Learning to be a Good Spiritual Father (Teaching Parish Reflection)

by Martin Coolidge on March 15, 2018

“Did I do a good job? Did they understand? Were they inspired? Lord, did I fail or succeed!?”

These were the questions I reflected on as I drove back from teaching the RCIA class about Catholic morality at my teaching parish, St. Mary in Buffalo Grove, IL. I was excited to teach the class, because I had just taken a semester of moral theology in the fall and wanted to teach what I studied. During the class, I felt like a father trying to teach his children a very important lesson. Like my dad taught me growing up, I wanted the class to “know the fundamentals well.” For the Catholic understanding of morality, that means teaching about our covenant relationship with God, human desires and true happiness, sin and restoring our identity as the Father’s beloved sons and daughters, striving for holiness through living a virtuous life, and listening to the voice of God in one’s conscience. I wanted them to know it all! I tried my best to explain things and answer questions. It would be a lie to say I was not nervous and overwhelmed by trying to fit it all into a one-hour class.

Throughout the rest of the day and especially in prayer that night, the questions from my drive home returned. I love the people in my RCIA class, and I wanted them to understand the truth, goodness, and beauty found in living the Catholic moral life. Perhaps like my dad felt when he was raising my two brothers and me, I doubted whether I was doing a good enough job. I am blessed to have a great dad, but I know he questioned his ability, and so do I. Lord, did I fail or succeed!? Lord, I tried, I really tried, and I pray I was a good father for them today. I began praying for the people in my RCIA class as God’s children that he had entrusted to me. I was asking God to bless them so they may flourish and be happy. My prayer was for them know, love, and live entirely for God. Then I was begging for the grace to be a good spiritual father as a priest one day for God’s children. Through this, God helped me realize He is the Father and all I do is merely His work. I entrusted the RCIA class to his care. My entire day had been a beautiful gift from God because I was growing in spiritual fatherhood. At the end of my prayer, I was longing to teach the RCIA class again.

The spiritual fatherhood experiences I have had through teaching RCIA classes as a member of the St. Mary RCIA team have motivated me in prayer and study to answer God’s call to be a priest. I have learned that being a spiritual father directly relates to the primary duty of a priest: to preach the Gospel and teach the faith. A good father wants to give his children good news. A good father instructs his children how to rightly live. I understand now that this will be inseparable from my ability to preach a good homily, teach my parishioners how to be holy, and lead by example. My spiritual fatherhood will be through giving life to God’s children by nourishing them in the Word and the Truth. A good father also wants to prepare his children for the future, and as a priest this “future” is eternal life with God. So, in the three years I have left in seminary, I need to study and learn to preach, teach, and lead the absolute best I can for the salvation of souls. This is a great responsibility, but one I embrace and trust my Heavenly Father will help me with as one of his children too. As with teaching RCIA this year, my teaching parish will continue to help me integrate the theology I study into a pastoral setting over the next three years.

Thinking back to my first year in seminary, I remember my vocation director told me to reflect on spiritual fatherhood throughout my formation. At that time, I was just beginning and did not fully understand what he was telling me. The Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests from the Second Vatican Council says that the priest must be “apt to accept, in a broad sense, fatherhood in Christ” (n. 16, 1015 – 1016). I asked myself then: What does it mean to be a “spiritual father”? Is it even a real thing? I am now in my third year of seminary, Theology I, and I can say I have grown in my understanding of what my vocation director told me: spiritual fatherhood as a priest will be real – a great responsibility directly related to good preaching and teaching.  It will require a lot of love, and then lot a more love, which utterly depends on my love for Jesus and total trust in Him.

Spiritually, I have come to realize it will be my relationship to the Heavenly Father as a beloved son that will allow Him to work through me to love his children as a priest. Ultimately, it is the Father’s love more than mine that flows through my prayers and ministry to His children. I also must also allow the love the Father’s children show me flow to the Father. It will be a special gift to be between the love of the Father for his children and the love of the children for the Father. I cannot cruelly possess and control the Father’s love for His children or covetously hold on to and stop the children’s love for the Father. This would be a terrible sin! I must love the Father’s children as a father, but they are not truly mine but His. I want to be loved by God’s children, but this love is ultimately an expression of their love for the Father.

I have learned that the celibate life I live now and will vow to live forever as priest is essential to be a good spiritual father. My one love is for Jesus Christ and His Church. As the Vatican document stated, it is “fatherhood in Christ.” The closer union through my celibacy I have with Jesus, the Son of the Father, the closer union I will have with His Father’s children as a spiritual father. Conforming myself to Christ is how I will be a spiritual father. I have grown to understand this will be the one of the precious gifts of priestly intimacy that carries the great responsibility of having fidelity to priestly celibacy. Celibacy outwardly shows my spousal relationship to the Church and spiritual fatherhood for the Father’s children. Interiorly, it is part of who I am and a total expression of my love for Christ. This is the life I freely and willingly choose to live for God. I have experienced it is both a life of great sacrifice and a life of immense joy. Having the opportunity to serve my teaching parish has certainly helped me realize the gift of priestly celibacy for spiritual fatherhood and the importance of preparing to make this promise.

Through my time in seminary, I have struggled with doubt that I will ever be “good enough” as a priest. I am the weakest and smallest of men, Lord; can’t you see that! I am deepening my trust in the Lord, and throughout the year God has provided. My teaching parish experience has been one of these graces. Feeling called to be a spiritual father through teaching the RCIA class has greatly helped my self-confidence and positively impacted my vocation. I have faith God has called me to be a priest and is accompanying me on my journey. I am grateful God is placing good people in my life at St. Mary’s to help me too.

I have not lived the life of a parish priest nor can I possibly claim to understand it. I do not have it all figured out, but I am thankful for God’s gift of planting within my heart the desire to be a good spiritual father as a priest through my teaching parish experience. My formation to the priesthood has been me the greatest gift of my life! My ministry at St. Mary’s is helping to nourish, challenge, and humble me in my calling. This entire reflection was the fruit of praying with my teaching parish experience thus far. I pray that I may be a good spiritual father as a priest one day and beg for God’s mercy when I fail. It is a blessing, because I am putting flesh to the word “spiritual father.” Like the Incarnation, it remains a mystery but a mystery I have faith I can embrace with God’s grace.