Pray Tell Poll: Don’t call me “Father”?

The coming days are rich in the celebration of the mysteries of Eucharist, ministry, and service. In that spirit, we examine the call of Cardinal Dew of Wellington that people not call priests “Father” – or address him as “Your Eminence.” Hence this week’s poll question:

Should people call their priests “Father”?

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Share your thoughts in the comments below!

28 comments

  1. This may be a good example of good intentions perhaps not fully thought through.

    “Father” is an expression of a relationship – it’s interpersonal. Unlike a *title* or *honorific*. Use of the given name may be intermingled with use of the relationship term, depending on the closeness of the interlocutors and their respective comfort levels, but a relationship term can be a form of spiritual intimacy that is free of codependency and dysfunction.

    (And, lest we forget, the replacement of traditional forms with informal modern forms can be just as clericalist as anything else. “Uncle Ted” was far from alone in deploying that grooming gambit. There are no facile silver bullets here to solve that problem; but there are if our goal is to seem like we care.)

    The solution is not to ditch it, but reteach it.

  2. As a Lutheran, a tradition in which “pastor” is the norm, I long for the more familiar parental language used by the Catholic and Anglican communities. For too long, Lutheran congregations were dominated by “Herr Pastor” types, stern autocratic leaders with little need for the laity to do anything but listen.

    But in using Father or Mother, one is reminded that we are adopted into a family. Parents prepare and serve meals, lead prayers, depend on the children participating in household tasks, and are deeply invested in seeing their children grow.

    1. Agreed, and interestingly in Poland the Lutheran priests (the term Pastor refers to Baptists, and the like) are addressed as Father. In the USA, anything that smacks of Roman Catholicism is verboten, at least in my little LCMS tribe. What a shame….

  3. I once told someone that she didn’t need to call me “Father,” only to be told in return: “You have no idea what I need.” I learnt a lot from that, and have never sought to dissuade people from using that form of address again. I think the person I was talking to had a very intuitive sense of what Karl gave more formal wording to above.

    That doesn’t mean I go around insisting people use the title, though, either. I currently teach Greek in a Protestant Divinity School and I do explain on the first day of class that it is customary to refer to a Catholic priest by “Father FirstName.” I also say that if any of them are more comfortable saying “Reverend,” that’s fine too, and if they forget and call me “Adam” I won’t be offended. Most of them are totally fine with this. I’m very used to my colleagues and mentors in the academy just calling me Adam, and it doesn’t bother me in the least. I was touched when two of my professors when I was in course work asked my permission to just call me Adam.

    I do tell people that refer to me as “Father Booth” that “Father”‘s fine, but I prefer “Adam.” I found that I had to do that reasonably often with students at Notre Dame. Catholic students at Duke seem to instinctively and naturally say “Father Adam” (or just “Father”).

    I also try and tell anyone that addresses me as “Mr. Booth” or “Prof. Booth” that if we’re going to use titles, we should use “Father” or “Reverend.”

    1. Actually Mister used to be the proper honorific for secular priests. Even in the nineteenth century references may be found to the same. Isn’t the Italian Don virtually the same?

      I often wonder if the honorific Sir Priest was a true usage or something made up by the Victorian author of John Inglesant.

      The term father used to be applied to monastics of one type or another. The Irish are said to have confounded the distinction. I wonder if the English Benedictines acquired Dom because of their parish work.

      I’m not sure what category the CSC falls into but I do know that my father’s cousin who was one would probably insist on The Rev’d Father.

  4. I tend to introduce myself as Father, and tell people to call me what they feel comfortable with. When visiting patients in the hospital (I work full time as a chaplain), I introduce myself by name and with no title and let the patient direct what to call me (I wear a collar).

  5. I don’t think John is being quite consistent here. It is a bit odd to rail against the use of titles and refer to “Pope” Francis’ strictures against clericalism in doing so.

    It is also often the case that those who are the most insistent on not being called by their titles, or using outward signs of status, are the ones who bridle the most when their authority is questioned. The story is told of an English bishop (long since deceased) who went to do a confirmation and informed the parish priest that he would not wear his mitre as it constituted a barrier between him and the people. “But how will they know you’re the Bishop?”, said the parish priest. “When I move you”, was the response. The same bishop informed another parish priest that he could have mitre and crozier, or incense, but not both. This time the parish priest got the better of him and said that he could have a £50 or a £100 stipend. I’ll leave you to guess what the bishop’s response was.

  6. While addressing priests as “Father” is a long entrenched custom, no priest should require or demand it. Jesus was plain spoken about this when he said, “call no man father, you have but one father…” I know all the arguments made to obscure what Jesus said, having used them many times myself. But the title puts a distance between the ordained and the “merely” baptized that all too often leads to a misuse of the power associated with the priest’s status. Bishops and priests address each other by first name. The Popes sign all their letters with their first name. Might the use of the title be largely harmless. I used to think so, but have been having second thoughts for a long time. I don’t mind people calling me Father Jack, I introduce myself to Catholics by that name, but when speaking to people I know are not Catholic I simply use my first and last names. More often than not, however, they respond “nice to meet you, Father”.

  7. ” . . . . when speaking to people I know are not Catholic I simply use my first and last names. More often than not, however, they respond “nice to meet you, Father”.”

    As it should be.

    “The microphone is not working.” R: “And also with you.”

    There’s a somewhat skewed beauty to it.

  8. Voted ‘yes’ because it is what I do in general. And, I think, most people do the same. If the question had been “Should people be required to call their priests “Father”?” I might have voted otherwise.

  9. Brian Duffy is correct in the longstanding honorific for my kind being Mister. In a book written for the 175th anniversary of our diocese by historian Rev Clyde Crews (we’re coming up on 211 years now), he points out that our first bishop, Benedict Flaget always wrote to us priests as Mister. He also says that because Catholic priests did not have a distinctive way of dress or use distinctive titles, there were a number of jokes that circulated in 19th century Kentucky about women who found themselves in flagrante delicto with a man, only to find out then that he was a priest. Unfortunately he declines to include any.

  10. I find it offensive when a priest demands to be called Father, but does not use titles for others whom he addresses, and rather calls them by first names. If it’s “Fr. Smith” it’s “Mrs. Murphy” “Doctor Lang” “Professor Jones.” If we are formal, let everyone have their proper titles; if you want to call others by their first names, let them do the same to you.

    1. Yes, reciprocity is key. I can remember a now-transferred pastor of a parish of which I was once a longtime member, who insisted on his titles but had the, um, habit of referring to women by their given name only (laymen usually got either Given Surname or Mr Surname). People belled that cat. Nevertheless, he persisted.

  11. Fr. Jack – AMEN and agree with Rita’s statement. Finally, thank you for the historical facts – guess *father* may be another accoutrement. It has passed its *use by date* and is a relic of clericalism. Interact weekly with our local Lutheran parish – they use the term *pastor* which feels different from *father*.

  12. I was at a baptism in a very High Anglican church in Oxford. The priest was a woman, and her honourific was “Mother.”
    Now that DID feel odd when I heard it used in announcements etc.

  13. You’ve known him as a teenager as Leo, you know him as a friend as Leo, you knew him as a seminarian as Leo. And yet when he is ordained, he tries to insist on you calling him Father Leo…..

    There’s a leader in a recent NCR which talks about the difference between clericalism and hierarchicalism. It’s worth a read (scroll down to the last segment): https://www.ncronline.org/news/accountability/ncr-connections/mensch-church-recovery-and-hierarchical-culture-examined

    1. Is it a generational thing?
      Our parish priest is vicar general of the diocese and prefers to be called by name.
      A recently ordained assistant priest from the English College signs even the most informal e-mail with Father and does not refer to the parish sister by name alone.

      1. Not generational. I’m 35 years out and have some peers who introduce themselves as Father or Msgr to other priests. And they call me Father. I also see it in some of our younger clergy. I think it is more of a matter of ecclesiology.
        I once replied to a bishop who called me Father that my friends and family call me “Bruce”.

  14. In my professional life, I am called by my given name and respected for what I contribute. I expect the same from clergy.

    1. In the late 1920s a priest of Baltimore came home from Rome with a doctorate. When the new archdiocese of Washington (1939, 1947) was created with territory taken from Baltimore, the reverend doctor was named pastor of a large Washington parish. He instructed the Sisters preparing children for first Confession that if the children came to him, they should say, “Bless me, doctor, for I have sinned.”

  15. Perhaps the key is not “Father,” but the name that is applied after it. When used with a last name, “Father” tends to be more of a title. When used with a Christian name, it confers and accepts a relationship. Either practice can be done with reverence. As can a first name in a less public setting. I recall two university professors, favorites of mine. One never referred to us by our Christian names, but Ms or Mr and last name. And we always addressed him as Prof. or Dr.. The second stressed that we were all in scientific research together, and that, as colleagues, we were on a first-name basis. Each of these men carried a gravitas that was neither buttressed nor demolished by the form of address.

    One bishop isn’t going to retire “Father.” That will be determined by the laity.

    1. Yep to all of that. Back at the University of Virginia, at least 40 years ago, the customary practice was for professors and students to reciprocally use Mr/Ms et cet. + Surname or to reciprocally use given names (especially in office conversations where there was a developed relationship). “Doctor” was reserved for medical doctors and one especially beloved professor in the psychology dept as an odd term of endearment. Professor was not used as a form of address.

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