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…known simply as “Father Bob”
Posted By Eric Sammons On February 1, 2011 @ 7:57 am In The Church | Comments Disabled
Life as a Catholic involves many complex issues and debates. From transubstantiation to the Immaculate Conception to purgatory, these issues have been discussed and debated by great minds and saints for centuries.
But life as a Catholic is not simply made up of such theological topics. We also live in real-world parishes with real-world issues. These might not be as weighty, but they make up the fabric of Catholic life nonetheless. Certain issues arise that must be addressed: Do we like the music? Is the church building properly designed? Is the youth minister any good? Are there enough chocolate donuts supplied after Mass? These and other such questions are at the forefront of living as a Catholic today.
This leads me to a pressing issue that has always vexed me:
When a new priest is assigned to our parish, do we call him by his first name or last name? Is he “Fr. Bob” or “Fr. Smith”?
There seems to be a certain stereotype associated with both ways. For example, I have noticed that whenever a secular news outlet reports on a local priest’s death, they will usually include the line, “…known simply as ‘Father Bob’…” to represent that this priest was beloved by his parish. This (overused) line is shorthand for “this priest was not one of those rigid authoritarian priests, but instead just one of the guys.” Use of the first name supposedly makes the priest more approachable and more “down to earth,” whereas calling a priest by a last name conveys more authority to the cleric (which is bad in the eyes of most people in the secular media).
In my own experience this stereotype has some basis in truth, as many of the priests I know who want to be called by their last name are more likely to exercise their priestly authority in the parish. (Note that, unlike the secular media, I think this is a good thing). I have also noticed that it seems that it is was more common to call priests by their first name a decade ago than it is today. The majority still seem to go by their first name, but more and more priests – especially pastors – prefer to be called by their last name. Personally, I prefer to use a priest’s last name, as I think his position demands a certain level of respect. Every culture conveys a message with the titles they give to a person or office, and the priesthood is no different. I would not call the commander-in-chief “President Barack”, nor do I let my children call adults by their first name. Using a formal title represents that the person or office deserves respect.
Now I admit there are exceptions when it comes to priestly titles. For example, in the Franciscan tradition, it is most common for priests and brothers to just go by their first name. I respect this and keep to this practice with all the Franciscans I know. But when it comes to diocesan priests, I usually try to use a priest’s last name when referring to him. His office deserves respect (more respect than any office on earth, in fact), and this is a small way I am able to show that respect in my life.
In today’s world we tend to try to minimize most authority figures. This has led to fewer and fewer people being called by anything other than their first name. Even the CEOs of major companies are just called by their first name by their employees. But I always get a kick out of old movies when everyone calls each other by their last name, “Hello, Mr. Jones, how are you?” “I’m fine, Mr. Franklin. Great weather we are having, isn’t it?” Such a way of addressing each other seems foreign today, but it does convey an important social message about respect. Perhaps it is time we apply that to the titles we use for one of the most important jobs in the world: the holy priesthood.
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