The Spiritual Fatherhood of Father Raymond Gawronski
I remember the first time I heard him laugh. It was the first seminary homily of a new spiritual director. It erupted so unexpectedly that even he appeared surprised by it. As it reverberated within the chapel walls, we sensed that something was about to awaken, something about to be made new.
That laugh struck me like thunder. It still, to this day, reverberates in my soul. It was symphonic, expressing something of humanity, levity, and joy. Perhaps I felt it so intensely because I was passing through that moment in seminary when orthodoxy first begins to harden. Something in that laugh told me that whatever was beneath those golden round glasses and grey beard was exactly what I needed.
Since that day in the fall of 2005, Father Raymond Gawronski became the spiritual father of our seminary. This was evidenced most clearly at his funeral in 2016, when over fifty of his spiritual sons, now priests all over the western United States, were drawn together to show their gratitude and offer their prayers. His fatherhood was remarkably pliable, extending to all kinds of personalities and theological dispositions. By transcending the self-imposed barriers within our seminary brotherhood, he quietly and paternally began to weave us together into unity.
Now Gawronski’s sons have become fathers, and the older we get, the more we see just how singular he was. But the more we perceive the unique type of fatherhood he embodied, the harder it is to describe. The following is thus an attempt at the impossible: a description of something indescribable. At the very least, it will offer three signposts pointing to the mystery of divine paternity which we learned from Father Raymond Gawronski.
1. Fathers awaken humanity
Fathers do two things: they generate and they educate. The first brings life into being, the second brings that life to fullness. On the natural level, a man and a woman enter into the work of co-creation with God through marital intimacy. But this generative moment is only the spark and beginning; the true life’s work is a spiritual endeavor that we call education. At a certain point, the father takes the child from the comfort of the mother’s arms and points him out into the world. This introduction to the fullness of reality is the act of education in the deepest sense—educare—meaning “to bring forth and lead out.” When a man sets out to spiritually father the child, he binds himself to a great promise: I will teach you what it means for you to be human in the midst of the world. This is the challenge of true fatherhood. It is also the crisis of our fatherless age.
The spiritual fatherhood of the priest is an educative one. As souls are reborn in God through the Marian maternity of the Church, so too are they guided and formed by the fatherhood of men configured to Christ the priest. This paternal work is a participation in a greater divine paternity, “whereby until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13). The priest then is a father who taking spiritual children from the arms of Holy Mother Church, guides them into the world of vocation and mission in Christ. It is in this and this alone that the priest finds his deepest identity and greatest joy—precisely as father.
Often, what is lacking in the fatherhood of priests is a lived and concrete accompaniment of real spiritual children. The harvest is always plenty and the laborers few: who has time for real relationships? Nowadays, this has been intensified by the millions of rules, policies, and boundaries that regulate priestly relationships. Without touchstones of paternal communion, priestly existence becomes hermetically sealed off from actual relationships. We may be safe as we sit in our parish offices, but we are no longer acting as human fathers.
It was into this lacuna that Father Gawronski stepped, entering into the life of his sons with affability, humility and, most importantly, charity. Navigating the relational confines of our assessment-based seminaries is a challenging one; but Father Gawronski showed that it was at least possible. He continually proposed what many deemed too complicated—that spiritual fatherhood could be lived as friendship. In a manner befitting a father and son, it is truly possible that the goods, loves, and desires of one’s life can be held in the bond of mutual benevolence. This was especially significant in seminary, where everything builds to the moment of ordination. There, a supernatural inversion occurs, when fathers first call their sons brothers. The natural ambit in which this transition unfolds is the maturation of friendship, which though never losing its paternal character, is expanded so as to incorporate this newly formed fraternal bond.
Fathers awaken humanity, a daunting task, unlike any other. Péguy understood this, calling fathers “the adventurers of the modern world,” men who were “imprudent and daring fools.” When the human heart is awakened, when it is allowed to feel, it emerges precisely as it is: the uncontrollable, unattainable, but ultimately mysterious center of the human person. Father Gawronski was no false optimist in this regard, regularly recalling Jeremiah 17:9 to us: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” It is always precarious to live from the heart, to actually allow the blood to flow into the wounds. As Rilke described it, this is “a life on the cliffs of the heart.” The call of man and the mission of the father are one—to step out of the cave of fear and venture boldly into the perils of human existence.
Though we might have been tempted to appropriate his mannerisms (and even some of his eccentricities), we always knew one thing: Father Gawronski wanted us to be ourselves. Despite the great force of his personality and his towering intellect, he was never interested in making replicas. It is the weak, insecure father who wants to recreate himself, projecting his own dreams and imposing his own aspirations on his sons. As brothers, we knew that what drew us together was not conformity to a prospective spiritual ideal, but the communion of diversity that can only originate in true fatherhood.
2. Fathers acknowledge limitedness
A pivotal moment in the formation of a priest happens when he realizes that he does not have what it takes. This runs contrary to the basic tenet of our millennial upbringing: “If you believe it, you can achieve it.” This deep instinct towards self-reliance and self-actualization requires a foundational disillusionment, one which has the capacity to break a man and shipwreck his vocation. To assume a vocation, purely through confidence in my talents, is a promethean act destined for ruin. What is needed then is an experienced guide, a season-tested captain who has endured many storms. As young seminarians, we needed a father who knew the Scylla and Charybdis of modern priestly life, who having been tied to the mast of Christ’s cross, had himself passed through their perils.
Positively considered, to say that a father helps me acknowledge my limitedness means he is helping me understand my creatureliness. Only when I experience this limitedness can a father help free me from the illusion that I am god. It is the humble acknowledgement of bounds of my creaturely existence. This is the way through the snares of egotism and the enticements of perennial adolescence. The fatherless man lives with an existential ceiling; his inability to recognize creaturely limits leads to the ironic truncation of his own abilities. He is destined to the slavery of activism, to that blind and incessant drive to know oneself through one’s work. But there is beauty in the acknowledgement of one’s limitedness, as the Gestalt of my Christian existence begins to radiate and I come to see the true inner form of my life.
What first distinguished Father Gawronski from many of the priests of his generation was that he never despised our youth. He never mocked our excessive piety, nor humiliated us for our short-sighted self-reliance. By bearing with our youthful folly, he drew out from within us the deeper desires and a deeper vision of the Christian life. He knew what was in us, and patiently waited until our self-made projects collapsed—before lifting us up and dusting us off, helping us to learn how to laugh again.
3. Fathers teach us to behold
The spiritual endeavor of Gawronski’s paternity is well summarized in the words of his own spiritual father, Hans Urs von Balthasar: “Perhaps only one thing remains vital today: namely [that] we can discover what other ages knew about encountering the overwhelming mystery of God.”
In the end, this is really the only thing that matters. The awakened humanity and the acknowledgement of limitations are only existential forerunners to man’s central purpose: the encounter of the mystery of God. What is unique in spiritual fathers like Gawronski is that they know the only way to discover the mystery of oneself is in the mystery of God. If human existence is not posed first as a question, then it will never be contemplated as a mystery. And if the mystery of the human question does not seek its answer in the mystery of the unknowable God, then it is destined to a life of fragmentation and incoherence, void of meaning and transcendence.
But all of this presupposes a vision, an ability to see. It was to this that Anaxagoras spoke five centuries before Christ, when positing the question of why we were on earth. His answer—to behold. It is this seeing, the Greek theorein and Latin contemplatio, that makes possible the human experiment of communion. It is upon this ability that the Christian faith stands or falls; and it was precisely this ability to “behold” that was lacking in us when we were young men preparing for priesthood. We knew how to do Christian things, but had never been taught how to perceive Christian realities.
In the love of a spiritual father, one begins to glimpse the rudimentary contours of the divine love of God the Father. But in revealing true fatherhood, it also reveals human fatherhood to be what it is—a mere pointer. Human fatherhood is thus contingent in nature and instrumental in character. This may be the tacit reason why so few priests attempt to live out spiritual fatherhood; because precisely in the moment that your children learn to perceive the fatherhood of God, you begin to pass away. This most painful of realizations—the inessential nature of my paternity—is a renunciation borne with specific intensity in the heart of every man endeavoring to be a father. But considered within the crucified ethos of Christian faith, this greatest of renunciations becomes the source of his greatest fruitfulness.
The final years of Father Gawronski’s life were wrought with suffering. But it was in those years that he taught us the perennial Greek axiom mathein-pathein: to suffer is to learn, to learn is to suffer. If one awakens to humanity, acknowledges one’s limitations and learns to see, one will truly be educated in humanity—albeit through suffering. Amidst this long, painful journey of self-awakening in Christ, the spiritual father stands as the steadfast and ever-present pillar who reminds us in the moment of suffering, “this is in fact what you want.” Only with that humble assurance of paternal friendship can any of us ever truly venture out on the life of faith, continually setting out on our adventure to the heart of God.
Now, three years since he died, there is a singular memory which will always synopsize the spiritual fatherhood of Raymond Gawronski. It was the final night of the pilgrimage to beauty, a three-week trip through the heights of Switzerland. Just before he was to give his final speech and conclude the trip, Father Gawronski completely lost his voice. Gesturing for pen and paper, he wrote his final words, and handing them to one of his spiritual sons, had them read out on his behalf. This act, seemingly insignificant, was in fact the moment when the mystery of Gawronski’s fatherhood was revealed: we, his sons, were now to speak his words in our own voice. In the case of our father, a man fully captivated by the person of Jesus Christ, that word-legacy, to be spoken on his behalf, was simply the Word itself. Now we knew what Father Gawronski had endeavored all along: he was a father giving his sons to the Son; who in the Son, was giving them to the Father.
 Charles Péguy, Clio I, in Temporal and Eternal (London: The Harvill Press, 1932), 108: “There is only one adventurer in the world, as can be seen very clearly in the modern world, the father of a family. Even the most desperate adventurers are nothing compared with him. Everything in the modern world, even and perhaps most of all contempt, is organized against that fool, that imprudent, daring fool.”
 H. U. von Balthasar, Razing the Bastions (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 33.
Father John Nepil is Formation Advisor and Assistant Professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado.