The Word Embodied

A Teaching Father

“Avoid the title.”” (Mt 23:8)

Ever since my ordination I have been a little uncomfortable with Jesus’ words about certain persons who are identified in Matthew’s Gospel as scribes and Pharisees. “Do what they tell you,” Jesus says, “but do not follow their example.” 

They talk the talk, but they do not walk the walk. In fact, they bind up other people with impossible burdens, and they will not lift a finger to help them.

These are the people who work in the limelight where their performances can be seen. They eagerly bear the marks of prestige, obtain the place of honor at banquets, take the front seats in church, and seek public respect.

This is hard-hitting stuff, especially if you sit up front every Sunday and now and then can be found ensconced at the head table.

But what really lands a punch on the chin are Jesus’ following words: “As for you, avoid the title ‘Rabbi.’ Only one among you is your teacher, the rest are learners. Do not call anyone on earth your father. Only one is your father, the one in heaven. Avoid being called teachers. One is your teacher, the Messiah.”

But what really lands a punch on the chin are Jesus’ following words: “As for you, avoid the title ‘Rabbi.’ Only one among you is your teacher, the rest are learners. Do not call anyone on earth your father. Only one is your father, the one in heaven. Avoid being called teachers. One is your teacher, the Messiah.”

Well, at least I’m not a rabbi. But people do call me teacher. I’m addressed as “Father” Kavanaugh. And sometimes I have at least acted as if I am the messiah.

When I take the lower place at dinner, I wouldn’t mind if someone came up and said, “Friend, go up higher.” And if I’ve ever “humbled” myself, I suspect that the words “whoever humbles himself shall be exalted,” lurked somewhere in the closets of my mind.

This business of titles and prestige bothers me. Since I first seriously read the Gospel of Matthew the year before I was ordained, I have always been a little sheepish, not shepherdish when people call me “Father”—even though I had looked forward to the title.

It’s easy enough to ask handball players not to call me “Father” on the handball court. Even my partners feel a little strange when, at those increasingly rare moments, they shout, “Great kill, Father.”

But the formal occasions are trickier.I’ll never forget the time when I was to appear on a panel about ethics in America. It was going to be aired nationally, and there were a few big names seated in padded chairs around a big table.

A man came around to get our official titles. I thought he might be Jewish, and I remembered a friend of mine who once told me that some Jews do not like to call a Catholic priest “Father.”

Even more to my discomfort, I was reminded of today’s Gospel passage, when he asked me, “What do you want me to call you? Father? Professor? Teacher?”

I went blank. “Call me anything you want. I’m a Catholic priest, a Jesuit at Saint Louis University. ‘Brother’ is a nice term—although I’m not officially a brother.”

Eventually, the program started; and after a few initial probes to the panel, the moderator (Jack Ford, as I recall) said, “Mr. Kavanaugh, what do you think of this problem of privacy and the news media?”

Nobody answered. Then I realized he was talking to me. I hadn’t been called “Mister” for such a long time I had forgotten what it sounded like. I suddenly felt untitled and ordinary. Others on the panel were chief executives or chief other things. Some were directors. A few were notables. I was just a mister.

To make matters worse, after the program aired, I received a letter from a bishop who was disappointed that I seemed to be covering up the fact I was a Catholic priest (though I was decked in black from head to toe).

I was never able to explain myself adequately to the bishop. I don’t know if I can do so now. It’s just that I’m a little queasy about being called “Father” or “teacher,” even though I’m both, at least in some sense.

You, dear reader, need not bear the burden of my gospel literal-mindedness or my scruples, but it is noteworthy that Jesus makes such a big deal out of the whole thing.

Clearly he is talking about the danger of putting anyone in the place of God. Surely he is warning us against the tendency to set up a guru or a master as a solution for life’s travails. And there is no doubt that Jesus is reminding all of us that we should not pose as the savior or master of anybody.

Only God is God. As St. Paul reminds the Thessalonians, our message, our word, and our teaching are God’s, who works through and in us all. It is so tempting to make oneself the message and the teaching—especially if you have an honorific title.

If we wish honor or pre-eminence, let it be in service, rather than in being served. If we aspire to be Number One, let us be the first to forgive, to heal, to minister. We can’t escape the message. Jesus is getting at something here.

We are brothers and sisters. That’s that. In this matter of grace and salvation, there is no one of us above the other, even though some of us, by the grace of God, are asked to read the book, preach the word, offer the consecration, or pray the absolution.

Our ministry, like St. Paul’s, must be one of gentle encouragement, “as a mother,” he says, sharing the Good News and graces of our lives. This may not make us look very imposing. But it will make us, with Paul, more grateful.
 

John Kavanaugh, SJ

Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.

 

**From Saint Louis University

 

Kristin Clauson