I stood just two feet away and instantly felt her pain. She exited Mass and elatedly walked over to greet the new parochial vicar, a young man in his thirties. “Hi Bob welcome, I’m Madeline” she beamed brightly. Her smile soon turned to tears as the young man half her age, reprimanded her with the words, “It’s Fr. Bob, I earned it, call me father, get used it!” he said sharply. She cowered away, once again beaten verbally by a father figure.
He didn’t know what I knew. He didn’t know that she had been abused both physically and verbally by her father at a very early age, and for her, the word father could never be uttered without a painful string of images and accompanying feelings of contempt. He didn’t know that it took years of counseling to regain her self esteem.
I’ve been a spiritual director for over ten years, and in that time have been blessed by the unfolding of some very painful stories told by my directees. Madeline was one of them. She had endured over a decade and a half of abuse at the hands of her biological father and in her mid forties, finally sought counseling to get to the place of being the joyful woman I have come to know.
I wish I could make these young priests understand a lesson never taught in seminary. For many people, the word father stirs a range of emotions and images: some good and some not so good. For others, there is brokenness so deep and so powerful that we who had happy childhoods, could never possibly understand. In other circumstances, that brokenness stems not from abuse but from the loss of a father so loved that calling another man father is impossible without tears.
Instead of reacting from the self importance of a title not given, I urge these young men to accept the gift of the brokenness of those whom they serve. Rather than immediately assuming disrespect is their intent when not using the title, they would be best served to see this for what it is: a gift that can deepen the humility in the heart of a true vocation.
I sense that the need of being called father is but an essence of their own brokenness and insecurity, much the same as Madeline.
Take heed young men, focus on the important things, and find joy in the gift of your vocation by leaving the ego behind.
(Real names were changed to protect identity)