Let us look at fatherhood in the Church, for Saint Joseph is also a model for our priests. In the Church, the term “father” is also used for clergymen like priests, bishops and even popes. According to Saunders, history has it that “In an early form of his rule, Saint Benedict designated the title to spiritual confessors since they were the guardian of souls. Later, in the Middle Ages, the term ‘father’ was used to address the mendicant friars since by their preaching, teaching and charitable works, they cared for the spiritual and physical needs of all God’s children. And in modern times, in the English-speaking world, addressing priest as father has become customary.” In fact, in the contemporary time, there has been more insights for priests, not just as father but as a man, husband and father. In Fr Cihak’s summation, “the priest relates in his humanity as man, husband and father.
As a man, he is made in the image and likeness of God, and thus, he is made for self-giving love. As a husband, he becomes a spouse to the Church and as a father, he generates spiritual life in the Church.” From the above, we could see in two major senses the fatherhood of priests: he is father for he participates in the divine fatherhood of God and as man that he is, and secondly, as God bestows on him the dignity of priesthood, he who regenerates men and women into the divine life. For example, it is to the men in sacred orders that belongs the ordinary ministers of baptism (baptismal font becoming the womb of the Church), through which men and women are reborn, they become sons and daughters of God and the Church. In this sense too, we can see how the priest is husband to the Church, he who acts in persona Christi.
Pope Benedict XVI at the Vesper Service in Cameroon would say, “Meditation on the human and spiritual journey of Saint Joseph invites us to ponder his vocation in all its richness, and to see him as a constant model for all those who have devoted their lives to Christ in the priesthood, in the consecrated life.” Joseph, a virginal spouse to Mary, is an example to all priests who live life of celibacy and chastity. Saint Joseph was married to Mary and was faithful to her, likewise, every priest is “wedded to the mystical body of Christ and blessed with the grace of a celibate vocation and is expected to be faithful to her spouse. Pope Paul VI reiterates as follows, “Priests are consecrated to Christ by a new and exceptional reason. They adhere to him more easily with an undivided heart, they dedicate themselves more freely in him and through him to the service of God and man” (PO 16).
In Joseph, priests have such a perfect example of what it means to remain consecrated to God and his Church. They will be able to live their lives in accordance ot their state and consecration, more importantly in our contemporary time when we have sexual scandals and misconducts from priests almost everywhere. Saint Joseph remains a model of chastity for priests. Priests of the New Testament, in virtue of the sacrament of orders, exercise the most outstanding and necessary office of father and teacher among and for the people of God (PO 9). As fathers, Saint John Chrysostom says, “It is to priests that spiritual birth and regeneration by baptism is entrusted . . . priests are the cause of our regeneration from God, of our spiritual regeneration, of our true freedom and sonship according to grace.” Thus, they have the responsibilities of caring, nurturing, protecting and providing for the people of God, paced in their charge.
Saint Joseph exercised his role as father with affection, provided for the child, was concerned for his well-being, protected and defended him, educated him in profession and in the practice of obedience and religious observance.” Likewise, priests like their model are to fulfill their responsibilities and functions, especially in their pastoral care, exercised in the ministry of the word and sacraments, sacred liturgy, pastoral charity, Christian witnessing with their lives, coordination and administration and so on. A good pastor and father could be measured by his availability to his pastoral duties to the people. In fact, “Priests who perform their duties sincerely and indefatigably in the spirit of Christ arrive at holiness by this very fact” (PO 13). Priests are called to service in love, selfless service.
“They are to live as good shepherds that know their sheep, as they cannot be of service to men if they remain strangers to the life and conditions of men” (PO 3). To this, Pope Francis urges priests to be close to them, especially the poor and the weak in the community, to smell like the sheep they tend. Joseph was so close to the mother and child, he felt the pain too, as they sought Jesus in the temple that Mary would say, “Your father and I have been anxiously searching for You.” Service of the fatherhood of Joseph was never one of domination, lording over, but of selflessness and love for Mary and Jesus. With Saint Joseph virtues, priests can better understand the era in which we live, the era of co-responsibility, every member and organ of the Church playing their parts corresponding to their state and hierarchy.
The life of Saint Joseph is imperative for the ministry of priests as it helps him to be the shadow of the Father as the vocation dictates – seeing God through priests. As Joseph is like the Father, priests are looked up to to be like the Father, through whom the people encounter God. We cannot say less, for that is his vocation. Likewise for every other titles Pope Francis accords Saint Joseph in the apostolic letter, Patris Corde. Like Saint Joseph, priests could learn to be a beloved father, who finds his fulfillment and greatness by placing himself at the service of the salvation of men and women.
He fulfills this, becoming tender and loving, as he sees to their growth daily in grace through the word of God, sacraments and charity. One great virtue of Saint Joseph is obedience that is prompt, he did all that the angel commanded him, even when it was contrary to his plans. At ordination, priests promise obedience to their local ordinary, superiors and their successors. Many miss the mark for the reason of disobedience, if only they could hear the voice of God speaking through the angel sent to them in the persons of their superiors. In every situation, Joseph declared his own “fiat”, like those of Mary at the Annunciation and Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Like Joseph, priests can be obedient fathers. In obedience is the acceptance of God’s will for them.
Joseph set aside his own ideas, in order to accept the course of events and, mysterious as they seemed, to embrace them, took responsibility for them and made them part of his own history. Pope Francis exhorts that when we have accepted even the things we never chose, we must now add another important element: creative courage. A courage that helps to deal with difficulties. Truly, in the face of difficulty, we can either give up and walk away, or somehow engage with it. At times, difficulties bring out resources we did not even think we had, especially in pastoral duties. Never relent like Joseph, but be creatively courageous. Surely, all of these entail that we are working priests, participating in the work of salvation as we put our talents and abilities at the service of society and fraternal communion. God bless the work our priests do. Amen
• Rev. Fr. ‘Shola Alabi is an Oblate of St. Joseph working at the Formation House in Ibadan.