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(Last Updated: 13 Jun 2001 )
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Hebrews 1 says: "In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son". It goes on to say,
"For to what angel did God ever say, 'Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee'? Or again, 'I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son'? And again, when he brings the first-born into the world, he says, 'Let all Godís angels worship him.'"
Romans 8:29 - Jesus is called "the first-born among many brethren".
Galatians 4:4-7 - "But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!' So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir."
With all this family language, we see that the context for thinking about this is that of the Church as the "Family of God". Right from the start, in paragraph 1, this is exactly how the Catholic Catechism describes the Church. Now let's see how this has developed through salvation history.
Now this is all before the Levitical priesthood
was established in the time of Moses. It seems like the plan of God
was for the first-born sons, the fathers and heads of the families, to
all be priests in Israel, but when they started worshipping the Golden
Calf while Moses was on Mount Sinai, the plan was changed. From then
on priests were to be taken only from the tribe of Levi.
So what was the status of the Levitical priests in terms of spiritual fatherhood? We can get a good idea from Judges 17, where a travelling young Levite is welcomed into the house of Micah, who says to him "Stay with me, and be to me a father and a priest".
1 Corinthians 15 mentions the first man, Adam, who is the father of the whole human race, and then talks about the "last Adam", Jesus, who as Paul says, "became a life-giving spirit". So when we are born again into Christ and receive his Spirit into our hearts through baptism, we see another sense of the fatherly ministry of Jesus, as we are made "a new creation".
Then there are the apostles and their successors. Gal 6:16 talks about the Church as the "Israel of God", the new Israel, and in Matthew 19:28 Jesus establishes the apostles as the new patriarchs (see also Rev 21:12-14). They understood this as a fatherly ministry, often calling people in the Church their "children".
St John said things like, "My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin; but if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous" (1 John 2:1); and "No greater joy can I have than this, to hear that my children follow the truth" (3 John 4).
St Peter says things like, "She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark" (1 Pet. 5:13).
St Paul says things like, "Therefore I sent to you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ" (1 Cor. 4:17); "To Timothy, my true child in the faith: grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord" (1 Tim. 1:2); "To Titus, my true child in a common faith: grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior" (Titus 1:4).
St Paul even refers to whole churches in his care as children: "Here for the third time I am ready to come to you. And I will not be a burden, for I seek not what is yours but you; for children ought not to lay up for their parents, but parents for their children. I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls" (2 Cor 12:14-15).
St Paul's spiritual fatherhood is associated
with his mission as an apostle; he is "a
minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the
gospel of God," (Romans 15:15-16).
Probably the single clearest reference to spiritual fatherhood is in 1 Cor 4:14-15, where Paul says: "I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel."
And that is exactly what our priests and bishops become for us as well.
So you can see that it's very much a family
thing, as set up by God the Father, "from
whom every family in heaven and on earth is named"
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