heart of the priest will lift up after him many more hearts in the assembly.

The holiness of the priest is not necessary for the validity of the Eucharist or any sacrament. Nevertheless, the sanctity of the priest has a tremendous influence on the fruitfulness of the sacrament, and the degree to which the people experience the presence and power of God in the Mass. Having encountered the living God in the Eucharist, the lay people will be much more effective and luminous witnesses to Christ in the world.

Christ can work wonders in the heart of a child that is humble, open, trusting and obedient. May Christ work in the hearts of His priests! Then the Church, purified of the stains of her sins, will once more shine brilliantly as a light to the nations, for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.

  1. 1 John 3:1.
  2. Matthew 18:3.
  3. Mark 9:37.
  4. Matthew 23:9
  5. Vatican Council II, “Presbyterorum Ordinis,” in Vatican Council II, ed. Austin Flattery, OP (Northport, NY: Costello Publishing Co., 1996; 1st printing), 333.
  6. John 13:13.
  7. John 5:19.
  8. A Benedictine Monk, In Sine Jesu (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2016), 173.
  9. Monk, In Sine Jesu.
  10. Monk, In Sine Jesu.
  11. Luke 11:1.
Fr. Tim McCauley About Fr. Tim McCauley

Fr. Tim McCauley is a priest of the Archdiocese of Ottawa, Canada. He was received into the Catholic Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1995, and ordained in 2002. He has served in several parishes, as well as being a vocation director and a chaplain at Carleton University, in Ottawa. He is currently a priest in residence at St. Patrick Basilica in Ottawa.

Comments

  1. Avatar Fiona Lynch says:

    That’s lovely, Father. Thank you!

  2. How wonderful that Pope Francis referred to Cardinal Muller as “childlike”. Cardinal Muller is childlike in a very inspirational manner, and he is also courageous. We are blessed to have Cardinal Muller as one of our “faithful shepherds”.

  3. Thank you, Fr. McCauley, for this very personal exploration of the vocation to priesthood in terms of the journey to true spiritual fatherhood, through the necessary embrace of authentic spiritual childhood: one beloved and forgiven and reborn, a child of the Father.

    A helpful insight here, it seems to me, is offered in the revealed truth in First John – 1John 2:12-14. Here John expresses important characteristics among his readers as of three spiritual ages – spiritual children, young men, and fathers:

    – Children have received forgiveness for the sake of Christ the Son, and “know the Father”;

    – Young men “are strong, and the word of God abides in [them], and [they] have overcome the evil one.”

    – Fathers “know Him who is from the beginning.”

    In this path of spiritual maturation from child to father, I find the intermediate spiritual age that John speaks of very significant and important. Between spiritual children and the spiritual maturity of fathers, that is, the spiritual “young men,” are disciples who possess strength and abiding within them is “the word of God.” I hear in this “word” both the living eternal Word Jesus Christ, and the written word, Holy Scripture. Christ and His words – His holy Truth – are remaining in these (somewhat matured and still maturing) disciples. Thus the nearness of their potency, their nearness to fatherhood, their nearness to mature fruitfulness in the Kingdom.

    The older I get, the more awesome to me is the project – the ecclesial responsibility – of forming priests! Seminarians have so much to learn; so much growth and development and spiritual maturation is called for in so brief a period of time! And I see the pressures upon seminaries to do it fast, now especially with the perceived shortage of priests.

    But the fact is, maturation cannot be rushed – neither natural human maturation nor supernatural spiritual maturation. It takes grace, receptivity and time. I hope bishops will be careful (in some cases, more careful than they have been) in making young and spiritually immature priests into pastors. An immature priest needs a mature pastor over him to help guide and form him into the stage of spiritual “young man,” and beyond that into the spiritual maturity of “father” in the Gospel.

    I appreciate your essay here very much. I hope that bishops especially may be moved by it to even more careful discernment in their fatherly supervision of priests in the diocese.

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