On (not) calling priests Father
When I was received into the Catholic Church, almost forty years ago, I had few theological doubts but I found many of its customs exotic. Coming from a non-religious background, even something as simple as shaking hands at the Sign of Peace during Mass felt strange to me, never mind entering a church and finding a rosary being said. Over the decades I have become so accustomed to most practices that people sometimes mistake me for a ‘cradle Catholic’ (I assume that is a compliment!) but one thing still makes me feel uncomfortable: calling priests ‘Father’.
I remember asking the priest instructing me why we do so when Jesus says unequivocally ‘Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven’ (Matt. 23:9). He replied that it was ‘tradition’ and pointed to the example of the early Desert Fathers, from the fourth century. As a historian, who likes very old things, I was somewhat mollified, but found it no easier to use the term.
Over the years, however, I began to learn that while priests in religious orders are traditionally addressed as ‘Father’, secular (ordinary diocesan) priests, in most west European countries are not. Italians and Spaniards say ‘Don’; Germans, ‘Herr Pfarrer’; the French ‘Monsieur l’Abbé’ or ‘Curé’. Even in Scotland, Gaels address their priests as ‘Maighstir’ (meaning Master). So was the tradition confined to Anglophone areas? It seems not: before the Reformation, secular priests usually had the title ‘Sir’, while after they were addressed as ‘Mr’. The custom of calling them ‘Father’ appears to have arisen in Ireland as recently as the mid-nineteenth century and spread from there to the rest of the English-speaking world. So what I thought was a venerable tradition stretching back to the early Church turned out to be a fashion not yet two centuries old.
Does it matter? I believe so because it sends the wrong message of what the priest’s relationship with his congregation should be. The parent-child relationship is profoundly unequal with the children subject to their parents’ authority until they reach maturity. At the risk of being simplistic, that reflects our relationship to the first person of the Trinity, God the Father. But the second person, the Son, came to earth to share our humanity. He is our older brother, gently leading us to his Father: our relationship with him is not one of utter dependence but of co-operation. As St Paul says, we are called to be co-heirs of God the Father with Christ his Son (Romans 8.17).
In the Latin text of the Mass the priest always addresses the congregation as ‘Fratres’ (which includes both brothers and sisters), because he is acting ‘in persona Christi’. At the start of Mass, the priest greets us officially with ‘The Lord be with you’ to which we answer ‘And with your spirit’, which is an exchange between equals. Unfortunately, however, in a well-intentioned but, to my mind, misguided desire to put us more at ease, some priests follow it up with ‘Good morning everyone’, to which most of the congregation parrot back ‘ Good morning Father’, like schoolchildren addressing their headmaster: the effect is infantilising.
When I first moved to Portobello, the parish priest, whom I respected enormously, used to do exactly this, which would set my teeth on edge; not the best frame of mind to find nourishment in the rest of the Mass. Eventually I plucked up courage to tell him why I objected to the practice. To his credit, he saw my point and, whenever he subsequently saw me at Mass he avoided saying it (although occasionally, if he didn’t spot me in time, it would slip out). I always managed to avoid calling him ‘Father’ because he was already a canon when I first met him and then became a monsignor. No doubt some of this is attributable to my pride and lack of tolerance but I do believe it matters that the relationship between parish priest and parishioner should not be regarded as that of father and child. I should add that I do not regard myself as a ‘liberal’ in matters of faith and doctrine.
I am not saying that parish priests do not deserve respect but too often they are deferred to rather than respected. Despite all the papal exhortations for laity to take on responsibilities in parishes, many parishioners, unconsciously, I believe, accept the priest’s presumed omni-competence in all sorts of areas, as children do their parents. From heating, church fabric and decoration to finance, if members of the congregation with greater experience and skill were consulted, or felt able to challenge poor decisions by the priest before they were executed, disastrous mistakes could be avoided, the consequences of which parishioners may have to live with, long after the parish priest has moved on to pastures new.
Evelyn Waugh once said that he treated his parish priest as he would his GP. We consult different professionals for our health, or legal matters, extending our house, etc, because we respect their expertise in those particular fields. We don’t consult our lawyers about sound systems or our doctors about making a will. Analogously, our PPs should be respected for their expertise in matters spiritual and moral but not expect to be deferred to in every matter. I can’t claim to speak with authority, but, from limited experience of living in Europe, my impression is that relationships between clergy and laity are easier and more equal.
I therefore propose we should all stop calling priests ‘Father’ immediately. But then how should we address them? Ideally, I believe we should be on first name terms with most other adults once we know them well enough, without that entailing any lack of respect on either side. However, there may be cases where that is not appropriate. I never called our elderly neighbour anything other than ‘Mrs Christie’ in the 15 years we lived next door even though she always called me ‘Ian. And I had for years a GP of similar to age to me whom I liked and trusted, but he kept his professional distance and never once called me ‘Ian’, and I always called him ‘Doctor’. So I accept there may be circumstances that we probably do need a title to address our priests. We could just go back to calling them ‘Mr’ (plus surname) , but could I suggest ‘Brother’ (plus Christian name) because it recognises the theological truth that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ?
Ian Campbell is Professor of Architectural History and Theory at Edinburgh College of Art.