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  • The Spiritual Fatherhood of the Priest in Patristic and Medieval Pauline Commentaries
  • Fr. Martin Mayerhofer (bio)

Spiritual leaders should behave like fathers (patres). Yet few of them are true fathers of the Church to their children. Many of those who should be spiritually nourished by them are instead corrupted by the sins of these educators (pedagogoi). Every father would like to increase the inheritance of his son, even when it is to his own detriment. Our leaders, on the other hand, nourish only themselves. To the children of the Church entrusted to them they give only empty rhetoric and destroy their eternal heritage by their bad example.1

Indeed, the manifest sin of the priest gives the greatest offense.2

No, this criticism of church leaders does not date from 2019 and is not an expression of frustration at the shameful acts of sexual abuse by clerics. Its author is Hugo of Saint-Cher (+1263) and the quote comes from his commentary on First Corinthians. In his interpretation of Paul, Hugo does not mince his words and especially in his commentary on the epistle to the Ephesians he takes up a harsh criticism of the clergy of his time: how can it be, he asks, that clerics buy their office, monks recruit substitutes for prayer, and preachers care [End Page 105] more about money than about the salvation of souls? Not to mention the moral abuses. But we find a criticism like that of Hugo's in every epoch of church history: decadence and reform efforts, abuse and holiness, worldliness and worldly detachment are not unique phenomena of the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. They are as old as the Church itself and in a certain sense a consequence of its basic structure, which nobody describes more clearly and beautifully than the apostle Paul in Ephesians: Christ is the head, the faithful his body. Both are inseparably connected and form the one church (Eph 5:22–33). In this metaphor Christ is the head and so the church is always holy; the members of the body, on the other hand, are sinful people and so the Church is always in need of reform. Tradition has condensed this truth into a simple phrase: Ecclesia sancta et semper reformanda.

Spiritual Fatherhood

In the face of the cases of abuse by clerics in the Catholic Church, many have asked and still ask themselves the question: How can a true renewal of the clergy come about? The answers are manifold and it is not possible to respond to them here. I would rather like to draw your attention to the Second Vatican Council. How did the council try to renew the Church? Put simply, the answer might be: The council wanted to bring about renewal by reflecting on the nature of the Church, on her origin in the witness of Sacred Scripture and on her development in the testimony of Tradition. This methodological approach would also seem suitable for a renewal of the priesthood and will be explored in this article. A reflection on the nature of the priesthood cannot be limited to its official functions, which are often summarized according to the categories of teaching, sanctification, and leadership. These functions are based on the sacramental grace of ordination that bestows on the priest the power to carry out his duties. This ontological character makes the priest act in persona Christi capitis. This ontological transformation, supported [End Page 106] by a proper formation, should go hand in hand with a semiontological transformation that transforms the priest into a spiritual father. Spiritual fatherhood, the care for spiritual children, the nurturing of their earthly and eternal life changes one's view of oneself and the world. In this way of living, the actions of the priest also take on warmth, beauty, and effectiveness. I would therefore dare say that spiritual fatherhood is part of the nature of the priesthood. What would a priest be who is not a spiritual father? An official, a sacramental service-provider, a religious orator? And, especially in the light of the shameful cases of sexual abuse by priests, it is undeniable that a true spiritual father would never have been...


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pp. 105-128
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