More thoughts on calling priests “Father”

St. John Vianney

St. John Vianney, called the “Curé d’Ars,” patron saint of parish priests. (Parish priests are known as “curés” in French.)

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.

3 thoughts on “More thoughts on calling priests “Father”

  1. Pingback: Call no man your father? « The Lonely Pilgrim

  2. With all due respect, our only spiritual father is our heavenly Father. Jesus counseled against calling religous leaders by honorific titles that could cause them to be prideful and to be looked up to in a special way. Regarding a priest as a spiritual father, people look up to the priest in a special way and thus they do exactly what Jesus said not to do.

    • Hi, thanks for the comment. Sorry for my delay in replying.

      Did you my first post in this series — which addresses this Scripture in context more directly? Certainly, Jesus is warning against spiritual leaders being puffed up with vain titles. But he is speaking rhetorically and hyberbolically: this should not be taken as an absolute, legalistic prohibition on referring to anyone as a “father,” any more than it is a prohibition on referring to anyone as a “teacher.” Is not referring to your spiritual leader as a “pastor” — that is, the shepherd of your flock — a similarly paternalistic appellation? Do other Christians not also look up to their pastors in a special way as spiritual leaders — if not father figures? Aren’t we instructed by Paul to appoint bishops (“overseers”) and elders — and aren’t these also paternalistic titles and roles, positions that should be looked up to with respect and honor? And what is the alternative? Having no spiritual leaders — looking up to no one spiritually? I don’t think this is what Jesus intended at all. He was primarly speaking against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees: against they embracing such titles vainly and pridefully, rather that serving as spiritual father figures in diligence and humility.

      The peace of the Lord be with you.

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