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The Appropriateness Of The Title Of "Holy Father"


When confronted with the title of “Holy Father” to speak of the Pope or to address him, the first reaction is often to have recourse to the word of Christ in His invective against the Pharisees: “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Mt 23:9).

Editor’s note: The following is from a presentation made at an ecumenical gathering of Catholics and Orthodox at the Catholic Theological Faculty of Iasi, East Romania, and is translated from the French by Father Peter Stravinskas.

When confronted with the title of “Holy Father” to speak of the Pope or to address him, the first reaction is often to have recourse to the word of Christ in His invective against the Pharisees: “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Mt 23:9).

The commentary of the Jerusalem Bible says that Matthew 23:8-12 are “addressed to the disciples alone and probably did not belong originally to this discourse”; the Ecumenical Translation of the Bible makes it more precise: “These verses do not forbid the disciples to exercise a ministry of teacher or catechist, but to usurp an authority which belongs only to Christ and to God.” The conclusion of this passage is important: “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant” (MT 23:11).

We must situate, then, the word of Christ in its context, concerning the use of titles given to teachers, physicians and other fathers, a usage which ran the risk of obfuscating the source of all wisdom and fatherhood: God. Jesus said to the apostles, after washing their feet, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am” (Jn 13:13).

St. Paul will make use of the term in his First Letter to the Corinthians, whom he admonishes like a father, because their behavior does not conform sufficiently to the teaching he gave them, and so he says: “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (4:15).

And so, it is within an “ecclesial” context, in reference to the mission proper to one who exercises evangelical fatherhood, in the spiritual order, that it is necessary to consider the use of the term “father” for those who in the Church have a special mission of spiritual “generation,” in regard to teaching, sanctifying, gathering together the community of believers. Besides, the primitive Church had no difficulty in living this reality. St. Jerome (342-420) wrote that, in the monasteries of Palestine and Egypt, the monks addressed one another with the title of “father.”

For the Sovereign Pontiff, Successor of Peter as Bishop of Rome, the title of Father is especially apt. The attribution “holy,” in the expression “Holy Father,” does not have a primarily moral content to it, in the sense of identifying the Pope with a saint canonically recognized as such. For Popes, too, the process of canonization is required, in order to propose them as “saints” for the veneration of the faithful. The term “saint” has reference, above all, to the practice of the primitive Church in calling “saint” every member of the Christian community” (see Acts 9:13: Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2; Col 1:2).

As we have seen at the outset of our historical review, the expression “Holy Father” means:

1. On the part of the faithful, a filial, loving relationship, which recognizes in the one so addressed or spoken to, a mission of spiritual fatherhood, expressing that of God toward us, in the threefold charge confided to the Church of preaching the Good News of salvation, of sanctifying the believers, and of gathering together the dispersed children of God. This is a special and supreme responsibility of the Pope in the Church’s threefold mission of teaching, governing and sanctifying, as Prophet, Priest and Shepherd.

2. On the part of the one who is so designated, the responsibility to live this mission in perfect conformity to the will of Christ, “the Holy One of God,” to live what God already asked of His People through Moses: “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lv 11:44; 19:2).

It concerns, then, a fatherhood exercised in the name of God, from Whom “all fatherhood takes its name, both in heaven and on earth” (Eph 3:15), and from which the opening hymn of the Letter to the Ephesians (1:3-14) places the origin, while the verses 15-23 express how this fatherhood should be actualized in the apostolic ministry.

The qualifier “holy” underlines the spiritual dimension of this fatherhood exercised in the name of God; and we have already said that it does not imply a moral judgment on the person of the Pope. The expression “Holy Father” was born in the time of the controversy over lay investiture, and it seemed normal that in its becoming common usage in the acts of the chancery, the Roman Curia had then wished to underscore the spiritual and supernatural level of the mission of the Pope by adding the adjective “holy” — to defend implicitly the superiority of papal power over imperial power.

We can apply analogically some elements relevant to the Person of the Father in the heart of the Trinity, to His being and action.

1. The Father as the Source of Trinitarian Life: One can think that the mission of the Pope as the visible center of the unity of the Church of Christ — ”You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.” — follows on (not without reason) his profession of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (MT 16:16), and to the statement of Christ: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father Who is in heaven” (MT 16:17).

Hence this mission has its origin in the action of the Father, and I dare say that it places Peter in a situation of particular responsibility vis-a-vis the Father to validate this revelation. The ministry of the Pope to confirm his brethren in the faith — that is to say, to make them share the revelation which he received from the Father — is then seen as a privileged manifestation of the presence of the Father in the world. To be sure, it is Christ Who “makes the Father seen” according to the word to Philip, “he who sees me sees the Father” (Jn 14:9); but the Holy Father, as successor of Peter, has an entirely special role to the mission of the Son, as visible foundation of the Church. The source of the faith is not Peter, but the Father; Peter — the Pope — is the support here below.

As Pope John Paul says in the encyclical Ut Unum Sint (“That They All May Be One”), this mission needs the support of Christ, for Peter is weak, having denied his Master: “The Pope depends totally on the grace and prayer of the Lord: I have prayed’ (Lk 22:32)” (no. 4). In this mission of witnessing to Christ, the Son of the living God, the Holy Father knows that he finds the source of this mission near the Father.

The Pope is the visible “principle” of ecclesial communion, insofar as he is the center of unity, like the Father, the principle of Trinitarian communion. The difference is that ecclesial communion does not come from the Pope, but from Christ through the Holy Spirit. A dispute exists among canonists regarding the origin of the jurisdiction of bishops, with some maintaining that it comes from the Pope who entrusts a mission or who accords communion to a chosen bishop. For my part, I prefer to see this origin of jurisdictional or governing power in the sacramental ordination of the bishop, the canonical mission having for its effect merely the determination of its field of application. Jurisdictional communion with the center of unity of the college of bishops, the Pope, gives to the bishop the ecclesial fullness willed by Christ for his mission of governance and his mission of structuring ecclesial communion.

2. The Father as the End of Our Journey: The whole mission of the Son consists in handing over to the Father the reconciled world, for “when all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subjected to Him Who put all things under Him, that God may be everything to every one” (1 Cor 15:28), because “then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power” (1 Cor 15:24). Under this aspect, then, the mission of the Son is accomplished in submission to the Father; the work of the Son aims at the full accomplishment of the will of the Father. Therefore, the mission of the Pope, visible foundation of the one and unique Church of Christ, is completely geared toward the realization of this will of the Father.

Also, in calling the Pope “Holy Father,” we speak implicitly of this eschatological dimension of his charge, and we commit ourselves to enter into this reconciliation or submission of all things to Christ Who, at the end of time, will submit them to His Father. We shall be aided in this by the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, lived as a year of reconciliation of humanity with God. This is why, “the sense of being on a ‘journey to the Father’ should encourage everyone to undertake, by holding fast to Christ the Redeemer of man, a journey of authentic conversion” (Tertio Millennio Adveniente, no. 50). Furthermore, this knowledge of the Father and that of Christ as “Son of the living God” and Redeemer of man, is the principal object of this conversion, according to the very word of Jesus: “Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (Jn 17:3).

3. The Father as the Center of Unity of the Family: The father is the one with whom each of his sons or daughters has a fundamentally equal relationship. It is the father who makes the unity of the family — with the mother, who certainly shares parental responsibility with him.

The expression “father” for the bishop has precisely the sense of speaking of the unity of the community of believers. The decree of the Second Vatican Council Christus Dominus (on the pastoral responsibility of bishops) echoes this: “In exercising his office of father and pastor, the bishop should be with his people as one who serves, as a good shepherd who knows his sheep — He should so unite and mold his flock into one family that all, conscious of their duties, may live and act in the communion of charity” (no. 16).

How much more this is true of the Pope who “as pastor of all the faithful, his mission is to promote the common good of the universal Church and the particular good of all the churches. He is therefore endowed with the primacy of ordinary power over all the churches” (no. 2), for “the Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful” (Lumen Gentium, no. 23).

In this context, it is interesting to note that in his addresses to bishops, the Pope calls them “brothers,” while the bishops call the Pope “Father.” There is no contradiction here, if one takes into account the fact that each bishop shares with the Pope the care for all the churches, but all have in the successor of Peter their center of unity (see LG, nos. 22-23). Whence the particular relationship of all in regard to the Pope, recognized as the center of unity like a father in a family; while calling them “brothers,” the Pope wants to highlight not only his mission as “servant of the servants of God,” but also the reality of the “college of bishops”, of which he is, while the center of unity, more than just a primus inter pares (“first among equals”).

On behalf of the faithful, the Holy Father truly exercises his paternal role, in bringing together the multitudes by his audiences, celebrations and apostolic visits throughout the whole world. While our “thronging” society tends to leave each person in his own solitude, even when he finds himself in a crowd at a concert or sporting event, in a large department store or on boulevards, the presence of the Holy Father uniting thousands of the faithful for a Mass or thousands of youths for an encounter gives to each the sense that he or she belongs to the Church as a family of disciples of Christ; it spurs each on in his own proper mission within the bosom of the Church; it reassures each in his attachment to Christ, confirming him in his faith.

4. Holy Father and Vicar of Christ: Christ has no other mission than to lead to the Father; “My food is to do the will of Him Who sent me, and to accomplish His work” (Jn 4:34); “for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of Him Who sent me” (Jn 6:38). It is within this filial relationship of the Son to the Father that is inscribed the mission of the Pope, as pastor of the universal Church. The Son does not concentrate the attention of His disciples on Himself, but He orients them to the Father. That is why Christianity is a “filial” religion; there is its uniqueness — in the relationship of the human being with divinity. No other religion has this characteristic, even if certain ones express divinity sometimes — God for Judaism and Islam — in some terms which speak of fatherhood. In Christianity, it is not only the community as a whole which has a filial relationship with God but each one of its members. St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face is a magnificent example of this, and it is not without supernatural reason that at the end of our century she has been proclaimed “Doctor of the Church” for her teaching on spiritual childhood, because our society is a “society without a father.” Likewise, every activity of the members of the Church, and especially that of the Pope, bears this filial mark.

Whence the mission of the Holy Father as Vicar of Christ, to “do the will of Him Who sent [Him]” and, like Christ, not to have any other food than the will of the Father. Certainly, there are dangers on our side of making the Pope a screen between God and us, of allowing us to be carried away by curiosity and the externals of his mission, to see him without listening to him, to have a photograph at his side without seeing Christ, whose Vicar he is, and forgetting the teaching of Christ, which he does not cease to give us through his encyclicals, apostolic letters, initiatives, apostolic visits, etc. The title “Holy Father” must propel us more directly toward the Father of heaven, the Father of mercies, the Father of lights, as the Pope does in receiving every person who desires to meet him, in going out toward those who wish to receive him, in not ceasing to make resound the message of Christ for all, a message which comes from the Father and leads to the Father.

This attitude of the Pope, in fact, appears through the episcopal mottoes of the last popes: As for Pope Pius X: “To restore all things in Christ”; Pope Paul VI, “In the name of the Lord”; Pope John Paul II, “All yours” — that is to say, in reference to his Marian motto, “All yours, O Mary, to be like you, the servant of the Lord, the servant of God.”


Perisset, Archbishop Jean-Claude. “The Appropriateness Of The Title Of “Holy Father”. Our Sunday Visitor’s The Catholic Answer (January/February, 2000): 32-36.

Reprinted with permission of Our Sunday Visitor THE AUTHOR

Archbishop Jean-Claude Perisset is the apostolic nuncio to Romania.

Copyright © 2000 Our Sunday Visitor



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved