There are over 1.2 billion Catholics throughout the world. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest denomination of Christianity, and it continues to grow, mostly in the developing world (Africa and Latin America). Its current leader, Francis I, has continually made headlines with his unorthodox actions and words.
Francis comes from Argentina, where he was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio. He became a priest in 1969 and began ascending the ranks of the Catholic Church in Argentina. He was appointed provincial of the Jesuits in 1973, a bishop by John Paul II in 1992, coadjutor archbishop in 1997, archbishop of Argentina in 1998 and a member of the College of Cardinals in 2001.
He ascended to the papacy when he was elected by the cardinals on March 13, 2013 (succeeding the retired Benedict XVI).
Do you know what the word pope means? It is actually a very simple term, derived from the Latin word papa, meaning “father.”
Roman Catholic leaders (starting with priests and going all the way up to the pope) are given the title father. In monastic communities, the leader of monks is called an “abbot,” which is derived from the Aramaic word abba, meaning “father.” But within Roman Catholicism, only the bishop of Rome can be called the pope—or the father. It is a form of the title that is reserved only for his office. And, in order to further distinguish the pope’s authority, he is also given the title holy father.
When Francis visited the United States last September, it was common to hear him addressed as “holy father” by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Should we call religious leaders “father”?
Roman Catholics are not the only denomination to use the title father to refer to their leaders. It is also used to describe leaders in the Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran churches.
You may be surprised to learn that Jesus specifically addressed this title during His ministry. Notice what He said, recorded in Matthew 23:9: “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.”
Just taking that scripture out of context and at face value, we could assume Jesus is saying that we can’t call anyone father—including our own biological father. But that is not the point He was making. Throughout His recorded words in the Gospels, Jesus referred to paternal parents as fathers without hesitation.
For instance, in Matthew 15:4, He cites the Fifth Commandment, reinforcing the command to “honor your father and mother.” In Luke 15:11-32, we read Jesus’ famous parable of the prodigal son where He uses the word father 12 times to refer to the prodigal son’s biological father.
So Jesus was not opposed to calling a father, father. The word is also occasionally used as a descriptor of a nation’s progenitor (Romans 4:1, 12, 16) or describing someone’s role of helping someone young in the Christian faith (1 Corinthians 4:15; Philippians 2:22).
So, what point was Jesus making in Matthew 23:9?
As we have shown continually in this column, one of the most important principles of Bible study is to closely read the context. When we read the context of this scripture, Jesus is addressing religious leaders and titles. He was specifically taking the scribes and Pharisees to task for their hypocrisy, their love for physical preeminence and the titles they gave themselves (Matthew 23:1-7).
The first title He addresses is rabbi. During the first century, Jews would call those in a teaching role “rabbi.” This term didn’t simply mean teacher. The word comes from the Hebrew root word rab, which means “great.” So the term implied much more than a teacher; it literally meant “my great one” (New Bible Dictionary, second edition, p. 1006).