About Ignatius Insight
  Who We Are
  Ignatius Press
  Ignatius Press catalogs
  Catholic World Report
  Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  IP Novels site
  IP Religious Ed blog
  IP Critical Editions

The Priest as Man, Husband, and Father | Fr. John Cihak, S.T.D. | March 26, 2007 | Part 2 | Part 1

The Priest as Father

The priest's manhood and spousal relationship with the Church also makes him a father. True love always generates life, and in the priest's case it is spiritual and eternal life. St. Charles Borromeo often gave conferences to his priests when he was Archbishop of Milan. In the opening lines of the conference he addressed to his diocesan synod on April 20, 1584, he writes:
"She was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery." (Rev 12:2) said John in the Apocalypse concerning the mother, of whom we proceed to speak. O what pain, O what wailing of Holy Church! She cries out with prayers in the presence of God, and in the presence of you through my mouth, pronouncing divine words to you. It seems that I am hearing her saying to her betrothed the Lord Jesus Christ what Rachel had formerly said to her husband Jacob, "Give me children or I shall die" (Gen 30:1). I am truly desirous of the one to be born. Indeed I dread this sterility; so unless you come Christ and give to me many sons, I am precisely at this very moment about to die. This is the spirit of our most beloved mother, in whom we are principally gathered here. I especially long for this, so that we may have it. [15]
The implication of his words is that Holy Mother Church cries out to her Divine Bridegroom, and to the one who participates in Christ's spousal relationship, for children. The priest's spousal love is necessarily generative. Jesus' priest, therefore, is not a bureaucrat, a hired hand, a CEO, or a careerist, but a father.
We are used to calling priests "father," yet it is no metaphorical or poetic designation. The priest's fatherhood is real because it is a participation in divine fatherhood (1 Cor 4:15, Eph 3:15). Therefore the priest's fatherhood is constituted by our heavenly Father's fatherhood--total, complete self-giving. It is the Father who gives Himself away in generating the Son, and then to save us gives away what is most precious to Him, His Son. It is the Father who says that if we want to see Him to look upon the face of His Son (Jn 14:9)--what humility! As a father the priest does not abandon his family or use his family for his own benefit, but rather is the first to sacrifice for his family. He is eager to build and generate new spiritual life in his family.

Thus, the man called to priesthood strives to renounce his own desires and plans, and take up his ministry of prophet-priest-king as an expression of his spiritual fatherhood. His priestly ministry generates spiritual life in the Church. His priestly ministry leads his Bride along the path of deification, holiness, transformation into the likeness of Christ, the high priest

Concluding Remarks

In the current renewal of the clergy, the Church emphasizes in the teachings of Vatican II and Pope John Paul II that the priest is relational as a man, as a husband, and as a father. A renewal of this inherent relationality, which has always been part of the essence of Jesus' priesthood, will bring about the renewal in the priest's teaching, sanctifying and governing.

With this intense focus on the nature that is configured by the grace of the priesthood, we can begin to understand more deeply the Church's recent and more specific clarifications about the priesthood, for example, the reiteration of reserving priestly ordination to men alone, or of mandatory celibacy in order to adequately express Christ's spousal love as Bridegroom of the Church. [16] The focus on the priest as man, husband and father also underlies the recent clarification that men with "deep seated" homosexual tendencies cannot be admitted as candidates for the priesthood since such a tendency necessarily implies a rejection of the complementarity of woman, a rejection of his spousal relationship with the Church and a rejection of his spiritual fatherhood. [17] This more recent clarification is not difficult to understand intellectually, especially in light of the Church's teaching on the human person, but perhaps can be a difficult clarification for some to accept.

This article investigated a renewal of the priesthood based upon a re-appropriation of the priest's fundamental human identity as man, as husband, and as father. This fundamental human identity, given to man in his creation, is also revealed in Jesus himself, the Redeemer of man. [18] The priest's fundamental human identity is as man, husband, and father because Jesus relates in His priesthood as man, husband and father. The priest is called to be in a deep relationship in his fundamental human identity, which includes his weaknesses and vulnerability, so that his human personality--indeed his entire manhood--becomes a bridge for others to encounter Jesus Christ the Redeemer of man, and thereby lead them to the life of Heaven.

As regards his inherent relationality, the priest's first and foremost relationship is with Jesus Christ. The priest who is not in deep relationship with Jesus is not being fully honest about who he is called to be, and cannot safely guide others to Him. From that deep relationship with Christ, the priest can grow in relating to others in a more human manner, that they might profit from his deep relationship with Christ. It is in his weakness and vulnerability, imbued with divine grace, that the priest knows himself as dependent and in constant need of grace. His weakness reminds him that he is not an island, but needs help from on high and from others. Through his relationship with Christ and others and the awareness of his weaknesses, idiosyncrasies and pitfalls, the priest can be shaped in his human personality to be a bridge for others to Christ and to the divine life of Heaven. A re-appropriation of the fundamental human identity of the priest is the path to authentic renewal today.


[1] It is important to observe from the beginning that clergy sexual abuse is not unique to the United States although most of the media attention has been focused there. The media, moreover, has characterized the scandal as a problem of pedophilia. The studies commissioned by the Bishops of the United States on clergy sexual abuse help to give us a better understanding of the nature of the crisis, which is more nuanced than the media reports, and which I believe supports the line of argumentation in the present article. The data from the John Jay Report of 2004 indicate that a great majority of the priest offenders were not in fact pedophiles. Their data stated that 81% of the sexual abuse victims were male (19% were female) with 78% of the victims between the ages of 11-17. Moreover, 77% of the priest offenders molested adolescent boys and 63% of the male victims were between the ages of 14-17. Thus a great majority of the victims were actually post-pubescent adolescent boys. The study further states that a majority of the priest offenders had one or two victims. Such statistics indicate that the sexual abuse crisis is less a matter of pedophilia and more a matter of deep seated homosexual tendencies. Cf. John Jay Report, section 4.3, at 69-70; Catholic Medical Association, To Protect and To Prevent: The Sexual Abuse of Children and Its Prevention, 2006, 5-6.

[2] The priest's fundamental human identity also includes his identity as son, but this important dimension of his identity extends beyond the scope of this article.

[3] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1577. [CCC hereafter] For a more detailed study of the indispensability of the priest's manhood, cf. Manfred Hauke, Women in the Priesthood? (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988); Robert Pesarchick, The Trinitarian Foundation of Human Sexuality as Revealed by Christ According to Hans Urs von Balthasar. The Revelatory Significance of the Male Christ and the Male Ministerial Priesthood (Tesi Gregoriana Teologia 63, Roma 2000).

[4] It may be argued that a candidate for the priesthood may take refuge in the cultic relationship of priesthood, in which the relationality is scripted according to rubrics, in order to avoid the difficult task of the constant relational improvisation required by the teaching and governing offices of the priesthood. Such refuge taking is understandable. It is much easier to be in a relationship that is already scripted, and fallen human persons tend to relate in a way that is more secure and requires the least amount of vulnerability. The solution to the problem of "hiding" in cultic relationality, however, lies not in de-emphasizing the cultic relationship (the approach of some seminary formators) or by hiding in the cultic relationship (the approach of some candidates), but rather in going deeper into the candidate's relationality as a man. Trying to shape the candidate's relationality by emphasizing or de-emphasizing one of the munera does not get to the root of a candidate's difficulties in relating. Since relationships are founded upon trust, it seems best in my view for the formator to affirm the candidate's ability to relate in the cultic realm, and from that point to help him unpack the tremendous vulnerability that the Lord Jesus asks of His priest in the cultic realm. Then the candidate can be more easily led down into his ability or inability to relate as a man. Cultic relationality is necessary but not sufficient for a priest. However, it can be argued that the priest's cultic relationality is primary among the three munera because his relationality as priest is necessarily Christ's priestly relationality. Without a foundation in the cultic relationship, the priest's relationality easily becomes unfettered from Christ's priestly relationality and devolves into simply his own. The cultic relationality of the priest is Christ's total self-giving to the Father on the Cross. Christ's total self-giving in love seen clearly in the cultic realm sets the pattern for the priest's relationships in preaching and governing.

[5] Cf. CCC, nn. 371-372

[6] Vatican II. Dei Verbum, 2.

[7] Cf. John Paul II. Pastores Dabo Vobis, 1992, nn. 43-44. [PDV hereafter]

[8] PDV, n. 44.

[9] CCC, n. 2342.

[10] Cf. CCC, nn. 2337-2339, 2342.

[10] Cf. Gen 2:21-25; Jn 19:34-37, Eph 5:23-25, Rev 21:2.

[12] Cf. Vatican II. Presbyterorum ordinis,2; PDV. 16, 22. The Church affirms her identity as Bride not only in her teaching but also in her Liturgy, for example, in the Easter Exultet, in the Preface for the Dedication of a Church, and in the anamnesis of Eucharistic Prayer III. The priest as husband to the Church has a strong theological current in the Fathers. The other strong current in the Fathers is the priest as friend of the Bridegroom. I emphasize the first current while recognizing the importance of the second. The two currents are related. The first shows the priest that he indeed participates in Christ's spousal relationship to His Bride. The second current reminds the priest that he is not Christ, and thus his sharing in Christ's spousal relationship is participatory and not identical.

[13] This point is made with priests of the Latin Rite in mind, but it also reveals the fittingness of the ancient tradition of obligatory continence for clerics. Cf. Stefan Heid, Celibacy in the Early Church: The Beginnings of a Disciple of Obligatory Contience for Clerics in East and West (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000).

[14] For this reason, I believe, PDV (cf. n. 46), the Program of Priestly Formation, 5th ed (cf. nn. 26, 110, 125, 280) and the Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests (cf. nn. 60, 68, 85) emphasize the importance of the priest's living and affective devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The complementarity of woman is never abolished or left behind in the priest's free promise of celibacy. The complementarity of woman does not threaten the priest's celibacy, but actually supports it spiritually since her complementarity is necessary to his perfection as a man.

[15] Acta Ecclesiae Mediolanensis, Pars II, 20 April 1584, 347. [Translation G. O'Connor]

[16] John Paul II. Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 1994. The tremendous symbolic value of the priest's free promise of celibacy in showing Christ's spousal relationship to the Church is a compelling reason why the Latin Church must exercise extreme caution in ordaining married men to the priesthood.

[17] Congregation for Education. Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in view of their Admission to Seminary and Holy Orders, 2005.

[18] Cf. PDV, n. 43.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

The Real Reason for the Vocation Crisis | Rev. Michael P. Orsi
Pray the Harvest Master Sends Laborors | Rev. Anthony Zimmerman
Priestly Vocations in America: A Look At the Numbers | Jeff Ziegler
Clerical Celibacy: Concept and Method | Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler | From The Case for Clerical Celibacy
The Religion of Jesus | Blessed Columba Marmion | From Christ, The Ideal of the Priest
Balthasar and Anxiety: Methodological and Phenomenological Considerations | Fr. John Cihak
Love Alone is Believable: Hans Urs von Balthasar's Apologetics | Fr. John Cihak
Author Page for Hans Urs von Balthasar

Fr. John Cihak, S.T.D., a priest of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, works in the Vatican. He helped to start Quo Vadis Days camps promoting discernment and the priesthood at the high school level that now operate in several US dioceses. He has been a pastor and served in seminary formation.

He is the author of Balthasar and Anxiety (T&TClark, 2009).

If you'd like to receive the FREE IgnatiusInsight.com e-letter (about every 1 to 2 weeks), which includes regular updates about IgnatiusInsight.com articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances, please click here to sign-up today!


World Wide Web


Place your order toll-free at 1-800-651-1531

Ignatius Press | San Francisco
Web design under direction of Ignatius Press.
Send your comments or web problems to:

Copyright 2018 by Ignatius Press

IgnatiusInsight.com catholic blog books insight scoop weblog ignatius