A Priest by Any Other Name

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.

  1. Exodus 3
  2. Exodus 33-34
  3. Lk 18: 38
  4. Lk 23:42
  5. Mk 1:24
  6. Acts 3:6
  7. Pope Francis, Homily for daily Mass, April 24, 2013
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avatar About Fr. Donald J. Planty, Jr., J.C.D.

Rev. Donald J. Planty, Jr., a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, is Pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Arlington, Virginia. He has also had experience in the Vatican diplomatic corps. He is a Doctor of Canon Law specializing in Church law and sacred architecture.

Comments

  1. Thank you, Fr. Planty, for this very insightful article. You summarized a lot of my own reasons for initially choosing to be known as “Fr. Totton” and also some of the misgivings I have about not using my baptismal name. As it is, there is a plethora of men named “Joseph” in my diocesan presbyterate, including 4 in my immediate geographic circle – most of whom go by “Fr. Joe”. Still, I appreciate your words here as they articulate a lot of my own thoughts on the matter. Blessings upon you. Fraternally, Fr. Joseph Totton

  2. Father,

    Excellent article. As a Franciscan, I was given a new name upon my entrance into Novitiate. I have bore the name John Paul for 9 years now. The Lord continues to confirm that through that name a new mission and purpose in my life was given. I was just ordained a priest less than a year ago, June 22nd 2013. I am still getting used to the title Father. I am still getting used to being a priest!! My whole life, my whole identity changed over night. I have a lot to learn. Perhaps when diocesan priests introduce themselves formally, such as at a school assembly or prayer meeting, they could introduce themselves with first and last name. Even a priest such as you, who has used “Father Planty” for all these years, could make a transition on small occasions like that and say “my name is Father Donald Planty.” Just a thought. Thanks for your article Father. I have met you up at Mt. St. Mary’s. I am a friend of Father Fredrick Miller.

    In Christ,

    Father John Paul Mary, MFVA
    Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word
    Irondale, Alabama

  3. avatar Deacon Ed Peitler says:

    First of all, you make the inference that Holy Orders is only about the priesthood. It is not. That is insulting to the Order of Deacons.

    Secondly, you refer to a “transitional diaconate.” There is no such thing. There is only one order of deacons. If a man who, on a path to the priesthood, is ordained deacon and stops the process for whatever reason at the diaconate, this so-called “transitional” deacon would be a “permanent” deacon unless he were to be laicized.

    I think the Orthodox and Easter Rite Catholic churches have a better understanding of ordained ministry than does the Roman rite. St Stephen pray for us.

    • avatar Bain Wellington says:

      You are being rather severe on the author of the article. It is true that there are only three orders in the Sacrament of Order, but the Code of Canon Law is comfortable in distinguishing between the permanent and the transitional diaconate (CIC, can.1035,1 : antequam quis ad diaconatum sive permanentem sive transeuntem promoveatur etc.). See also the terminology in canon 1031 which fixes different age requirements. So perhaps we can accept the practical distinction too.

  4. avatar Brendan J. McGuire says:

    Deacon Ed may be projecting his own preoccupations onto Fr. Planty’s article; unfortunately he is doing so in that contentious tone that is all too common on the internet. Cessent jurgia maligna, cessent lites, et in medio nostri sit Christus Jesus. Especially on Easter Sunday.

    Great article, Padre.

    • From my experience with deacons, deacon formation and the diaconate (as a lay man), I think that Deacon Ed may be speaking from experience as well as from theology. Although it is a generalization, and is not universally true, it is typically the case: the diaconate is not afforded the respect it deserves in this country.

      All this time after the restoration and renewal of the diaconate, still misconceptions and prejudices continue among many of the laity as well as clergy. I heard one priest-faculty member of a major seminary, in his homily, refer to the candidates for the permanent diaconate in the congregation, as “lay deacons.” Lay deacons? I remember that one event to this day because it characterized so well, an attitude that continues today in many parishes, in my experience. In a recent drive of prayer for “vocations,” for another example, the prayer was for vocations “to the priesthood and religious life”. Nothing about the diaconate – nothing about the lay vocation either, for that matter! The misconception continues that a “real” vocation, a “real” calling from Christ, is to the priesthood and/or (consecrated) religious life. That is wrong, and it hurts. There is much that could and ought to be said for the diaconate, but there is a dignity that ought to be recognized in every member of the Church. Clericalism that presumes “priesthood and the religious life” as defining a Christian vocation is missing something crucial.

      • avatar Brendan J. McGuire says:

        I agree with you, Mr. Richard. I just don’t think it’s fair to Fr. Planty to ignore all the insights in his article; after all, the article was not about the Diaconate.

  5. Great article, Fr. Planty…this is probably the best argument I’ve heard for calling a priest by “Father [first name]” that I have heard. Thank you!

  6. avatar Fr James Hudgins says:

    Thanks Fr Planty. Excellent, and very helpful. This summarizes my newly-ordained reasoning exactly, and provides a terrific defense of our national custom and an explanation of the international norm. And…although it is too late for us to suddenly switch names, a gradual switch could start anytime.

  7. I hope, and I pray, that priests are a million times more concerned with who they are before God, than with the name the people will call them. We need holy priests! This culture gets darker, more superficial, and more empty by the year – we Catholics need substantial, clear, vital, empowering formation in the treasure of divine Truth entrusted to His Church – that much more that the “friendliness” or formality of the local parish. We need to find an oasis with springs of living water – the desert outside is dry, dry indeed.

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