Between reflecting on this on my own after my post last night, and having a chat with Kristen today, my more-seasoned-Catholic-convert and world-traveler friend, I’ve had a few more thoughts on calling priests “Father.”
We were both surprised by the claim that priests in the English-speaking world did not use the title “Father” until the nineteenth century, when they adopted the practice from Irish Catholic immigrants; that before, they were addressed as “Mister”; and that secular priests (i.e. in the world, not part of a religious order; diocesan priests) in non–English-speaking parts of the world are called by the equivalent “Mister,” “Monsieur,” “Don,” or the like. I still need to research the claim of Irish origins, but the rest of the claim, about non-anglophone priests, appears to on the level, after investigation.
In Latin, as several links I’ve found support, most authoritatively this one I just found from Jimmy Akin, priests are addressed not as “Pater,” but as “Dominus”: which becomes in the vernacular “Mister,” “Don,” etc.
From the Wikipedia page for “Don”:
Today in Italy, the title is widely given everywhere only to Diocesan Catholic priests, (never for prelates, who bear higher honorifics such as monsignore, eminenza and so on). Outside of the priesthood or old nobility, usage is now fairly uncommon in the south and rarely if ever used in central or northern Italy.
As for Germany, where Kristen is now, I found this link, which indicates that the standard form of address for a secular priest is “Hochwürden*,” the equivalent of the English “Reverend.”
*EDIT: Kristen says she has never seen this title; that it’s probably, as in English, a more formal title that is seldom used in addressing a priest personally. She says she hears “Pfarrer” most often — which googling and lookups in German dictionaries confirms is the appropriate word.
This brings up the other important thing Kristen and I realized: “Reverend” (or variations, depending on rank) is the formal title of Roman Catholic priests even here in the United States. On official diocesan parish directories, our priests are listed not as “Father” or “Fr.,” but as “Rev.”
And this makes firm my argument from last night. We call our priests “Father” not as an empty title, but as an honorific — not because it’s their formal title, but because they are our spiritual fathers, and honored members of our Christian family.