What it means to call God 'Father'

As soon as we hear the words, we know what follows: “… who art in heaven …” It is second nature, for the Lord’s Prayer is, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “the fundamental Christian prayer” (No. 2759). It is both “the summary of the whole Gospel” (No. 2761) and “the center of this proclamation” of the Gospel (No. 2763). But our familiarity with it should not dull us to just how astounding it is that we call God — the Creator, King and Lord of all that exists, seen and unseen — our Father.

What does it mean to say that God is our Father? The entirety of Scripture is an answer to that question. The importance of fatherhood, both divine and human, is evident throughout the entire Bible. Granted, the majority of human fathers depicted in the Old Testament are deeply flawed, although they were men who encountered and knew God: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David and Solomon, to name a few. While they failed in certain ways, the Old Testament also presents an image of the ideal father, not so much through specific men but through commands and instructions. This is especially evident in the Psalms and Proverbs: “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction …” (Prv 1:8). 

Merciful and just

God alone, of course, is the perfect father. Calling God “father” is not, as the Catechism notes, unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition: “Many religions invoke God as ‘Father’” (No. 238). But for the Israelites, the fatherhood of God was connected, first, to being the singular, unique Creator of the world (see Dt 32:6; Mal 2:10) and, secondly, to establishing the covenant with Israel, his “first-born son” (Ex 4:22; Catechism, No. 238). God’s fatherhood was also closely intertwined with his kingship — demonstrated in his care for those in need, his demand for holy justice and his mercy (Dt 10:18; Ps 103:6-13).

God the father
“The Father” is depicted on a mural at St. Gertrude’s Church, Stockton, Calif. Crosiers

The fatherhood of God is completely unique. While certain, limited analogies can be made with human fathers, we must not confuse the two: “We ought therefore to recall that God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: he is God. He also transcends human fatherhood and motherhood, although he is their origin and standard: no one is father as God is Father” (No. 239).

The chasm between God and man was bridged and closed by the God-man — the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. He “revealed that God is Father in an unheard of sense” by revealing that the Father is such by his relationship with the Son (No. 240), and thus revealing the great mystery of the Trinity. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit will that men and women share in their blessed, Trinitarian life (No. 257). To call God “our Father,” then, is to recognize that we are children of God by virtue of baptism and faith (Jn 1:12; Rom 8:16; 1 Jn 3:1,10). Those led by the Spirit of God are sons of God, wrote St. Paul, having received “the spirit of sonship”:

“You received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:15-17).

Pope Francis, in his April 10 general audience, noted that “Abba!” means “papa” (or “dad”). “Our God,” he said, “is like this: he is a dad to us. The Holy Spirit creates within us this new condition as children of God. And this is the greatest gift we have received from the Paschal Mystery of Jesus. Moreover God treats us as children, he understands us, he forgives us, he embraces us, he loves us even when we err.”

Forgiveness, love and mercy are at the heart of the parable of the prodigal son, which could be called the parable of the merciful, long-suffering father (Lk 15:11-32). Blessed John Paul II, in his 1980 encyclical Dives in Misericordia (“Rich in Mercy”) reflected at length on the parable, writing, “There is no doubt that in this simple but penetrating analogy the figure of the father reveals to us God as Father. … The father of the prodigal son is faithful to his fatherhood, faithful to the love that he had always lavished on his son” (No. 6).

Human fathers, made sons of God through the work of the Son and the power of the Holy Spirit, grow in both sonship and fathership. And that growth is revealed in an unconditional, sacrificial love that reflects the perfect love of our heavenly Father (see Jn 3:16; 1 Jn 4:16). 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.