How should the term "Holy father" be used?

I’m a bit confused about how the term “Holy father” should be used by a Catholic like myself.I know that it is used to refer to the Pope although I’m not sure if it’s like a title like Holy See,his Holiness or Holy Pontiff.Cant the term be used to refer to God as well though or that cant be done by a Catholic?.Thank you very much so for your time and.or if you clarify this.

In using it as a title for the Pope, it’s means “sacred”. In other words “Sacred Father”.

God is also called Holy Father, but here the word “Holy” takes on another meaning. In that sense it means “Divine Father”.

The word ‘holy’ has several different meanings:

From the Dictionary

  1. exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness

2 divine <for the Lord our God is holy — Psalms 99:9>

3 devoted entirely to the deity or the work of the deity

4 a : having a divine quality b : venerated as or as if sacred

5 used as an intensive <he was a holy terror when he drank — Thomas Wolfe> ; often used in combination as a mild oath

For information about the “Call no Man Father” accusation (which I suspect this has something to do with), see the following article:

An explanation of such titles is given in the section regarding the pope in Catholicism for Dummies. This is an almost essential book for any Catholic to have. A great reference for Catholics, for non-Catholics it also dispels the mis-information and rumors repeated about the Catholic Church. Nothing beats having the straight skinny.

If you check the site in different languages, Holy Father is, how the popes are addressed in English. German is using and exact equivalent Heilige Vater. (also the same is the Hungarian Szent Atya)

Interestingly the Latin is Pontifex, and so is the Italian.

Also interestingly in the Breviary the popes are addressed either as Papa, or as Summus Pontifex. The traditional (2008) English translation is using the Holy Fathers to reference to the Church fathers (always plural and mostly genitive; this is Sanctorum Patrorum in Latin). Sancte Pater refers to the first Divine person, translated as Holy Father in the St Laawrence liturgy.

It says to me that the term Holy Father as reference to the Pope is relatively new term.

Holy Father is a very ancient term. However, its application to the Pontiff is not as ancient. It was first used by the Desert Fathers. The spiritual guides of those hermits and monks were often referred to as “Father” or “Holy Father”. It had nothing to do with the priesthood. Many of them were never ordained. The title conveys a relationship that is both filial and spiritual.

By the Middle Ages the term had become commonly used for the pope and for some of the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchs, but I can’t remember which ones.

Also, some religious orders use it for their Superior General or for their founder. For example, in the Litany of the Saints, Dominicans and Franciscans unite Dominic and Francis and pray: “Holy Fathers Dominic and Francis . . . pray for us.” or “Our Holy Father Dominic and Our Holy Father Francis”. You never use, “The Holy Father”. That is reserved for the pope.

If you observe the pattern, it’s always the same. It denotes a spiritual relationship that is filial or a relationship to a spiritual father. It’s a term of love and respect.

In direct address one may say “Holy Father”. If the person is the pope or an Orthodox Patriarch, you can also say “Your Holiness”. Keep in mind that not all of the Orthodox use “Your Holiness”. Some use other terms. You would never use “Your Holiness” to address the superior of a religious order. However, it is appropriate for Catholics to call an Orthodox Patriarch Holy Father or Your Holiness, if that is his title, even the pope does that, because they are valid and licit Patriarchs. What does the term patriarch mean? Father.

Some writers will place “holy” in front of “fathers” when speaking of the Fathers of the Church. That is not as common. But there is nothing wrong with it, the Holy Fathers of the Church. However, to a non-Catholic, this may lead them to think that all of them were popes. That can be confusing.


Br. JR, OSF :slight_smile:

"How should the term “Holy Father” be used? "

Out of respect for the Pope in the English-speaking world as well as in some of the other languages. There shouldn’t be any theological implications.

As always, Brother Jay, concise and illuminating. I would guess that the challenge to the use of the term comes from scriptural literalists. Strangely, every one of them that I have ever met still has both hands, feet and eyes…

You always use it for the pope; but also for some of the Orthodox Patriarchs and the founders of some religious orders: Benedict, Francis, Dominic are always Holy Father N. The implication is not theological. It’s relational. You’re speaking to or about someone who is honored as a spiritual patriarch.

Fundamentalism is not limited to our Protestant brethren. Many years ago a team of our brothers was assigned to a parish to help out the local bishop. However, the superior was not a priest. The laity has a tough time calling him Father and the priests Brother. They eventually switched to calling everyone Friar. Then everyone was happy. It took a while for the parishioners to get used to calling the guys Friar N, but they got into it.

We have many hang-ups with the title, Father. Some people run to their bible and start misquoting it. Others believe that it’s only for priests and popes. And other don’t like it at all, because they believe that it demeans them in some way.

It is what it is, a title of affection and respect to a spiritual patriarch.


Br. JR, OSF :slight_smile:

We are indeed creatures of habit - and many (holding my hand up) not particularly well-catechized creatures at that. Once we accept the fact that we are on individual journeys in faith, those journeys become easier.

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