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home : opinion : perspectives

6/27/2013 4:35:00 PM
Complicated titles
REV. SCOTT VANDERVEER was ordained a priest of the Albany Diocese on June 8. This is his final contribution to
REV. SCOTT VANDERVEER was ordained a priest of the Albany Diocese on June 8. This is his final contribution to "Seminarian's Diary," a series of columns by men in formation for the priesthood on their studies and development.Read past columns at www.evangelist.org.

In the months leading up to my ordination as a priest, several friends in separate conversations said to me: "Am I going to have to call you 'Father?' I don't think I can do it. I've known you as 'Scott' for too long. It would be so weird."

My own mother told me how truly strange it would be to call her own son "Father." (I've joked that she and Dad will be ones that I insist call me "Father," just to savor the irony.)

Father: What a word! It's the title we use for the men who sire and raise us, and also for God, the creator of all things. What a beautiful and rich title - and how incredibly complicated.

The complications began for me a year ago, when I was ordained a deacon and began wearing liturgical vestments in the sanctuary, proclaiming the Gospel and some of the prayers at Mass, and standing at the door to greet people as they came and left church.

It would happen regularly. "Excuse me, Father," someone would say, mistaking me for a priest. "Can I speak to you for a moment, Father?"

I would ignore them just about every time, simply because I had no clue they were speaking to me. I didn't recognize the title when I heard it. I certainly wasn't anyone's dad, and I wasn't yet a priest. It sounded lovely, but foreign.

The title "Father" is so profound, I can't be sure it will ever completely fit me comfortably. Some of my friends who have had children have told me there are moments when being called "Dad" or "Mom" by their child overwhelms them with the immensity of what it means to be someone's parent.

I'm reminded of a bumper sticker I once saw on the back of a minivan that said, "Who are these kids and why are they calling me Mom?"

Perhaps some of my discomfort comes from hearing the Scripture passage proclaimed at Mass every few years where Jesus says, "Call no one on earth your father. You have one Father in heaven" (Matthew 23:9).

You see what I mean: This is complicated business. But it brings up a matter worth pondering.

We have no indication that Jesus, who called God Abba ("Daddy" in His native language), didn't also call Joseph by the same title, just as all the kids in Nazareth would have. In warning us about titles, it seems Jesus was not making a point about a surface issue, but was inviting us to think and live on a deeper level.

A friend who went to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage told me that an unexpected delight of the trip was passing a neighborhood playground and hearing a young Israeli boy gleefully shout, "Abba!" as he ran with outstretched arms into the embrace of his dad.

When I think about the priests in my own life, they were indeed fathers to me. The inspiration they gave me in their homilies; the sacraments they celebrated with me at key moments in my life; the witness they gave me of simple, selfless, integrated living - it was all part of raising me in my faith.

They and the professional lay ministers who worked alongside them truly parented me. The generation of priests before them also formed me through the influence they had on my parents, which was passed on to me.

Catholics believe that three sacraments change a person forever: baptism, confirmation and holy orders (ordination). That's why, once they are celebrated, they can never be revoked or undone; they give you a "character" that becomes an inescapable part of your identity.

Even if I were to leave the priesthood, even if I later got married, deep down I could never stop being a priest. In fact, former priests who have left ministry can still hear people's confessions or anoint them in emergency situations. It is a part of their identity that always endures.

I'm still grappling with the reality that what Bishop Howard J. Hubbard sacramentalized by pressing his hands on my head and anointing my hands with oil has affected me in the deepest way, one that will last forever. It is a lot to take in.

I understand the concept better when I think of the friends I've had for many years - those I knew in their single days, whose weddings I attended, and who now are having and raising their children. From the moment these couples find out they are pregnant or that the adoption is official, they are parents, and they are changed forever.

It happens just like that - and once they've held their child for the first time, in a delivery room or a social worker's office, it is sealed in a way that can never be undone. We pray that they will never lose their children, but whether the child lives to be 99 or dies in the womb, he or she will always be their child. They will always be her father, his mother.

Some wonderful things in life can't be undone. They're that big. They last forever.

(Father VanDerveer was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Albany earlier this month. Before attending the seminary, he taught at St. Pius X School in Loudonville.)

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