A few thoughts on formality, informality, and clerical titles from Deacon James H. Toner in Crisis:
In the past few decades, a number of people contend, we have made great progress in no longer being stuffy and pompous. We have, for example, finally scrapped many of those old-fashioned titles. A cardinal may still be addressed as “Your Eminence,” but many clergy now use first names, with optional titles—as in the case of “Father Bob.” Many high school teachers and college professors have caught the spirit, too, using only their first names. Three cheers, it seems, for informality!
Except for more “exalted” positions (such as Cardinal, or President, or Colonel), we have largely lost, it is true, a certain “social distance” (except for standing in queues) which used to mark positions of authority. We celebrate this—mistakenly, in my judgment—by claiming that informality is a great good, and we are merrily abolishing many of the so-called stiff and stodgy titles of yesteryear. Even parents are sometimes referred to as “Marge” or “Fred” instead of “Mom” and “Dad.” And the priest who prefers “Father Smith” to “Father Bob”—or even just “Bob”—runs the risk of seeming to be unapproachable or anti-social.
In my own case, I was never addressed in the Army as “Captain Jim,” or as a college teacher as “Professor Jim,” or as a coach as “Coach Jim.” As a deacon, though, I have had to try hard and often to indicate that I much prefer “Deacon Toner” to “Deacon Jim.” It helps, I think, that I am old!In fact, this whole “name game” is a minor social revolution. When I was in high school about ninety years ago (that’s hyperbole, by the way), my Latin teacher was “Mr. Harrington,” not “Tom”; my pastor was Father Hoey, not “Father Richard”; and my basketball coach was “Mr. Costa,” not “Tony.” Had I ever called my Army drill sergeant by his first name, I would have done 200 push-ups (well, at least I would have been told to do that many).
Informality—excessive familiarity—toward God is, in fact, sacrilegious. That is, by the way, a compelling reason for retaining the devout language of thy and thou, which denote reverence because they are a distinctive manner of addressing Our Lord and Our Lady.
We should, and must, show respect for the sacred office of priest, and for him who is privileged to hold that office, by referring to him not as “Bob,” but as “Father Smith.” And Father Smith, for his part, should manfully request the use of the title of his sacred office, the responsibility for which is his…forever.
There is more. Read it all.
Speaking for myself, I’ve always used “Deacon Greg” rather than “Deacon Kandra,” in part because I hold a nostalgic affection for the religious who taught me: Sister Matthew, Sister Agnes, Sister Margaret and all the others. Their names acknowledged the communion of saints, who pray with us and for us, and I’d like to think maybe I can do that, too, by reminding people of the name given me by my parents. “Kandra” is just a Slovak surname. “Greg” — shortened, of course, from “Gregory” — evokes far more.
I remember my father joking when I was a little boy that I’d been named for a pope — and, of course, that particular pope was also a deacon. But the first-name practice also just seems to me appropriate for a member of clergy who lives among the people, works with them, shops with them, banks with them, prays with them, and deals with all the same vagaries of modern life (what the priest administrator at my parish likes to describe as “the public and common world.”) Long before I was ordained, I spent years on my knees in the same pews with my neighbors and I hope they see me, ultimately, as one of them (albeit, one who occasionally dresses differently and who sometimes requires that you shut up and listen to him for a few minutes on Sunday.)
That’s me. Your mileage may vary. To this day, some colleagues and parishioners will call me “Greg,” but most will just use “Deacon.”
But as I tell people who ask, “I’ll answer to anything. Even ‘Hey, moron.’ But usually, ‘Deacon Greg’ will do.”