Years ago, a man about to be ordained was told by an older priest, “The hardest thing you will find is to be called Father.”

The new priest found this was indeed true and he dropped the title, although doing so made some lay people uncomfortable.

One parishioner said calling a priest by his first name was sacrilegious. That attitude in itself seemed a very good reason for abandoning the word “Father.”

But in the context of the beauty of the Church, this was a small concern for me, and only recently has it re-emerged in a wise statement from John our cardinal.

His words raise awareness of the danger of dependency.

A priest may find himself isolated in the role of parent while the parishioners remain as children. There can be a general attitude of “What is Father going to do about us?”

Parishioners may passively worship the maps of Church teaching instead of travelling with those maps, on their own spiritual journey.

Another set of unhelpful terms  is “Shepherds” and “Sheep.”

Jesus Christ called himself the Shepherd. He told Peter to feed his sheep and lambs, but he did not call Peter a shepherd.

Earlier, he’d said to his disciples, “I send you out as sheep amongst wolves.”

I believe we are all sheep.

The general danger of titles, be they religious or secular, is that they create an “us and them” division in society.

An “us and them” division is certainly against all Jesus’ teachings.

In the world view, there is probably no right or wrong about wearing a title connected with an honour.

Some people are comfortable with that.

Others may appreciate the kindness of their country, but at the same time refuse to adopt a title that is going to erect a fence between them and their neighbours.

In the church, it can be natural if a young priest wants to be called “Father” as he feels his way into his vocation. However, when he has outgrown the need, he should feel free to let the title go.

If we comb through the gospels, we can collect dozens of sayings from Jesus that warn of the danger of titles and elevated positions.

Of himself, Jesus said to the man who called him Good Master, “Why do you call me good? No one is good, but God.”

To his disciples, he said, “ You shall call no man Father but your Father who is in Heaven.”

And again, “He who would be first must be last and the servant of all.”

Yes, I know we don’t worship words, and we hold the sayings of Jesus as parables that speak to the heart.

However, we do know what is important and everlasting in the Church, and what is superficial and man-made.

The latter will change.

How do we decide?

Perhaps we can be guided by the man in the Vatican who phoned a parishioner in another country.

His first words were, “Francis here.”

  • Joy Cowley is a wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and retreat facilitator.


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