What should you call a priest when "Father" isn't an option?
November 15, 2011 2:45 PM   Subscribe

I work in a nominally Catholic institution with a resident priest. I'll be working with him next week on publicising the upcoming Christmas events. Most people refer to him Father (firstname). I don't feel comfortable with that - so what do I call him instead?

While the institution is traditionally Catholic and there is a chapel on site, the vast majority of students and staff are non-Catholic (with the largest group being completely non-religious according to a recent survey). The Catholic identity really only gets attention at Christmas. I, myself, am 100% completely non-religious. I find the idea of calling someone who is essentially a work colleague "father" really weird - it's just not an option I'm comfortable with. I want to be respectful, as I would want to be respectful to anyone I work with, and call him a name that makes him comfortable, but "father" is out of the question. I know he was recently made a Monsignor, should I call him that, or is it too formal for a work situation? What about Reverend? Should I just ask him?

He's definitely not the informal "call me John" sort of priest. He's very, very traditional, if that makes a difference.
posted by cilantro to Human Relations (86 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Refer to him *as*. Derp.
posted by cilantro at 2:46 PM on November 15, 2011

I don't see a reason why you can't just call him "Sir" (this of course depends on your/his age).

Normal, socially acceptable, and non-offensive.
posted by Shouraku at 2:49 PM on November 15, 2011

I don't know how accurate this is, but it looks like you can call him Reverend John without being offensive.
posted by jabes at 2:49 PM on November 15, 2011

I know he was recently made a Monsignor, should I call him that, or is it too formal for a work situation?

If "father" (understandably) bothers you, then are you sure you'd be happier using "my lord?"

Reverend or pastor would work, but I think simply "sir" is the best, most-neutral honorific, since you are non-religious rather than simply non-Catholic.
posted by jedicus at 2:51 PM on November 15, 2011

I think you should reconsider whether your "comfort" with a traditional form of address is decisive when it is a job within a "very traditional" institution. You chose to accept the job; in doing so, you chose to follow the traditions.

That being said, you might get away with calling him Monsignor, although I'm baffled about why you think that's less weird.
posted by jayder at 2:51 PM on November 15, 2011 [15 favorites]

Don't Catholic priests dislike the use of "Reverend" as a form of address? I think they only use it as a sort of honorific: "The Reverend So-and-So" That may be an outdated point of etiquette, though.
posted by thelonius at 2:51 PM on November 15, 2011

It's a title, like "Dr." or "Professor". You may be uncomfortable with it, but he worked hard to earn to his title and it's a matter of respect. I'm not sure there's a way around this, you either call him "Father" or you use his first name, or "Mr", which I'm sure will lead to uncomfortable questions, anyway.

You admit above that your reluctance is almost purely religious/spiritual (or lack thereof). So the title shouldn't have any real resonance. Just frame it in terms of respect, swallow your pride and move on with the good work.
posted by GilloD at 2:51 PM on November 15, 2011 [44 favorites]


like Col. Potter
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:53 PM on November 15, 2011 [5 favorites]

Traditionally, you address a Monsignor as "Monsignor." So you can do that. Or, you can treat him as you would treat any other human being, and ask him what how he'd like to be addressed, then respect his wishes.
posted by HotToddy at 2:53 PM on November 15, 2011 [13 favorites]

I'd be surprised if you couldn't get away with not calling him anything while interacting with him. Maybe your style is to pepper a person's name into conversation when you're speaking with them, but it's definitely not necessary. (I've gone about 20 years without calling my stepmom *anything* while interacting with her. She's far too much my mom for me to use her first name, but I never felt quite right calling her "mom" either. Yes, I know I've got issues here. Point is, it can be done.)
posted by the jam at 2:54 PM on November 15, 2011 [19 favorites]

I don't understand how "Father" would be different from either "Monsignor" or "Reverend". I don't suppose you could call him just by his last name? I'd probably just avoid it and use Father when I had to.
posted by dawkins_7 at 2:54 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

You could call him "Monsignor Soandso," but this title essentially means "my lord" or "my holiness" or something along those lines, which may hold the same problems for you. For a catholic priest, "reverend" would not fly. "Father" is the proper title, so much else would seem odd/disrespectful and likely won't helP you out. I would go with "Monsignor," or the other popular option of awkwardly avoiding saying his name for as long as possible (I've done this). Good luck!
posted by Nightman at 2:55 PM on November 15, 2011


That just means "Father" in Spanish. Not exactly an alternative.
posted by muddgirl at 2:57 PM on November 15, 2011

you might get away with calling him Monsignor, although I'm baffled about why you think that's less weird

Yeah, I didn't think about it in terms of the literal translation, I just thought of it as a professional title like Professor or Doctor.
posted by cilantro at 2:59 PM on November 15, 2011

Raised Catholic, I wouldn't use Reverend unless I knew that the person was okay with it. Father is just a title, nothing more.
(and I'd suggest he's a little informal if people call him Father [firstname], I grew up with Father [lastname])
posted by platypus of the universe at 3:01 PM on November 15, 2011 [6 favorites]

Father can be a professional title just like Professor or Doctor. It's probably a title he earned by going to school, just like a PHD, MD, or DDS.

I'm not Catholic, so I don't know for sure.
posted by TooFewShoes at 3:01 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just thought of it as a professional title like Professor or Doctor.

Yeah, but "Father" is also a professional title like Professor or Doctor.
posted by Justinian at 3:06 PM on November 15, 2011 [13 favorites]

You shouldn't really call a regular priest Monsignor unless he has actually been granted the honorific by the pope. Check out Wikipedia. I've only met one actual Monsignor,If I had called my priest Monsignor his reaction would have been not good.
posted by Ad hominem at 3:07 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

FWIW when it comes to talking about someone in the third person (or writing them a formal email, memo etc) when I'm unsure about an honorific, or uncomfortable with a specific honorific, I refer to them as Firstname Lastname. I was told once this was Quaker tradition and I secretly enjoy the equalising aspect of it, but the main point is it has never caused me any problems.

Of course this would be pretty odd if used in day-to-day direct interactions with the person. I'm not suggesting that.
posted by oliverburkeman at 3:09 PM on November 15, 2011

Is "Brother" out? All the monks who taught me (as a Jew in a Xaverian Catholic high school) went by "Brother", with their first or last name tacked on at their preference.
posted by not_on_display at 3:09 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Reverend" might suffice, especially for a non Catholic. "Monsignor" should, also, though both might be a bit formal. It might call attention to your discomfort about the issue.

Perhaps you should keep in mind that this is your hangup, not his. "Father" is a perfectly acceptable title for a RC priest. Like "Brother soandso" or "Sister suchandsuch" might be for other non priests leading a consecrated life in their RC faith. These things are just titles and have no magical meaning, even for Catholics. If you're really bothered by it, you can ask him to suggest an acceptable alternate way to address him.
posted by 2N2222 at 3:10 PM on November 15, 2011

I don't like titles in general and titles for men and women religious would be a very vexed question for me. I'm not sure how I'd resolve it, personally. I believe the correct form of spoken address for monsignors is "Monsignor (Lastname)" so you could go with this, if you feel more comfortable with it. Of course, he could come back with "Oh, please, call me 'Father (Firstname)" in which case you can just avoid calling him anything.
posted by Morrigan at 3:11 PM on November 15, 2011

Traditionally, you address a Monsignor as "Monsignor." So you can do that.

Conventionally, monsignors and even canons often still get called "Father" by parishioners who aren't too fussed about the Vatican sub-bishop rankings system. "Reverend" is usually ill-fitting in a Catholic context: it's more of letterhead/formal-letter address.

Perhaps watching Father Ted might help with the discomfort? I don't mean to be flippant here: my point is that for most Catholics, there's no conscious paternal whatnot with the usage, and I'm not sure if any of the alternatives are going to be any less uncomfortable for you in this particular situation.
posted by holgate at 3:13 PM on November 15, 2011

Yep, he's a real Monsignor, newly minted. He's kind of a big deal in priestly terms, I guess. Is Father really a professional title? I seriously thought it was a paternal sort of familiar address. Sort of like how you call your mom's brother Uncle Bob instead of just Bob to be respectful. If it is the right thing to call him, I'll probably just pull the not-calling-him-anything as much as possible and go with Father when absolutely necessary.
posted by cilantro at 3:14 PM on November 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

Its what you call a priest. Father is the way you do it. If someone had a name, wouldn't you call them by what they wish to be called by?
posted by Ironmouth at 3:14 PM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Why not just "Mr Lastname"? Seems like a good default in our world of inconsistent professional salutations.
posted by mullacc at 3:15 PM on November 15, 2011

One other possibility: does he teach any courses or have an academic title? Then you could consider using Doctor, Professor, or whatever.
posted by jedicus at 3:16 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ask him if he's okay being called Monsignor if you're deeply uncomfortable using "Father". As platypus of the universe points out, a priest going by "Father [firstname]" is more informal, and he may prefer not to use the title Monsignor, except in formal church settings.

In my experience, thelonius, GilloD and Nightman are correct. Catholic priests may be formally referred to as "The Reverend [name]", but are not directly addressed as Reverend [name] (though these days most probably would not take offense if addressed as "Reverend [name]" by someone with no knowledge of the Catholic tradition). "Father" functions effectively as a title, earned by completing seminary, as a Doctor of Philosophy earns a title by completing a PhD. "Pastor" is not commonly used as a title in the Catholic Church (in my experience, anyway), though it is used to indicate that a particular priest is the head of a parish (but there are numerous priests who do not have parish affiliations, so a priest is not necessarily a pastor). "Brother" tends to be a form of addressed reserved to specific (usually monastic) religious orders.
posted by EvaDestruction at 3:17 PM on November 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

Call a priest "Father (last name) or else ask how he prefers to be addressed. Monsignor is a superior designation and if he is a monsignor, should be so addressed. If a foreign dignitary who had a title which was meaningless to you nevertheless preferred to be addressed in what he considered a proper fashion, would you simply refuse? I don't believe etiquette is entirely forbidden, outdated though it surely must be. Perhaps only the people who work in the diplomatic corps still consider proper address useful.

This is absolutely a "these children nowadays comment" but I am entitled.
posted by Anitanola at 3:19 PM on November 15, 2011 [5 favorites]

Or, you can treat him as you would treat any other human being, and ask him what how he'd like to be addressed, then respect his wishes.

I'd echo HotToddy here. I'm a semi-practicing Catholic, and I'd say chances are 50-50 in the U.S. in 2011 that dude is going to tell you to just call him by his first name, particularly since you aren't a religious person. And since you're going to be working as colleagues.
posted by kensington314 at 3:19 PM on November 15, 2011

Calling someone "Father Smith" is absolutely like calling someone "Doctor Smith". I would be surprised if most of his mail was not addressed to "Fr. Joe Smith".
posted by the jam at 3:20 PM on November 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

I also agree with those who tell you to avoid "Reverend" or "Pastor." Both of those would make it sound like you don't understand that he's a Catholic priest, since they are both technical titles but not titles that are used as "names" in the sense we think.

Also regarding "pastor," it sounds like he is not a parish priest, and in that case I think the term might actually be incorrect.
posted by kensington314 at 3:23 PM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Father to a Catholic priest is effectively his professional title, much like Rabbi for a... well.. Rabbi. Since he's newly earned a title, ask him how he would prefer to be addressed, and go with that. Likely, as you two become acquainted over time, he may eventually be fine with you calling him by his first name (and might be comfortable from the get go), but the key is that you address him as he deserves (by professional training, even if it is religious) to be addressed.
posted by canine epigram at 3:23 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Father is totally a professional title. Mormon (in Irish Catholic Ohio) here, and I call Catholic priests Father so-and-so and nuns Sister so-and-so because that's their title. It's exactly like calling the Mayor I didn't vote for Mayor so-and-so, and military officers I don't report to Captain so-and-so or Major so-and-so, really.
posted by SMPA at 3:23 PM on November 15, 2011 [13 favorites]

Is Father really a professional title? I seriously thought it was a paternal sort of familiar address.

It's more or less a professional title, I think, in practical terms. He doesn't think he's everyone's father, for example.
posted by kensington314 at 3:24 PM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm thinking "Father Lastname" is the way to go if I want to be respectful but avoid the aspect of this that makes me uncomfortable, namely, the familiar, paternalistic relationship implied by "Father Firstname".

Thanks for all the answers, this is really interesting! I see myself falling into a Wikipedia rabbit hole about the Catholic hierarchy in the near future.
posted by cilantro at 3:27 PM on November 15, 2011

Is Father really a professional title? I

Yes. Just like Doctor, Professor, Constable, Sergeant, Prime Minister, Governor, Matron, General, etc.
posted by goshling at 3:28 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I didn't realize the first name part was so much of what is creeping you out here.

Seriously, consider just laying it out and asking him what he prefers to be called by a non-religious non-Catholic. I think a lot of the time, Catholic priests go by Father Firstname because it sounds friendlier and less formal - I've really only ever heard a Monsignor go by their last name. He may really dislike "Father Lastname" and prefer first name only.

It won't be the first time he's gotten the question, and frankly if you choose to become a Catholic priest you have to get used to getting a whole slew of really basic questions from non-Catholics.
posted by kensington314 at 3:32 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just do what you'd do with anyone else whose name/title/preferred form of address you're unsure of: ask him!
posted by caek at 3:33 PM on November 15, 2011

This isn't about what you feel comfy with. It's about how you address a professional in the workplace. Get over it. Call him what everyone else does.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:33 PM on November 15, 2011 [6 favorites]

I admit that I don't really get the big deal about it (and I'm an atheist), but I think Father LastName is fine, or Sir.
posted by sm1tten at 3:39 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

If he is a monsignor, he totally earned that title, as well, and it outranks father. Address (speak to him) as "Monsignor Lastname" and style (write) "The Reverend Monsignor Lastmame."
posted by Anitanola at 3:42 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

This isn't about what you feel comfy with. It's about how you address a professional in the workplace. Get over it. Call him what everyone else does.

Honorifics define a specific relationship between the user and the addressee. It might well be strategic, from a career viewpoint, to get over this, but equally, there's nothing universally accepted or objectively correct about the idea that "a person gets to be called whatever they want to be called". Bit surprised by the people here acting like that's just obviously a given.
posted by oliverburkeman at 3:43 PM on November 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

As a non-Catholic, I just want to chime in and say that I'd also be uncomfortable using the term "Father" as a professional title, because to me it implies a sort of relationality that titles like Doctor and Professor don't-- you can be a doctor without patients or a professor without students, while you can't, in the vernacular, be a father without children or a parish. Becoming a doctor or a profesor is a change in you, while becoming a father (in either sense) is a a change in your relationship to other people (either you have produced a child, or you have taken over a parish). For me, using that term would be implying that I am one of the people with whom you exist in that relationship. Calling someone a professor doesn't mean they're my professor, just that they are one. Whereas (not being Catholic), if I called someone "father," it'd be because they were my dad.

It's clear from the answers above that the term works differently within the Catholic tradition, and maybe it's easier to just do the polite thing when you encounter this man. I provide the lengthy explanation above only because I was surprised by how many people in this thread were confused as to why you'd be uncomfortable with the term.
posted by dizziest at 3:44 PM on November 15, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'd not do Father Lastname if he never goes by that. You'd also risk something like "why are you calling me that? Just call me Father Firstname!". If he's the only priest around a generic "Father" would suffice. But a generic "Monsignor" or specific "Monsignor Lastname" might work better for you. The etymology of monsignor may mean "my lord" but I can imagine that it feels different to say that anyway. I also think it is even more respectful than Father, so win-win. If all this doesn't work for you, I'd suggest avoiding the issue indeed. Of course you could always go with Mr or Sir, but it would make you look somewhat weird with the religious people I know. They honestly never get called that, unless by people who are totally clueless about the religion. They wouldn't be offended, but it would be strange. Of course your situation may vary.
posted by davar at 3:45 PM on November 15, 2011

Dizziest, I think there is merit to your overall assessment, but you can, in fact, be a father without a parish. Lots of priests are not parish priests. So I think that's one place where your argument falls off a bit. You can be "doctor" without patients, just as you can be "father" without a parish.
posted by kensington314 at 3:50 PM on November 15, 2011

Thanks, kensington314, for the correction! As I was writing it, I feared that that might be the case. I still think this discomfort has a lot to do with the way we think of fatherhood in the vernacular as something relational, and perhaps my mistake simply illustrates how much this is the case for non-Catholics? Because you still can't be a father without kids, outside of that context. It's one of the few professional titles that's so explicitly a metaphor and perhaps that's part of the problem too-- it's harder to extricate ourselves from the implications of metaphor when we're outside of the community that uses the title, while it's harder for those in the community to see it as a metaphor.
posted by dizziest at 3:55 PM on November 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

dizziest: "while you can't, in the vernacular, be a father without children or a parish."

I'm not sure what you mean here by "in the vernacular", but any man who has been ordained as a priest can be called "Father", whether he leads a parish or not.

My cousin was ordained a Catholic priest. Before the ceremony, he was "George." After the ceremony, outside the cathedral, he was "Father George." (He's still just plain old "George" at family get-togethers.)
posted by SuperSquirrel at 4:00 PM on November 15, 2011

Agreed, I think that's a lot of what's at work here.
posted by kensington314 at 4:00 PM on November 15, 2011

I go to some meetings with staff at an OSF hospital and everybody just calls the priests "Father Lastname" and the nuns that apparently run it "The Sisters." They say it like you say "Mr. Smith" or "John" -- no significance whatsoever. I think that you could probably ask this priest if you could call him "Mr. Smith" or whatever you like, and he would let you know what he'd prefer. They can be pretty direct without being awkward, even when they're a bit stuffy as this one seems he might be.
posted by michaelh at 4:12 PM on November 15, 2011

My secular college had a friar on the faculty and he was Brother Robert to everybody. There was nobody else we ever would have called by their first name, but that was his title and preferred form of address.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:25 PM on November 15, 2011

It seems very selfish and disrespectful, to me, to not call someone by their preferred form of address. I suppose if you really want to take a stand about it, the polite thing to do would be to take him aside at some point and say, "I'm sorry, but because of my personal convictions, I am uncomfortable calling you Father John. Is there something else I could call you that would be OK?"

If someone else at work asked to be called by a silly nickname (Chip, or Coach, or Happy or something), you would do that out of respect, right? You might not enjoy it, but it's their name, their choice, isn't it?
posted by Rock Steady at 5:01 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

My belief system would normally prohibit the title "father', but honestly, it's just a title, and while I would rather call him "Mister so and so" or "Sir", if he insisted on the title and it would offend others if you didn't use that title, I don't see the harm in it, especially if you don't really believe he's "Father" worthy. I would simply ask him what he prefers, and perhaps as a concession you could address him that way only in the presence of others or when referring to him, like on the phone.
posted by brownrd at 5:06 PM on November 15, 2011

Non-religious, been working as a church musician for about 15 years now. I call Catholic priests "Father Lastname". If he's a Monsignor, then I use the title. (Every Monsignor I've known was VERY traditional, significantly older than me, and made it a point to use that title. YMMV, but it's a pretty Big Thing for Catholic priests.)

FWIW, I've never heard anyone go by Monsignor Firstname. Always Monsignor Lastname. So, that title may be a double win for you not liking "Father" or using his first name.
posted by Wossname at 5:11 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Recovering Catholic here, and very agnostic. In the pugilistic early days of my non-belief, I'd really be tormented by this conundrum which I'd have solved by not working for a nominally religious institution in the first place. But these days, and given employment in a religious institution, I'd just ask him how he prefers to be called and leave it at that. And call him that out of politeness or respect for his achievements, regardless of whether you agree with him on matters of theology and metaphysics. Calling him by his title is polite, harms no one, and simply recognizes his position in some institution, just as a military rank might. Your recognition doesn't in any way imply agreement with his religion or membership in it, if that's what you're worried about.
posted by Hylas at 5:14 PM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

In the RCC diocesan hierarchy, from the top (oversimplifying, of course):
- the pope is elected from the college of cardinals,
- cardinals are named from the pool of archbishops,
- archbishops are promoted from all the bishops within the country,
- bishops are chosen from the group of monsignors,
- monsignors are plucked from the ranks of diocesan priests.
Diocesan priests are ordained by bishops (known as the sacrament of holy orders) and they are assigned by the bishop to be parish pastors and also minister in other ways, including serving as administrators. Every step of this hierarchy takes years of work, you might say devotion, just like any career. (As an aside, recently there has been a furor because a bishop or two took it upon themselves to ordain some women as priests. They've excommunicated the lot of them, I think, but it caused quite a stir. There are feminists in convents, apparently. There is an international association of women priests.)

There are separate cadres of priests, those who belong to orders such as the Franciscans, Benedictines, etc. Some orders have both priests and monks, some have mainly monks (brothers, or friars). Orders usually have particular kinds of vocations (Jesuits, for example, are scholars and missionaries traditionally) and some orders take vows of silence and are cloistered in monasteries (watch the movie Into Great Silence about the Carthusians who make Chartreuse liquor and include non-monastic workers as well as monks who are scholars and artists within their walls.) Generally speaking and, again, if they speak, monks are addressed and styled "Brother Firstname" where firstname is the name they choose when they enter the monastery.

This is interesting historically and culturally to me quite apart from my views about religion.
posted by Anitanola at 5:48 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

To all the people who don't get what's the big deal about calling him Fr. Joe;

I am only semi-religious, and am assuredly not Tibetan Buddhist, but when I lived with Tibetans for a couple months in India you better bet every time I even referred to the Dali Lama it was "His Holiness" and used "Your Holiness" when talking to other Rinpoche. I get using the proper honorifics. But the honorific used for catholic priests gets some authoritative cache by piggybacking off a much higher (for me at least) and universal relationship, that between a man and his son.

I'm easy going so I'd probably just say Father Joe, but part of me does kinda buck and say "So, Reverend Smith, I know you're trying to be casual but I already have one father, his name is Leroy, and he's more important to me than anyone at work no matter how hard they've studied, so I'd rather not address another by that title."

An analogous example may be Laura Schlessinger (sorry, couldn't think of someone who wasn't a jerk very easily, of course I give priests more respect than radio personalities), who definitely earned the title Doctor in the sense that she completed a Ph. D in physiology, but given that in the context she uses "doctor," it has borrowed cache since, in fact, she doesn't have a terminal degree in counseling or psychiatry. She may be a doctor but she is most assuredly not 'your doctor.'

There are other reasons I could think of why someone would not like to use the title "Father." Perhaps someone had a terrible dad? Perhaps their father is terminally ill? I feel really the motivation isn't related to a lack or respect for catholic honorifics (if one is willing to use monsignour, one doesn't have a chip on his or her shoulder about religion, methinks) then motivation isn't important.
posted by midmarch snowman at 5:56 PM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

"Is "Brother" out? All the monks who taught me (as a Jew in a Xaverian Catholic high school) went by "Brother", with their first or last name tacked on at their preference."

Brother is totally out, it is exactly appropriate for friars or monks but would be like calling a "professor" "captain" in terms of non-sequitor-ish misnomer for a priest, much less a monsignor.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:07 PM on November 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

Maybe an analogous example could be the head of an order of nuns, say Mother Teresa. We all have a mother and mine is certainly as sacred as anything has ever been in my life but I see no conflict or disrespect with addressing the leader of a convent, "Mother.'

Does it matter if the gender is changed?
posted by Anitanola at 6:09 PM on November 15, 2011

Does it matter to the argument by analogy if the gender is changed?
posted by Anitanola at 6:11 PM on November 15, 2011

Ms. Vegetable was raised Catholic, hung out with the priests, taught at Catholic school, went to Catholic school, blah blah blah.

Father LastName is appropriate. Monsignor LastName is appropriate in this case. Reverend, Pastor, Brother, and the likes are not.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:29 PM on November 15, 2011

Choice of honorific has nothing to do with the other person. The person in question has dedicated a large chunk of his life studying and dedicating himself to his vocation and has therefore earned the right to be called Father if he chooses. It is not your choice.

This is exactly analogous to a doctor or a professor. Unless they have told you otherwise, it is incredibly rude to not use their earned title. I know several doctors that I have a low opinion of, but I would always call them doctor unless they have told me otherwise.
posted by dantodd at 6:49 PM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Your location counts here. In Australia, in universities, even the most high ranking official is addressed by their first name. It is not uncommon for religious folk to be comfortable with not having their honorific used, when they are in a collegial position.
posted by b33j at 7:01 PM on November 15, 2011

There are feminists in convents, apparently.

Absolutely, and they've been there as long as there have been convents!

Some orders stress, practically require, use of the first name, notably the Franciscans. If he is a Franciscan (of any of the varieties thereof), then "Fr. Lastname" will sound strange to all. I know there are other orders that do this, but I can't think of them now.
posted by jgirl at 7:09 PM on November 15, 2011

Mr. Meat takes the opposite view from Ms. Veg. I've addressed a wide variety of people with professional honorifics as Mr. X and nobody got bent out of shape. When I'm not acting in my professional capacity I don't expect people to use the title and have frequently been called Mr. Meat without taking offense.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:15 PM on November 15, 2011

The respectful thing to do is to ask how he wishes to be addressed and work toward a compromise that suits you both. If he's in a university setting with a student body that is mostly non-Catholic, I doubt this will be the first time he's been asked or had someone who felt awkward about using the title "Father." Calling him something other than what he prefers to be called is rude and, as others have noted, Father LastName may be inappropriate if he's a member of an order that does not use surnames. Avoiding using any name at all seems rather immature.
posted by weebil at 8:09 PM on November 15, 2011

To me, your statements that "he's very, very traditional" and "he's not informal" are inconsistent with the fact that everyone calls him "Father (firstname)". The priests that I've known who are 'very, very traditional' have invariably been addressed as "Father (lastname)". So, I'm wondering if your perception is a bit off here, somehow. Also, I find it hard to believe that someone who currently is known by "Father (firstname)" would want to be called "Monsignor (lastname)", but whatever...
As others have mentioned "Father" is a typical title for a RC priest, and is the correct form of address (where Reverend, Pastor, and for that matter Vicar are not). Whether it's "Father (firstname)" or "Father (lastname)" is a matter of personal preference and/or organizational culture.
As someone who grew up Catholic, I never gave the title "Father" much thought. That's just what you call priests, and there's absolutely no confusion or even suggestion that this person "takes the place of" or in any way approximates one's biological father. It's strictly metaphorical, and not "paternalistic" or familiar in the sense that you cite (as in, addressing a family friend who is your parent's age "uncle"). However, reading some of the responses above, I can see how for someone not raised in the RC culture, it could seem weird, off-putting, or just plain wrong. Go figure.
In the end, I agree with others here. "Father" is an appropriate title for him, and if you can work your mind around seeing it as such, that's what you should call him (maybe pretend "Father" is a foreign word, from some other culture? In this context that's in essence what it is...). If you're truly unable to get over it, talk to him about your unease, and ask what he would suggest as a good alternative.
posted by msbubbaclees at 8:25 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Weebil, I doubt very much that avoiding any name at all will seem like anything. How often do you realistically say someone's name in casual conversation? At least where I am, names are used so infrequently that when my partner says "Meghan, I really don't care," I know without a doubt that he's at best exasperated and at worst actively angry.

I'm shocked by the number of people here who are saying that you must always call a doctor by Doctor [whatever], or a priest by Father [whatever]. Their studies have earned them the right to be given that as a professional title, and to call themselves by those names. Those studies have not earned them the right to demand that other people address them by [title + name] at all times, especially if it the other people discomfort to do so, nor do those studies somehow mandate that people defer to them in this manner.
posted by MeghanC at 8:35 PM on November 15, 2011

I wouldn't call him Father. I think the church just hijacked the term to assume a authority position over people. It's designed to place the laity in a subordinate position and remind them constantly of that fact. As a representative of an organization whose sole purpose is its own propagation and maintenance of power through exploiting peoples beliefs I see little reason to show it or him any respect. I think the term is clearly different from professional honorifics like Dr. or Matron which carry no connotation of assumed superiority.

But of course I don't have many reasons to talk to priests and go out of my way to avoid them. If I were in your position and could not avoid the situation I would find it extremely uncomfortable but I would just call him by his first name. I realize my opinion might be a bit extreme, but I see calling a priest Father as submitting to the scum - so I'd walk out of a job before doing it.
posted by Long Way To Go at 8:48 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Or, you can treat him as you would treat any other human being, and ask him what how he'd like to be addressed, then respect his wishes.

I agree. I work in a conservative Catholic place. The priests around me prefer to go by their first names. Just ask. Generally they have a great sense of humor about things like this.

(I'm no longer a practicing Catholic, but I call them Father First Name, out of respect... even though that goes against their wishes and I'm disgusted with the church...)
posted by vincele at 9:00 PM on November 15, 2011

Huh, interesting question. Former Catholic here (for about 20 years), now agnostic/atheist.

Just as a datapoint, I'd never considered "Father" as anything but a title, and honestly until just this moment never really realized the namespace collision with "father" in the familial role. This was probably due to acquiring language while in a church environment (many times a week) and seeing Fr. Janelli, Fr. Scott, and so on all the time.

If it helps, think of "Father" and "father" as homonyms, in the same way that "Doctor (as in medical)" and "Doctor (as in PhD)" are. At least, that's how it's been wired into my brain.
posted by losvedir at 9:40 PM on November 15, 2011 [5 favorites]

I agree with all those who point out that Fr. is a title, like any other title, and also with those who nix Brother, Pastor, and Reverend. Those last three are as appropriate as Rabbi.

If you are not comfortable calling him Father Firstname, call him whatever you feel most comfortable with. Then when/if he corrects you, the only polite thing to do is respect the correction. If you can't choke out Fr. Firstname, I would go with Mr. Lastname. I, personally, think it's incorrect (factually and in terms of etiquette) but at least it's totally neutral.

Sir is also a good option, since it works in a sort of pronoun way with Father, Mister, Doctor, Professor, Monsignor, etc. You can say Sir with Mister in your heart, and he'll hear it as Father anyway, and, presumably, not be offended. (Although it, too, is derived from Lord.)
posted by looli at 9:52 PM on November 15, 2011

Say, Fadder Firstname. No one will know the difference and you can sleep at night.
posted by mazola at 9:56 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

MeghanC, I'm going from my own experience in a work environment where I have to use people's names regularly, both addressing them directly and speaking about them to others. Avoiding using someone's name would be very strange in any setting I've ever worked in. I agree with you that casual conversation is different, but we're talking about work.
posted by weebil at 10:01 PM on November 15, 2011

Imagine if you were in a foreign country. Imagine if you met a tribal elder who is referred to by all in the tribe as the All-Wise So-and-So. Would you call him by his name and title, or would you make a point over the fact that you, as an outsider, don't actually buy into that tribe's belief system? Would your answer change if you had a working relationship with this tribe, and that other people were counting on you to be diplomatic and respectful?
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:32 PM on November 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

Honestly, ask him what he prefers to be called. I belong to a lay religious community, and we call the priests in it by their first name most of the time, as they prefer to be called that... i've worked with a monsignor and he preferred father, i worked with another they preferred monsignor.... I'd just ask him what he prefers, if it's monsignor, go for it...
posted by fozzie33 at 4:47 AM on November 16, 2011

Some orders stress, practically require, use of the first name, notably the Franciscans. If he is a Franciscan (of any of the varieties thereof), then "Fr. Lastname" will sound strange to all. I know there are other orders that do this, but I can't think of them now.

In English speaking countries, religious priests (those who belong to religious orders) often use their first names and secular priests (those who were priests of a diocese, rather than a religious order) often went by their last names. So if you had two priests named "Joe Smith," a franciscan would be "Fr. Joe" and a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn "Fr. Smith." Often priests who join a religious order receive a religious (first) name. This is less common than it was 50 years ago, but more common than it was 15 years ago.

But this is a fairly recent (19th or 20th century) rule. Before that, only religious priests were called "Father" and secular priests were addressed as "Mister Smith" or "Sir." You still see this in other languages, such as French, where secular priests are "Monsieur l'Abbé" or "Monsieur le Curé" and only religious priests are "Père."

The idea of using "Reverend" by itself in direct address is a new one even for Protestants. If you look at the 1922 Emily Post, you'll see that the man who was "The Reverend George Saintly" on an envelope is, in direct address, "Mr. Saintly."

As for this particular priest, if you prefer Monsignor to Father, I'd just call him "Monsignor" without asking what he prefers, since he might say "Just call me 'Joe,'" but he might also say "Just call me 'Fr. Joe,'" which would leave you in an awkward spot.
posted by Jahaza at 5:24 AM on November 16, 2011

Ex-Catholic atheist here. You should call him father, it's his title. I couldn't agree more with Sticherbeast, you work in a nominally Catholic institution, calling a priest "father" goes with the territory.
posted by ob at 5:40 AM on November 16, 2011

To everyone saying that the Asker should ask the priest what he would prefer to be called: She already knows what he prefers to be called as "Most people refer to him as Father (firstname). I suppose it's possible he harbors a secret desire for everyone to call him "Spanky" and the fact that they all call him Father John makes him sad, but it seems unlikely. Even if she asks him what he wants to be called, it seems clear that he would say "Father (firstname)", so this does not solve the problem, in fact it makes it worse, because now she has no excuse for calling him something else if she really can't stomach "Father".
posted by Rock Steady at 6:21 AM on November 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

i would disagree with you rock steady, I volunteer in many churches, and often people call priests "father" out of their own tradition and beliefs... older school catholics really place a priest on a pedestal and out of habit call them father... a friend of mine is a priest and he is called Father XXX by his own mother, because that is what she knows... he doesn't prefer that, but it's what people call and are comfortable with... i'd ask him, it does no harm... and it shows that you care enough to ask.
posted by fozzie33 at 7:16 AM on November 16, 2011

I am a Catholic and attended Boston College. We called the Jesuits "Father $NAME" -- but some of them go by the first name, and some their surname. "Father Leahy" is the university's president, whereas you may have Father Dave teaching a Freshman religion seminar. *shrug* They're all aware hat not everyone is inside heir tradition, and so won't be surprised by folks who are unsure about modes of address.

If you klnw what everyone calls him, thn you can do the same. Otherwise….can you do some social engineering? Introduce yourself and see what he calls himself. Lead him a little as you rise and shake hands: "Good morning, I'm First Lastname. please call me First."

Mind you, my sister is college friends with a guy who became a priest, and she variously calls him My Friend Scott or *gasp* Father Scotty. Somtimes it comes down to how well you (get to) know a person.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:10 AM on November 16, 2011

I work at a Catholic institution. We call the Archbishop "Archbishop Lastname", we call the bishops "Bishop Lastname", we call the priests either "Father Firstname" or "Father Lastname", depending on how formal they are and what they want to be called. The Monsignors are called "Monsignor Lastname".

I work with plenty of priests who are administrators, and yes, they're still "Father".

(FWIW, I am also nonreligious, but it would be disrespectful of me to call these colleagues anything other than what they deserve and wish to be called.)
posted by pyjammy at 9:06 AM on November 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

As others have mentioned, "Father" is a title that has as little connection in contemporary conversation to the concept of fatherhood, as the honorific "sir" has to someone being a knight or baronet.
posted by MsMolly at 11:17 AM on November 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

If it helps, think of "Father" and "father" as homonyms, in the same way that "Doctor (as in medical)" and "Doctor (as in PhD)" are. At least, that's how it's been wired into my brain.

This rubs me for some reason because Doctor as referring to Ph.Ds and MD/DO/DDS/DVM are much more than homonyms, in many senses they are still synonyms (okay, before I embarrass my English teacher friends...cognates?) Both refer to terminal level degrees that suggest the ability to be a professor, or teach the knowledge to students, and that's how the word originally got into the business of describing the above degrees. Anyways, my main point is, Father is a very personal word for some people, and there are a lot of reasons to emotionally balk at using it, regardless of one's respect. Hell, even MD's understand some people don't like using doctor for whatever reason. I've heard nurses simply address a doctor by his last name (he has a long last name, he didn't need extra syllables) and patients ask "Can I just call ya Doc? It's just feels weird to me since I don't call myself Pipefitter Simpson."

As others have mentioned, "Father" is a title that has as little connection in contemporary conversation to the concept of fatherhood, as the honorific "sir" has to someone being a knight or baronet.

I really disagree with this. For one, I've never met a knight, mostly because they don't exist in modern American society. I talked to my father on Sunday. I understand the etymology, but there's about 400 years and an ocean separating the origin and its modern application. Can we agree comparing Sire to father is a little superficial of a comparison? Secondly, I understand using Fr. as a title in modern, workplace usage makes no claim to assuming a paternal role in my life, but the word is still very likely to have a very personal, familiar and emotional meaning, especially to someone who's never had to deal with using it as a term of professional address.

Look, I'm not even saying I have a problem with using Father, I'm just thinking the OP is okay to ask if there are alternatives. I don't think OP or most people who might balk at using a specific honorifics are obtuse to the nature honorifics, professional etiquette and language. I think the OP has indicated this with his comments. But people have deeply personal reactions to things and it's not up to us to say "get over it, you show respect to other people who's position demands it, forget any context and accept only one way of showing respect to this person."

I think calling him Father Smith, as opposed to calling him Father Joe is a great answer. If he objects and says something like "please, Father Joe" he's probably trying to be friendly, and it's okay to say "Is there anything else you prefer, Father Joe has personal meaning to me that makes it hard for me to use in the workplace" and if Fr. Joe Smith isn't a total jerk, he'll recognize offering to use the MORE formal Monsigneur or Father Smith means OP isn't ignorant of respect, and he can suggest an alternative to show his respect of OP as person.

For example, I'm a long ways aways from being in any sort of position of being addressed by an honorific, but if I introduce myself as "Doctor Robert" and Paul McCartney comes to see me and says "Can I just call you Dr. Snowman, Doctor Robert was the name my friend's drug dealer went by in the '60s and its weird for me to use it here." I would say 'absolutely' because anything else would be rude and inappropriate of me.
posted by midmarch snowman at 3:39 PM on November 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

As we are still here, I wonder if this might have been resolved since this man does not now have to be called Father anything by anyone because he is now properly addressed as Monsignor Lastname. To now consider calling him Father something or other would be to ignore the 'promotion' to his new status and therefore might be thought an intentional slight, or seen as ignorant which is not any more desirable.

This has been an eye-opening thread for me as I had no idea how many different opinions and reactions there could be to something I considered rather a non-issue. I thank you all.
posted by Anitanola at 6:12 PM on November 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes, very interesting to me as well. I grew up Catholic, am now an atheist, and had no idea this was an issue for anyone. Another possible parallel might be how even though I'm not in the military, and, in fact, am pretty pacifist, I'd still call any military person Colonel X or Sergeant Y, or whatever they preferred to be called in a work context. Father is the same way. It's a rank that they've earned through specific training. I can totally see why the word Father doesn't have the same aura of commonplaceness if you didn't grow up with it, though. Definitely an educational thread.
posted by MsMolly at 8:16 AM on November 17, 2011

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