Miss Manners: A Priest Walks Into a Bank …

A reader sent my this article.

I resonate with what follows.  

Very often I notice though I am very obviously dressed in my black suit with Roman collar, people in, for instance, banks et alibi, address me by my first name.  Or, priests are reduced to "sir", which, though better by far, is still sorely lacking.  I think more than one of you might remember what might have happened to you in a Catholic school, decades ago, if you slipped and called Father, "sir".

The title is not important for me, personally.  What is signals, however, is a societal break down in decorum. 

Anyway… I think your readers will have your own comments about what follows.

Miss Manners: A Priest Walks Into a Bank …

Dear Miss Manners,
I am a 50 year old Catholic priest who appreciates your contribution to a more civilized world. As a priest, people are usually polite and well-mannered in my presence, with one glaring exception.

I confess that I am a bit irked by the growing popularity of addressing total strangers by their first names in the banking industry. The tellers at my bank always address me by my first name, even when I am attired in full priestly garb. I have tried responding, "Oh, do I know you? Since you used my first name, I feel sure I should remember yours. I am so sorry." 

Am I being too persnickety in thinking that one should use a title (Fr., Mr., etc.) when addressing an older, business client? I spoke once to a branch manager who informed me it was the "company policy." Am I wrong for preferring a little more decorum in these situations?

Gentle Reader,
You are neither wrong nor persnickety, but you are not achieving your very legitimate desire to be addressed respectfully. Your being a stranger to the speaker is sufficient reason alone, as is your being an adult, and a priest.

Unfortunate as it is that the teller has been instructed to use your first name, Miss Manners is guessing that he probably doesn’t even know how else to address you. It would therefore be a kindness to say gently, "Please call me Father Gardner."


Father Z agrees with Miss Manners.

It is very likely that most people today have little or no clue about how to address people, including priests.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Kradcliffe says:

    I think that’s a stupid company policy. Her advice is very good. Also, a letter written to the bank’s head office complaining about the policy may make some impact.

    When I was in the Navy, I sometimes didn’t know if I should address the chaplain as “Father” or by rank. I always went with “Father” but I may have been wrong.

  2. Paul says:

    How do you address a deacon?

  3. Geoffrey says:

    A teller at my bank always calls me “Geoff,” where my name in their system is very clearly “Geoffrey”!

  4. Habemus Papam says:

    Banker:”I don’t care what your name is, just bail us out of this mess”!

  5. Wm. Christopher Hoag says:

    How many are aware that once upon a time in English speaking lands…

    …secular priests and all deacons were addressed as “Mister” with their surnames?

    …secular priests holding a terminal ecclesiastical degree were addressed as “Doctor”?

    …regular priest were addressed as “Father” with their religious names?

    … bishops were addressed as “Your Lordship” and archbishops as “Your Grace” since they were among the Peerage?

  6. Peter Karl T. Perkins says:

    I recall an incident in the Catholic school I attended as a youth. One of the students addressed Fr. Murphy as ‘Fr. John’ (or whatever his first name was: most of us didn’t know it). One of the brothers who taught there gave that student a very harsh slap across the face. Priests (with the exception of religious priests) were always addressed by Fr. + surname. Always. The Brothers who taught there took the title Bro. + religious name (e.g. Bro. Paul). Teachers who were not ecclesiastics were addressed as ‘Sir’. At the university, students should not address the professor as Dr. + surname but as ‘Sir’. Only colleagues of the professor should use Dr./Mr./Prof. + surname. Unfortunately, such colleagues will use the first name, even when they are complete strangers.

    One thing I hate especially is this practice imported from the U.S.A. in which people are constantly addressed by their first names. I was brought up to reserve the Christian name for family and friends (and, as an option preferred by some, a diminutive or nickname for very close family). When addressed as ‘Peter’ by a stranger, or even an acquaintance, I get the uncomfortable feeling that somebody is trying to ingratiate himself with me, or, worse, is trying to elbow his way into my private life.

    I also reject this American idea that one addresses older adults more formally. No, it is one’s station that determines how one is addressed, not one’s age-at least, not among adults. A gentleman of 60 should use Mr. + surname when addressing a gentleman of 25.


  7. Geoffrey says:

    I believe transitional deacons are addressed as “Rev. Mr. (lastname)” and permanent deacons are addressed as “Deacon (lastname)”… though in my parish I’ve heard people saying “Deacon (firstname)”.

  8. Christopher Mandzok says:

    Many Catholic priests add to the confusion. At my former parish, you were instructed to call the parish priest, “Father Bob” or “Father Anthony” when the proper way to address a priest is through the last name, such as “Father Donat” or “Father Smith.” I was recently attacked for referring to my former parish priest as “Father Dao” instead of “Father Anthony.” Knowing the truth, I decided not to argue.

  9. pdt says:

    C’mon Father Z … you’re missing an opportunity here. There’s an easy response:

    “Why don’t you drop by *my* place of business this Sunday and I’ll be honored to call you by *your* first name?”

  10. Peter Karl T. Perkins says:

    To Mr. Hoag:

    Go back even further and you will find that secular priests were addressed, like knights, as Sir + Christian Name. That would make Fr. Zuhlsdorf, ‘Sir John’.

    But some of these customs change over time. In my father’s time, the manager or supervisor in a factory addressed the linemen by surname but without any title (e.g, Why are you working so hard today, Smith?). That seems to be dying out.

    Everyone today among conservative faithful is insistent on this ‘Fr. Deacon’ or, worse, ‘Rev. Fr. Deacon’ business. Deacons were once (and still properly are) addressed by Mr. + surname. But that is a hold-over from the time when most men were not entitled to use ‘Mr.’, or when they were only accorded it as a courtesy.

    The title ‘Your Lordship’ in the U.K. for bishops does not come from membership in the House of Lords. It is an honorific such as that given to Lord Mayors and justices. Here in Canada, justices of supreme courts and courts of appeal were always addressed as ‘My lord’, even though they never belonged to any House of Lords. The Supreme Court of Canada abolished this just a few years ago, but it has been retained in the Federal Court of Canada and most provincial supreme courts. Our county court judges are ‘Your Honour’ and magistrates are ‘Your Worship’. Oddly the Lieutenant-Governor of a province is ‘His Honour’, whereas the Governor-General is ‘His Excellency’.

    In Canada, as in the U.S.A., bishops are usually ‘Your Excellency’. However, archbishops, as in the U.K. (but not the U.S.A.) are still ‘Your Grace’, although this is dying out. We seem to have a mixed system here.


  11. Different says:

    I address priests as they instruct me. I will default to Fr. Lastname for a diocesan priest and Fr. Firstname for a religious priest. But if a diocesan priest asks me to call him “Fr. Firstname”, I will out of respect for his preference.

    I recently dined at a nice restaurant (The Capital Grille) with a couple of priest friends, and was very impressed that the server remembered to address our group as “Gentlemen and Fathers.”

  12. Fr. Joseph Bittle says:

    Interestingly, things are usually not quite so bad in the southern United States. Folks are generally more than happy to address the clergy of the various denominations as Pastor X or Brother Y or Father Z as the case may be.

    At our local Starbucks, where I am a far too frequent visitor, I have always given my name as Fr. Joseph and they have always written it on the cup and addressed me as such. One time however, one of the young ladies asked why it was that they got into the habit of calling me Father Joseph and not just Joseph, since that would be the company norm. I replied that it was because a) that is how I give my name, so it is appropriate to mirror it back and b) that I don’t know who Joseph Bittle is since my secular name is Fred; therefore the only Joseph Bittle I know is that one whose first name is Father Joseph.

  13. Pistor says:

    My favorite is when people call the bishop “Bishop” when directly addressing him. Why is “Your Excellency ” so hard for us Americans. It couldn’t be the fabled American hatred of imperial titles because any American state governor merits the same title.

  14. Chicago Priest says:

    In some parishes I’ve been in, some (a small number, for sure) parishioners decide they will address any cleric by their first name, with a smirk. Just to prove ‘you’re no better’ than they are.

    Just my observation, fwiw.

  15. Suaso! says:

    Oh, I was really terrible at calling priests “father” instead of “sir” until I force=trained myself. I from the South, and I have honestly never seen a preist outside of Church (I am 22, thats a long time to not be seeing priests in public). Since this is the South, everything is “Yes Sir” and “No Sir,” and it just becomes a habit to do this with everyone. Now that I have decided to be actively Catholic, I have to make myself get accostomed to seeing more of you guys, especially since I am now at a Catholic College. It took a while to get used to, but I like calling you Fathers Father :-)

    Calling someone “Sir”, in my opinion, is respectful and curteous, but calling a priest “Father” implies that he is something more than simply respectable, and I like that notion.

  16. BK says:

    I once made the mistake of addressing a stranger in a Roman collar “Father,” and was sternly corrected. The man was a protestant minister.

    Now I get tongue-tied every time I run into a stranger in a Roman collar…unless they are also wearing a skirt. Then I just address them as “pastor” or, if I’m feeling really generous, “reverend.”

  17. Maynardus says:

    I also find it very grating to hear a religious sister addressed or referred to by her last name, e.g. “Sr. Chittister”. The inconsistency is absurd and seems to betray a mindset in which the imperative is to break with tradition rather than simple informality.

    Of course this is true of male religious too, but one hears it far less often.

    A little poser for the WDTPRS gang: Whither the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston, Sean Cardinal O’Malley, O.F.M. Cap.? He has made it known that his preference is to be addressed as “Cardinal Sean” (and previously, “Archbishop Sean”), and while that also tends to grate on the ear I suppose it is technically correct. At least it is consistent as he is seldom seen in a house cassock or even the lamentable clerical suit, preferring his friars habit topped-off with a scarlet zuchetto…

  18. evangelical_catholic says:

    Pistor: “It couldn’t be the fabled American hatred of imperial titles because any American state governor merits the same title.”

    I believe you are incorrect about “Excellency” applying to American state governors, at least within the Union. (I am aware that internationally, non-Americans will use such titles when addressing U.S. ambassadors and sometimes governors, as is their cultural norm.)

    This issue of styling was a big deal in the first days and months under the U.S. Constitution. The Senate held several days of debate on how to address the president of the United States. Unable to agree on anything else the conformed to republican principles, they simply left it as “the president of the United States” in official correspondence, although often times “His Excellency” preceded it, but may have had more to do with the eminence of the person. For example, I think George Washington as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army was styled “His Excellency”, and that title somewhat stayed with him throughout his life. But it never got attached to the office of president.

    Long way to go to say that if the president doesn’t rate such a high title, certainly state governors don’t. “Your Honor” is good enough, for “the Honorable So-and-So, Governor/Senator/Representative from State X”.

  19. Father M says:

    Father, this thread is another great idea. Little things, like terms of address, really do mean something. I am pleased that at a few places, like my doctor’s office, the receptionist and the nurse will call me by saying, “Father…” Of course, it may be partly due to the fact that my last name gives people some trouble, but I appreciate the courtesy extended to our Church. And at the local Safeway market, there are a few people who will buck what is apparently the company policy by addressing me as “Father.” At our parish school, I have insisted children rise and greet any adult comes into the classroom. All adults are to be addressed with the appropriate titles. So, brick by brick, we work on the next generation. By the way, at least for diocesan priests, I believe the use of the last name is important–it creates the right kind of healthy boundary, identifies the priest, but does not descend into a fictive intimacy. Even with fellow priests, I prefer the title “Father.” After all, the priesthood IS something mysterious and wonderful, and it CHANGES a person. The title simply recognizes the ontological change.

  20. If memory serves, in the famous Prayer by Archbp. John Carroll, the governor of the state is called “His Excellency”.

  21. Peter Karl T. Perkins says:

    B.K. wrote:

    “I once made the mistake of addressing a stranger in a Roman collar “Father,” and was sternly corrected. The man was a protestant minister.”

    Which is why the Synod of Baltimore of 1884 should be reversed on this, and priests should wear the cassock wherever they go (within reason: motorcycles being an exception). In rural Québec, before the Council, most priests wore their cassocks on the street and not these damned Protestant clericals. Even worse is that black business suit worn by bishops since the 1970s, with the disappearing pectoral cross in the pocket. It makes our bishops look like Methodist funeral directors. Gone is the colour of the episcopate; gone, the symbolism of the purple in which they mocked Him.

    The clericals were mandated for outdoor use in 1884 in the U.S.A. for a good reason. At that time, priests were being attacked by anti-Catholic mobs (the know-nothings or something). Once that danger had passed, in the 1930s, the cassock (and simar, for prelates) should have been restored for outdoor general use. Of course, by then, there would be an ‘argument from custom’ to oppose this.

    The U.S. practice spread into English Canada. Meanwhile, thanks to the troubles in Mexico in the 1920s, the priests down there ended up with no religious garb at all. It’s a mess. A priest is fundamentally different from a Protestant minister and therefore needs a distinct dress. Ministers are only laics who serve their people in a certain way. They are not dispensers of the Sacraments. The cassock should be restored because of its rich symbolism. The seamless garment represents the unity of the Church. Time to think about Calvary and the casting of lots for His cloak as we approach the Triduum Sacram.


  22. AlephGamma says:

    To Mr. Perkins,
    It’s not just a US custom to address older adults more formally. It is also an inconsistent Spanish (maybe in Spain as well?) custom practiced in certain parts of Latin America to address your elders, even family members especially the really old ones in the formal “usted” – which is derived from “vuestra merced” = “your mercy.” It is applied irregularly as I can attest from personal experience. My father – the biological one – as they are called nowadays tried to go imperative on me one day and ordered me to start addressing him as “señor” – as in “Si señor” or “No señor” when I was about 16. Obviously too much US and A in my upbringing and the nature of abrupt and sudden change ruined that desire of his as I was indisposed at the time to address him as they do in the military.
    It was also never required nor expected, but my grandmother never corrected us when we addressed her in the formal form. Therefore my assumption is that this was acceptable since we as children were always corrected in our grammar and enunciation.

  23. Joseph says:

    I have a struggle with my own family. They leave me to correct their children, my nieces and nephews, as to how to address me, i.e., Uncle Joe, vs Joe, and some of my siblings think it is just peachy to call our mother by her first name, (which she does not object to, perhaps she encourages it tacitly) which just sends me up the wall. Anyone else have these problems. I sometimes just want to avoid them, it is that irritating.

  24. TerryC says:

    The lack of formality in the U.S. is a reflection in the societal lack of respect for authority and the dignity of the accomplishments individuals. It is the result of a culture in which persons only show deference to those they fear and go out of their way to belittle the accomplishments of education, experience and industry.
    It is a symptom of the me society. It indicates a general lack of maturity on the part of many individuals.
    From the point of view of the Church it is made worse by the many “call me Father Bob” priests (of whom Archbishop Sean is not one, having come from a religious community where it is perfectly appropriate to refer to a priest as Father Sean, and I would assume Abbot Sean.)

  25. Transitional Deacon says:

    I worked in banks for several years. There was a constant push for us to use peoples’ names as part of offering more “personal” service. I could see it going in the direction of dropping the niceties and just using peoples’ first names. It is just a societal trend. We have gotten very casual.

    When I was a kid we were taught to call people “Mr.” or “Mrs.” until they told us otherwise. Nowadays I still try to employ this rule, but the funny thing is, there are several people who I am sure would want me to call them by their first name, who do not tell me to do so, because they just don’t understand these types of conventions. Manners are not taught any more, and simple rules like this that just make life easier to live people do not know, and so we have all of these awkward social settings now, such as bank tellers calling a priest by his first name (it has happened to me also when I have been wearing my blacks, in many different places of business).

    As for “Sir”, this is so common in the South, and it is usually force-of-habit. There is still a bit more decorum in the South than in the North, though even that is being lost.

    We really need a return to etiquette training in this country, though Miss Manners and the like have largely become morally bankrupt in their columns.

  26. Ave Maria says:

    Dear Chicago Priest:

    I have certainly had it happen that a priest asked me to call him by
    his first name! And there are a number like that in my diocese such that
    a number of folks just got in that habit. I do not follow that request
    myself but certainly there is this other aspect to consider.

    As to ‘your excellency’, that is just strange to me. When I write a
    bishop or address a bishop, I generally call him Bishop. And it is hard
    to remember who is ‘your excellency’ and ‘your eminence’ and reverend and most
    reverend and there is a very reverend too!

    Now, ‘your holiness’–that is one I can remember :)

  27. Peter Karl T. Perkins says:

    In regard to all this business about titles, I thought I’d relate a humorous little anecdote. I hope that that is not inappropriate during Holy Week.

    Anyway, on a radio show of the C.B.C. here called “As it Happens”, many years ago now, the presumptuous ‘announcerette’ was interviewing a duke from the U.K. I can’t remember which one it was (there are only 26 of them). Using his Christian name, she asked, “Is it all right if I call you ‘John'”? “Oh, no,” he replied, “there’s no need for that. Just call me ‘Your Grace'”. How sweet was that moment.


  28. Joseph Mary Pius says:

    To sort of go off on a tangent, and not address what Father Z is talking about, but to air one of my pet peeves…….

    Tis’ true that many are obsessed with an egalitarian, anti-formal style of living and thinking, in which everything must be dumbed-down and the most crass and crudest are exalted as being humble, unpretentious, and sincere.

    However, I must admit that I am often chaffed, as a Traditional Catholic, when my Traditional Catholic friends insist that priests are never to be called Father Joseph, but instead should by styled as Father Smith.

    Of course, we must respect our own customs in the English-speaking world…but I also wonder if we have sometimes taken things too far in what we consider to be the “calling cards” of orthodoxy.

    I am reminded of the biography of Pope St. Pius X, by F.A. Forbes, published by TAN. The text was originally published in 1918, and then was revised in 1954. In it, one sees the Holy Father, when he was a diocesan priest, called “Don Giuseppe,” or even “Don Bepi” (a diminutive form of Joseph). Were these the interpolations of the author, or is this how he was addressed? I do not know.

    Yet, it is a text written in the early part of last century, and is it, perhaps, an Italian custom?

    However things were, I, for one, have no problem addressing priests as they wish to be called, whether that is Father John, or Father Smith.

    Does anyone know about national customs and styles, in this regard?

    P.S. I, too, was raised in the South, and am accustomed to, and prefer, true formality, and the sincere gentility that is associated with it. When I was growing up, it was always, Ma’am, and Sir — in my home of New Orleans.

  29. Peter Karl T. Perkins says:

    To Joseph Mary Pius:

    All I can say in response is that, in my upbringing, one would only address a priest or any gentleman of stature by a first name if one’s intent was to insult him to his face. It was unthinkable and remains so for me. Also, I perceive that it is so often the liberals in the Church who do this. The very people who constantly have on their lips ‘outreach’ and ‘justice and peace’, ‘anger management’, ‘grief counselling’, ‘values’ (for virtue), ‘the People of God’ (for God’s holy people) and ‘we are church’ just happen, by an amazing coincidence, to be those who say ‘Fr. Bob’ and even ‘Bishop Dave’. One of our former bishops, the, um, well-known Remi De Roo, had all his groupies calling him ‘Bishop Remi’. It makes me sick.

    Recently, our journalists up here are even combining the title ‘Dr.’ with the Christian name. The announcerette will interview a medical doctor and call him ‘Dr. Dave’. It reminds me of Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers.

    One good thing about living in Canada is that, thanks to our strict gun regulations, nobody can threaten me with death if I don’t join partake of this nonsense, because that’s what it would take to make me contribute to it.

    Now, there is an old polite principle, formerly useful, that we should address people as they would prefer to be addressed. However, I don’t favour that during a period when so many are deliberately trying to undermine our culture and all form, ceremony, order, and due respect in the way they would have us address them. It’s a war out there. Forms of address are not small matters at all. How we express ourselves profoundly affects what sort of society we help or hinder to form.


  30. Fr Martin Fox says:

    As to the original post…

    It is a shame people aren’t taught manners and etiquette, because it’s such a useful skill, and — to use an image I think Miss Manners once used, etiquette is like the lubrication in the machine: without the lubricant, everything grates unpleasantly and destructively.

    As to calling priests “Father Bob”…

    Some of the folks here seem a bit on a high horse about this, particularly, I think, making assumptions about why priests do that. I don’t know about other priests, but here is why I have a modest preference for “Father Martin,” although I am a diocesan, not a religious, priest. I really don’t know why I have the last name “Fox” — it is an Americanization of Fuchs, but why Fuchs? Did one of my ancestors hunt or like to eat foxes? Did he catch them? Did it describe his appearance or his character?

    Yet I know precisely why I’m named Martin: that is the name given me in baptism, by my parents. It is my Christian name and I see nothing dishonorable about someone calling me “Father Martin.” That said, I never object if someone calls me “Father Fox,” nor do I find any fault with other priests who feel otherwise.

    For that matter, I don’t object if folks call me “pastor” or “sir,” since those are intended as titles of respect. That only happens when people don’t know me or know how to address me, so unless I’m going to be interacting with them frequently, I let it go.

  31. studentpriest says:

    The Catholic University of America fails to use titles (Father, Sister, Brother, etc.) on student ID cards. In gatherings and classes, many (perhaps an overwhelming majority) professors address priest and religious students by their first names, without a title. Many priest and nun professors introduce themselves without their religious title while others seem to prefer their academic title.
    So, I am not surprised when the student working part time in the library gives me (of course, wearing my clerics) the books I am checking out saying, “Here you go, man.”

    CUA -funded by our parishes – is a huge disappointment when it comes to promoting a sense of Catholic culture. [I could name many things, but also sickening the serving of meat on Friday’s of Lent. (I’m glad American Papist recently made this known.)]
    The non-acknowledgment of ordination or religious consecration is a glaring mark against it.

  32. Fr. D says:

    I agree with Fr. Martin Fox about the appropriateness of a priest’s using his first name with the title Father.
    I believe the title Father with the family name is an English custom. I may be mistake, but even curates in Italy were and are titled “Don” (from Dominus) and their baptismal name.
    Our baptismal name is the name of our saintly patron in heaven.
    I would not forbid the use of my family name either. But, perhaps the baptismal name also provides a healthy sense of familia-rity. That said, I would avoid diminutives of the baptismal name which tend to obscure the connection with one’s patron saint and inappropriately come across as overly chummy.

    Meanwhile, I think we priests must also lead the way and be conscious about how we address others. I think we tend to address people by first names which people seem to appreciate. But perhaps we shouldn’t address a parishioner old enough to be one of our parents by his or her first or nickname unless he or she absolutely insists on it.

  33. Fr W says:

    Almost without exception here, when I sit down at a local restaurant with another priest, the waitress/waiter says: ‘How are you guys doing?’ this is how everyone speaks. It is stunning. At best I hear ‘yes sir’ in more upscale places. Back home, it is always ‘hello Father’ even if they are pagans!

    A priest in the seminary had a great response to people in the parish who decide to call him by his first name, ‘Bob.’ He says, ‘Oh, you need not be so formal, just call me by my first name: FATHER!’

  34. Tim Ferguson says:

    I worked for a large parish as a secretary at one point. One of my tasks was handling the pastor’s voluminous correspondence (thank you letters, congratulation letters and suchlike – not much in the way of personal correspondence). Titles and forms of address were often sticky wickets to get into.

    E.g. – a hefty donation comes in from two well-known parishioners. She’s a medical doctor, he’s a lawyer. Does one address them: Dear Mr. and Dr. Smith? Dear Dr. and Mr. Smith? Dear Mr. Smith and Dr. Smith? Dear Mr. and Mrs. Smith? Dear John and Mary? and that’s just one permutation.

    My rule of thumb was always to err on the side of formality. Even if the letter was being sent out to one of the pastor’s close friends, I would always use a title. One dicey area was always women – Mrs., Miss or Ms. Use the wrong title, even if it’s not obvious from the correspondence, and you’re in for a world of hurt. I was informed – not by the pastor, but by close colleagues – that it was too stuffy.

    Eventually, I began keeping notes on the parish list and the pastor’s address book. This one always signs letters, “Peter Parker, M.D.” – his letters get addressed “Dear Dr. Parker,”. Another always signs letters, “Love, Jane” – her letters are addressed to “Dear Jane,”.

    Priests provided ample room for errors on my part. A letter comes in signed “Father Bill.” I address the envelope “The Rev. Bill Smith” and head the letter, “Dear Fr. Bill,”. I would get a note, letting me know that I’m being too formal and I should just use “Fr. Bill Smith” on the envelope and “Dear Bill,” in the letter. Or, I’d get an indignant phone call, letting me know that Fr. Bill is a protonotary apostolic and vicar general, and feels he should be addressed as “V. Rev. Msgr.” (He would be wrong, of course – outside of signatures, “Rev.” is never used without a definite article before it, and one either uses “The Reverend Monsignor” or “The Very Reverend”)

    The upshod of it all, I believe, is that titles and names are very personal things. While I loathe the faux-eglatarianism that makes us all “buddies,” I guess I have imbibed so much of the American Democratic Spirit, that I’ve developed a certain philosophy, much in concert with what the inimitable Miss Manners. Call people what the request to be called. If the Metropolitan Archbishop of Utriuspars says, “Call me Bob.” I’m calling him “Bob.” If the Mayor of Dubuque introduces himself to me as “Sa Majeste,” I will bow and call him that.

  35. Denis Crnkovic says:

    Call me old and grey, but I believe it is a sign of humility on the part of the person of higher rank to accept his title without griping, no matter how uncomfortable it makes him feel. I am entitled to a title that I never paid heed to until I got old enough that people began to use it spontaneously in adressing me. Sometimes it makes me nervous. Yet I never “correct” them because they never use it but out of politeness and with respect for my position. The demands of sincere decorum work both ways: the addressor and the addressee both need to accept titles for the respect and humility they engender.

  36. If people have titles, they should be addressed by them bottom line. I was taught as a young kid to refer to people by Mr. and Mrs. And if they have title beyond that, whatever the title happens to be. Dr. As for refering to Catholic Clergy, I stick with Father, YE, Msgr. YH…If people have titles, they should go by them. I don’t really care if it’s first or last name

  37. Melody says:

    I’m agreed with Tim Ferguson, there’s so much variation and confusion of titles here the US that I generally just try to call people what they like to be called, erring on the side of formality initially.

    However, “Father” is a title of respect, whether it is affixed to a last name, first name, or even a diminutive. I wouldn’t think of not using it, but the rest varies. I use the last name on first meeting until requested otherwise. However, using Father ‘last name’ on a universal basis seems very cold and formal to me. There’s a priest I know who I call “Father Tim” (His name is Father Timothy McCarthy) who I respect more highly than most I know. He is a very kind, humble and friendly priest and I really try to treat him as a spiritual father.

    (BTW, please say a prayer or a mass for him, he is sadly ill with cancer.)

    Then there’s the whole question of foreign priests. There’s one priest I know whom everyone calls by his first name because he is Vietnamese and few people honestly know how to even say his last name, and it is generally considered rude to constantly mangle the pronunciation of someone’s name. (Father Tim once played a joke on me and his brother priest by telling me a incredibly wrong way of saying it. :) )
    Incidentally, is this why Father Zuhlsdorf came to be called Father Z?

    Oh, not to be facetious, (okay slightly) but how many of you have regular face time with a bishop? Because most lay people don’t. Even if they attend mass where a bishop is present, rarely is the opportunity given to speak to one. The first and only time I met a Bishop face to face I spent thirty seconds staring at him, mouth open after the word ‘hi’ trying to remember if the address was “Your Grace”, “Eminence” or something else entirely. Finally I just blurted out, “Bishop, sorry, what do I call you?” He answered, “‘Bishop’ is fine.” I have a feeling a lot of prelates get this reaction. Titles only become natural when they are regularly used.

  38. Gary T. Cifra, MD says:

    Social breakdown in decorum.

    Worse yet, you introduce yourself as Fr. or Dr. at the teller’s window or on the phone
    and they immediately reply with Mr. It is very disrespectful and defient behaviour and it is becoming more and more prevelant. They should be immediately corrected. Customer service personel are notorious for this but the incidence is increasing even amongst the professional ranks of managers. The conversation usually evolves as:
    “Hello, this is Dr. Cifra and I would like to check my account.”
    “May I have your account # Mr. Cifra, to check that for you?”
    “That is Dr. Cifra, and the # is xxxx.”
    “Yes, Mr. Cifra I have located your account.”

    That is just rude and disrespectful. It is better they dont use a name at all and to with the generic “how can I help you?”

    While having lunch with a religious sister, a waitress asked us:
    “What would you guys like to drink?” The discord still rings in my ear to this day!
    If it sounded horrible to me can one imagine what it sounded like and felt like to an Italian nun? *pound chest here! Mercy!

  39. Bill says:

    Dr. Cifra: “It is very disrespectful and defient behaviour and it is becoming more and more prevelant. They should be immediately corrected.”

    Inflated sense of self-importance and pride, perhaps? Nah, couldn’t be. So much for turning the other cheek.

  40. Jeff says:


    Bishops are referred to as Your Excellency, not because they are member of the House of the Lord, but that they hold the same level of precedent, as a Peer. An Archbishop holds the same level of precedent as a duke, thus Your Grace. I have not found that this is dying out, I find it alive in well, at least out West. Of course we still use Rt. Rev. for Prelate of Honor, and V. Rev. for Chaplains of his Holiness, Rectors of Seminaries and Cathedrals, as well as Deans.

  41. EnglishCatholic says:

    I’m not sure this adds much to the debate, but…
    I used to work for a newspaper in England, and the style guide
    insisted on the correct use of titles (including Mr and Mrs).
    The only exception was when someone was convicted of a crime,
    in which case the title was immediately dropped, and the person
    was henceforth referred to only by his (and it was usually a he)
    surname. So a week of court stories involving ‘Mr Smith’ would
    suddenly culminate in ‘Smith found guilty of…’
    I always quite liked that.

  42. Lindsay says:

    I’m sure this adds nothing to the debate, lol, but as someone raised in the South transplanted to the NE as an adult, I find the modern practice of addressing everyone by their first name very annoying. I recall going car shopping with my husband, and the salesman whom I’d never met before, was calling me by my first name. I was appalled but didn’t know what to say.

    I think that Miss Manners response it right, and I will remember that phrasing, modified to my situation, for future use. I must say, it makes it very difficult to teach your children to follow these rules when the society around you has abandoned them so much. Even the librarians where we go introduce themselves to my children by their first name, and I have to ask what their last name is so that I can “re-introduce” them. I try to do it politely and not insult them, but I really don’t want my children calling adults we aren’t close to by their first name (and even then, there should be a Miss, Mr., Aunt, etc… placed in front).

    I’m afraid, though, that if children are widely being asked to use first names, the problem is only going to get worse, not better. Very sad.

  43. pjsandstrom says:

    Since it is Holy Week perhaps a long meditation on the Gospel of Tuesday of the Second Week in Lent is still much in order: look up Matthew 23:1-12 and ponder the relevance of the comments above.

  44. Elizabeth V. says:

    Dear Fr. Z,

    I can relate.

    The biggest place this shows in my world is with my kids. My 5 year old’s 5 year old friends call me Elizabeth. Miss Elizabeth bugs me a little less, but it still bugs me. I made a weak attempt to teach my daughter to use Mr/Mrs and last names, but I’m one of only a few moms who do. Eventually, I copped out and taught her to call other moms “Jenny’s Mommy,” for example. I am glad you posted this. I’m going to renew my efforts to teach my kids what’s right.

    When I was a kid, I was never allowed to call an adult by a first name. I remember once being so excited because a mom told me I could call her Judy. My mom said, “No, you can’t.” End of discussion.

  45. Lindsay says:

    Regarding the reference to Matthew 23, I understand how discussing such topics can seem elitist or prideful. However, good manners and social graces are the way that humans have shown respect for each other for a long time.

    Of course we should be humble, but it seems the breakdown of such formalities is a symptom of greater societal issues–even the loss of dignity of the person. ALL people should be treated respectfully. Regarding the specific example of the priest, it isn’t so much that this individual priest isn’t being treated with respect but that the greater part of society seems to have lost its respect for the position of the priesthood as a whole.

    Somehow this idea that we should all be treated equally morphs into we should all be treated with equal disrespect.

  46. Jack007 says:

    I’m sorry, but the argument that we must “humble” ourselves and dumb down to calling everyone Dick and Jane, holds no water.
    It is a perfect example of FALSE humility. Whom is it really about?

    I am reminded of an old story my parents told me. It was probably in Spain.
    A university professor invited another single colleague to his home for dinner. When the colleague arrived, he was surprised to see a nicely set table with tablecloth, silver and crystal.
    “You really did not need to do all this for me!”, he said. “There’s no need to impress anyone”.

    “I didn’t do it for you”, replied the host. “I did it for US!”

    The point… Decorum is a GOOD thing. We need only see the fruits of banishing it from the culture.

    Master Jack in KC :-)

  47. Carolina Geo says:

    To make matters even more confusing, at least in the south, there is a prevalent custom here of refering to people by their first name, even with their title. Thus, Mrs. Judy Smith will often be refered to as “Mrs. Judy,” or often simply just as “Miss Judy.” As a transplant here of only a few years, I don’t quite know all the ins and outs of this custom. When I moved here from Yankeeland, I was quite surprised at how many people still use “yes, sir” and “no, sir.” You rarely – if ever – hear that up north.

  48. Liam says:

    It should be noted that the American preference for using Christian names over surnames goes back to the early years of the Republic and was much discussed at that time and ever after. The preference was historically weaker in certain regions (like parts of New England) and stronger in others, but overall the bias in the land was in favor of it.

    That said, it is usually better form in the US to start addressing someone with their surname, and then the addressee politely permits the addressor to use his or her Christian name. In commercial contexts like retail transactions, however, the addressee should feel no social (since the context is not social) obligation to so permit.

    As for titles, American practice has long diminished their importance, again since the early years of the republic. Even at my undergraduate alma mater, there was a strong tradition to reserve “Dr” to medical doctors and for both faculty and students to converse with each other in class with “Mr” or its female equivalents, as applicable.

    In the Christian context, the baptismal names are *far* more important than the surname, which is a johnny-come-lately by comparison. (The baptismal names are also more important than nicknames, for that matter, and that is where a nice boundary might be set….)

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