The nature of Holy Orders is both collegial and personal. Collegially, all priests are addressed as “Father” because all share in the one priesthood of Jesus, icon of the Father. Personally, each priest retains his own individuality, his own personality–his own name and identity…
Recently a friend of mine who was a transitional deacon, soon to be ordained a priest–a completely faithful, orthodox man–confessed to me that, as a priest, he would prefer to be called by his Christian name, “Father Thomas,” rather than by his last name. I encouraged him, recalling that I have always considered it a pity that, in the United States, the usage is for diocesan priests to be addressed by their last names. From my ordination I chose to go by “Father Planty” both to be faithful to the tradition (which is, in fact, a national custom) and as a reaction to what I called the “Father Joe Cool priests” and their lay allies: “liberal” Catholics (not consistently faithful to the Church’s teachings and disciplines) who preferred to use “Father Joe” (or who would jettison the title of “Father” altogether and simply call the priest by his first name) as a way of blurring the necessary distinction between clergy and laity and so forcing a disordered equality and an inordinate familiarity. My friend the deacon’s wish has led me to suggest we reconsider the question of the name by which priests are addressed in light of the theology of names, in light of Church custom, and in light of the signs of the times and the New Evangelization.
I can only summarize here the rich–indeed, foundational–theology regarding the unity of name and identity found in Sacred Scripture and in Sacred Tradition. From the naming of Adam in Genesis through the new name given the victors in the book of Revelation, the inspired word of God makes clear that one’s name is one’s identity, and that a change in name (Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel, Simon to Peter, etc.) signifies a change in identity, in mission. The unity of name, identity and mission is especially revealed as true, of course, for God himself: in the Old Testament, which tells how God revealed his name as “I am who am,” 1 and who is merciful, faithful and generous; 2 and, in the New Testament, in the God-given name of the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus, “God saves” (“Jesus” being the Latin form of “Joshua,” the one who delivers his people to the Promised Land). While Jesus was addressed by certain titles which refer to his identity, such as “Rabbi” (“teacher”) and “Kyrios” (“lord,” “master,” “sir), he was most immediately and intimately addressed by his saving name, by both the needy (“Jesus…have pity on me!” 3 “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 4) and by the demons, who knew exactly who he was, and what he could do: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 5 The power of the name of Jesus over every evil is attested to by the miracles worked by the Apostles (“In the name of Jesus Christ … rise and walk!” 6) and has remained a constant in the lives of the saints throughout the history of the Church.
The importance of the unity of name and identity in the history of the Church’s living Sacred Tradition and custom extends to those who believe in Jesus and who are sacramentally consecrated to him by name–by a Christian name–in Baptism and in Confirmation. In addition, religious men and women traditionally receive a new Christian name, indicating their new identity and mission, when they consecrate themselves more intimately to Jesus by the profession of the evangelical counsels. The newly-elected Bishop of Rome, the successor of Simon-become-Peter, takes a new Christian name, again indicating a change in who he is and in what he does, in identity and in apostolate. In the celebration of the Mass, we pray for our Holy Father the Pope and for our local bishop using their Christian names.
What about secular or diocesan priests? They are not ordained by name, and they keep their baptismal, Christian names; from ancient times, what they customarily receive is a new title, symbolizing their new dignity: “Father.” Priests are addressed as “Father” because the Sacrament of Holy Orders bestows upon them a new, permanent character by which they are configured to Jesus–the image of the invisible Father–and they stand “in persona Christi capitis,” “in the person of Christ the head” of his family, the Church: as a biological father is the head of his natural family, the priest is the spiritual father of the family entrusted to his pastoral care. Indeed, the customary, familial title of “Father” used after ordination speaks of the priest’s new identity and mission.
Yet, the nature of Holy Orders is both collegial and personal. Collegially, all priests are addressed as “Father” because all share in the one priesthood of Jesus, icon of the Father. Personally, each priest retains his own individuality, his own personality–his own name and identity–and represents Jesus in the first person: “This is my body”; “I absolve you from your sins.” I who? Father who? Should not the priest–the diocesan priest, our spiritual fathers in our spiritual parish families–be addressed by their baptismal, by their Christian, by their first names, rather than by their family, or last names?
In fact, most of the Catholic world addresses their parish priests as “Father” followed by the priest’s first, baptismal, Christian name. In the United States we have the custom of referring to priests by their last names, I suspect because our mother tongue is English, and because so many Catholic immigrants came from Ireland, and the English and Irish tradition is to address priests by their last names. I also think it has something to do with our history as a minority religion and our struggle against bigotry and our fight for mainstream acceptance: addressing a priest by his last name confers upon him an air of seriousness and of professionalism which calls for a certain societal respect.
Indeed, we address professionals formally using their last names–“Doctor Smith,” “Lieutenant Jones,” “Senator Brown,” “Professor Miller”–and while priests should be professionally competent in theology, in liturgy, in pastoral counseling and even in parochial administration, they are not first and foremost functionaries. As Pope Francis–not “Pope Bergoglio”– said recently: “When the Church . . . sets up organizations, and sets up offices and becomes a bit bureaucratic, the Church loses its principal substance and runs the risk of turning itself into an NGO. And the Church is not an NGO. It is a love story.” 7 ) Yes, it is the story of a family in love with their Father, represented by his priests: his priests who are fundamentally spiritual fathers and not ecclesial bureaucrats, which is why we address them as “Father” and why, it seems to me, we should follow that spiritual title with their more spiritual names–their baptismal, Christian names–rather than with their family or professional names.
In addition, in an increasingly secular, technologically impersonal and ambitiously professional world, the spiritual intimacy of calling priests “Father” followed by their first, Christian name would, I believe, send a sign of approachability which would be effective in evangelization. My following the tradition of going by my last name for twenty years as a priest has not, I trust, impeded my ability to minister effectively; and, certainly, there are still those who insist on calling priests by their first names as a way of pushing a liberal agenda; but I believe that the “John Paul II generation” (and Benedict XVI and Francis generation) of seminarians and new priests with their balance of fidelity and affability, and the less institutional and more interpersonal, relational immediacy demanded by the New Evangelization, provide the conditions for–indeed favor–a change in custom. In fact, people–Catholics and non-Catholics alike–encountering young diocesan priests who on one hand are firmly faithful to the Church’s teachings and disciplines but who, on the other hand, warmly go by “Father” plus their first names would be, I think, disarmingly refreshing and engagingly appealing.
It is too late for me: to change practices now—to be called “Father Don” after having been known as “Father Planty” for twenty years—would create unnecessary confusion. Yet I wish it had not been so, and I encourage new and future diocesan priests to begin changing this alterable custom and to go by “Father” followed by their Christian name.
In any case, my friend who was a transitional deacon has now been ordained a priest of Jesus, and sent to a large suburban parish where he is already happily known as Father Thomas.