Thursday, July 20, 2006

Goodbye, Father Joe and Father Mikey and Father Bob...

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Are we too chummy with our priests? What does this say about our - or his - view of the priesthood?

Am I the only American Catholic who is embarrassed when I hear my fellow parishioners refer to my parish priest as Father Mikey? Or are there lots of us out there who are similarly uneasy about this casual and -- to me -- impudent custom?

Obviously, the ragged state of the Church in the US at the present time -- especially caused by the sexual abuse scandals involving clergy and bishops -- underscores that discipline in the Church has become alarmingly lax. Something needs to be done.

I, as a simple parishioner, think there's a perfect way for the laity to begin: no more Father Joes and Father Mikeys.

Today with total strangers immediately calling each other by their first names, it is perhaps hard, off-hand, to recognize the dangers inherent in our extending this practice to our parish priests. "Aren't we just one happy family?" one might ask.

But the hazards are clear and present. Just as it is unsuitable to blur the distinction between parent and child, so too it is inappropriate to do so between priest and laity. Too much familiarity -- such as calling a priest by his Christian name (or nickname) -- obscures the important difference between the two.

For a priest is not just one of us. He is not our "buddy", colleague, or associate; he is not just a church employee who looks after parish affairs. More importantly, he is not some sort of master of ceremonies presiding over the Mass. He is something quite different and set apart. Unlike the rest of us, he has received the sacrament of Holy Orders, and through it he was given sacred powers from God. Only he can forgive sins; only he has the power to consecrate the host. He is the representative of Christ on earth; he acts in persona Christi Capitis.

And as such he should be treated with deference and in a manner that recognizes and preserves the solemnity of his position and priestly powers. We trivialize those powers when we speak to, or of him, too informally. We risk forgetting his special place and the fact that it is through him that the bread and wine that we offer to God are changed during the consecration into Christ's Body and Blood. No other member of the Church, no matter how holy the person is, has this power.

The need for this touch of formality is, I think, twofold. First, it would make it easier for us, the laity, to keep before our minds the fact that Christ acts through our priest. It would also help the priest himself to remember his special role -- not only at Mass, but at all times. For he cannot do just as he likes. He has, for one thing, taken vows before God. When we don't keep a reverential distance, when we continually treat him as our buddy, Father Mikey, we make it easier for him to lose sight of who he is as one set apart by solemn vows. And that is detrimental to him, to us and to the whole Church.


Karen Csengeri, Toledo, has published articles and book reviews in journals in the US and UK, and has taught literature and composition at Georgia State University and the University of Michigan.
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