Today Christopher writes about dignity and respect. He wonders when it became the fashion to address bishops by their first names.
I guess this idea began around the last time the Episcopal Church, with its "who the hell says 'vouchsafe' anymore" attitude toward liturgical reform, revised the prayer book. Ain't no miserable offenders around here, the changes said. Ain't nobody here but us regular folks and that attitude filtered up to the clergy.
So when some of these clergy became bishops, they took that attitude with them. I may get to wear a funny hat and carry this cool hooked stick in procession. I may get to decide who gets to be a priest in this diocese and who doesn't. If I don't put my hands on you, you ain't confirmed. baby. But I'm really just the same as you. So call me Gene or Cate or Marc.
I think something important was lost when that mindset took hold. The fact of the matter is that you should be scared of bishops. Bishops should intimidate you. Actually, you should be a little scared every time you walk into church whether a bishop's there or not.
Because you're not there to shoot the breeze with a divine District Manager you play golf with sometimes whenever He hits town. God is not your contemporary but your Creator. And Jonathan Edwards was right; the only reason you draw another breath is because God permits you to. So as soon as you walk through the church door, dignity had better drench everything you do and say and think.
Humility is good. But humility does not mean denying one’s authority or one’s responsibilities. When I was in medical school, one of my classmates was a brilliant student from the plains of West Texas. He had little use for the trappings of “doctor”. His down home manners made some uncomfortable. He was critiqued by one of the resident physicians as “casual to the point of disrespect.” His good-old-boy charm was wonderful at times, but there were also times when he didn’t maintain the dignity of leadership that was needed to stand at the head of a medical team.
I do not want the priest to behave as if he is just another member of the congregation. He is the leader of the congregation. He stands In Persona Christi. After Jesus washed the feet of his Apostles he said:
”Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master’, and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13: 13-14)
Jesus did not deny or diminish his authority or stature among the Apostles. He accepted it but emphasized with this authority came a responsibility for service. St. Augustine also spoke of this when he said, “With you I am a Christian. For you I am a Bishop”. As the parents, my husband and I are not just members of our family on equal footing with the children. Our children call us “Mom” and “Dad” instead of using our first names out of respect for our roles as the parents. We are the leaders of our family. And we serve our family in that leadership position.
The only Catholic bishop I know of who consistently uses his first name is Bishop Sean O’Malley of Boston. However, I think that may be related to his being a Franciscan.
I know many priests do go by their first names. If a priest does so and still maintains the dignity of his office, there is no problem. However, too often this familiarity is part of an overall effort to diminish the priesthood. The priest and the parish become “casual to the point of disrespect.”