Servant Fathers

Priests serve the Gospel and the people of God

Once upon a time, 1965 to be exact, a slim volume appeared with the title Everybody Calls Me Father. Its author was the anonymous Father X, a humble priest. (By the way, it’s still available.)

Now comes Cardinal John Dew, headlined as “New Zealand’s top Catholic,” who encouraged priests not to let people call them “Father.” Why so? “All I am trying to do,” he explained, “is get guys to look at what clericalism might look like and what attitudes might need to be changed.” John’s taking his own advice, too.

Ah, well. My professorial policy has been sharply different. In academia, I long insisted on calling priests “Father.” Why so? For two reasons. First, we should, in general, encourage long standing habits of respect—and probably develop some new habits as well. Second, quite frankly, I wanted to remind priests that, regardless of their academic accoutrements, they are first and foremost priests.

Let’s consider both reasons. On respect: many people, especially in secularized academic institutions, don’t have much respect for priests. Indeed, many people see them as more than a bit odd, as in “I wonder what’s really going on in his head?” Plus, across the board, the clerical abuse scandal continues to take a terrible toll in the courts of public opinion. “Clericalism” isn’t the problem, although anti-clericalism definitely is.

Regarding my second reason, wanting to remind priests that they are first and foremost priests: We are all of us, as St. Paul taught, to preach the word in season and out of season, when it is convenient and when it is not. Priests, moreover, have a distinct vocation with its own special demand that they do so. What they are to preach is the Gospel, which has a unique authority and is sharper than any two-edged sword.

Noting that society is increasingly egalitarian, Cardinal Dew (excuse me, John) tells us that most people already call him by his first name. Still, he notes, others are encumbered with “the attitude that I am the one in charge.”

Right. It’s a teaching moment, isn’t it? The Cardinal is the first teacher of the people, and he should teach them well. Plus, he is the first ecclesial authority, and he should lead well. He both teaches and leads well in serving the Gospel and the people of God.

(That said, odds are that the true “top Catholic” in New Zealand, contrary to the designation made by blaring headlines, is some humble and largely unknown person, quite possibly a cloistered religious or a harried mother.)

One news report quotes a public-relations specialist who doubts that the cardinal’s proposal will have much effect, at least not by itself. Media manager Deborah Read opines that “fixing the reputation of the Catholic Church is probably the most terrifying PR job on the planet.”

Well, Deborah (if I may), “the fix” will come in God’s good time, and those who bring it about will be men and women of courage. Some of them will be priests, and they will show us what’s at issue in being fathers. More of them, I suppose, will be laymen. And I bid them, and their fathers, “Happy Father’s Day.”


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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