Some thoughts on calling priests “Father”

Recently a well respected (definitely by me) Presbyterian Elder wrote an article entitled “Maybe it’s time to reconsider calling priests ‘Father’” for the NCR (National Catholic Reporter). He had some good thoughts and insights. His article attracted the usual comments, many of them snarky and devoid of charity and respect. Needless to say, I share neither their attitudes nor their often dated and closed/limited theology. I do, however, have a few thoughts on this.

When I was ordained 50+ years ago I enjoyed being called “Father” and always wearing the collar, not to mention cassock and biretta. A few years later I went on active duty as an Army Chaplain, rarely wore the collar, learned to be called “Chaplain” and often being addressed just by my first name. While it took some getting used to, I liked it, and I still do. I spent most of my years as a priest on active duty or connected to the Army. For many of those years as well as after retirement, I have also been called by my street name and call sign, “Frog”, and I enjoy this a lot. It cuts through a lot of protocol. In the Army I had a responsibility just like everyone else in uniform, and “Chaplain” recognized that. I don’t have to be called by a special title to help folks however I can. Crawling through mud and being afraid is a great equalizer. I am on the same journey as everybody else, we are all equal, and we help each other. I have been Jim longer that I have been “Father”, and I have earned “Frog”. I like this. In other words, I agree with Bill.

I don’t think I will ever forget my first week on active duty in a basic training camp in Louisiana. My first night involved having a rifle pointed at me by a guard, being told to drop into the front leaning rest position, and ordered to produce an ID card which I didn’t have. The Thursday of that week I spent the day going through the gas chamber with the trainees. It was not an enjoyable experience. The purpose of the exercise was to show them how to use their gas mask and to trust their equipment and training.

That evening the trainees went through the live fire infiltration course in the dark. Again, not an enjoyable experience. All of us were terrified. Once I had crawled through the course, dodging real explosions and live ammo fired just over my head, I felt very relieved and very scared. One of the soldiers in charge of the training said, “Chaplain, were you afraid? There are some young soldiers out there terrified, and your place is with them, so go out and do your job”. I did for several hours. Being ontologically changed and called “Father” didn’t mean a lot, and obviously I was not wearing a collar (cleric clothes are hard to keep clean in this kind of environment). I did the same things every Thursday for the next six months.

I did everything my soldiers did, to include their training. Gradually I learned that my place was with my soldiers whatever they were doing. Years later in Viet Nam, the best Commanding Officer I ever had told me after I had chosen not to get involved and so had gotten several soldiers killed, “Chaplain, whatever affects your people in any way is your concern, and don’t forget it, get involved and do something to help”.

A number of the comments to the NCR article referred to the ontological change ordination effects in a priest. I don’t see it that way. IMHO the only change is the role a priest plays in the church system. It is an important role for the church, but does not involve a change on the level of being. A priest is a man before ordination, and a man after ordination – nothing changes but his mission. Hopefully in the not too distant future we will be saying the same thing about women.

Several comments talked about the power the priest has to change bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood. IMHO the priest has no power, only the mission to lead folks in prayer, and it is the the assembled praying believing community that makes Christ present in his Body and Blood. This is not magic, and the priest is not Harry Potter. It is an act of prayer and faith by a community gathered together for that purpose.

I agree with the Elder that using titles like we have for priests, bishops, etc, continues to reinforce the male only model of the church institution. There is always room for questioning and wondering. With the people doing the questioning these days, it is clear the Spirit is alive and well.

I have found that many good folks want to keep calling priests “Father” to reinforce their notion that priests are removed from real life, to keep priests on a pedestal, in other words to keep clericalism alive. Quite often there is a lot of baggage attached to this.

A few weeks ago I wore a suit and tie to a wedding. Somebody there said to me, “You look just like a real person”. Gee, I’d like to think I am a real person. As a retired priest I help out at nearby hospitals and hospices. I am available when needed, but I will come as I am, e.g. if I am doing cardiac rehab when the ER calls, I will come in my gym clothes. I hear a lot “you look just like a real person”. I have learned that not wearing black does open conversations with folks who for whatever reason do not want to talk with someone in clericals. Its not good or bad, it just is. IMHO I do not have to wear clericals or have a “title” to help people. There is a time and place for them, and it is not every time and every place.

Jesus called ordinary men and women to be his disciples. He did not ordain anybody, he formed a community of his friends who were willing to spend time with him and learn from him, and then he sent them out to live and learn the kingdom of God. The system/institution we know as church came later.

While we will always need folks to lead communities in prayer, I’m not sure we will always need a patriarchal clerical caste. Intentional Eucharistic Communities are doing well with this. IMHO the questions are being asked, and the situation is evolving. The Spirit is at work calling us forward, often kicking and screaming.

The Elder knows what he is talking about.

Just saying . . .

3 thoughts on “Some thoughts on calling priests “Father”

  1. Chaplain (Rabbi) S. Howard Schartz, US Army, Retired

    How enjoyable reading this commentary by my pal, chaplain, office mate, Jim Sheil has been this late evening, as I did my email. It read the same way that Ohio resident sounded when we worked together in a chapel in Mannheim, Germany. He was clear thinking, caring, genuine back then in the 1990s, l’m sure he is the same man now, sincere, ready to help anyone, generous, just a little older, as i am too. I look forward to a reunion someday!

  2. Chaplain (Rabbi) S. Howard Schartz, US Army, Retired

    What a clear expression of an honest priest’s feelings and convictions. He always taught a sound theology. God bless him!

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