From a reader…
I was hoping to hear your insight into traditions that seem lost! Will you please share your thoughts regarding bowing for clergy, kissing the hands of priests and referring to priests directly as Your Reverence?
We live in an age that touts an egalitarian ethos, as if it were some sort of virtue… if the very notion of virtue applies anymore. Especially in North America, “casual” is the thematic word both for the dress code and for the prevailing attitude. Gone are the days when ladies in hats and gloves would ride the trolleys downtown for shopping, men went to ball games wearing ties, and friends would address each other as “Mr. Smith” and “Mr. Mukopadhyay.”
For the most part, those who insist on titles are automatically labelled as cold, or distant, rigid, or authoritarian (Medical doctors, military personnel and politicians seem to be an exception). Many of our traditions of respect have been lost, and who knows how or when – or in what form they will return.
We have lost decorum. With the loss of decorum comes loss of self-respect and understanding of the dignity of others. We devolve into what Benedict XVI has warned about through his entire career, “auto-sufficiency”.
It’s tragic that we’ve lost the concept of formality, propriety, what is apt in our culture. But to turn the sock inside out, ironically this loss of decorum also does damage to our expression and attitude of casualness, informality and intimacy. :If everyone calls each other by first name – names being important – how do we let someone in to our inner circle by, after some time of knowing him, saying, “Please, call me Bob”? That’s signals a new relationship. Many languages signal relations by pronouns and verb endings. German even has verbs to describe addressing people with familiar Du, or formal Sie.
It’s simply dreadful for priests, regardless of how they feel about the matter, to dismiss or denigrate the attempts of the faithful to show reverence toward them. It’s not about us, it’s about Christ.
Some people, rightly, see priests are representatives of Jesus Christ (and priests should constantly remember that). When they kiss our hands, or call us “Father, Reverend,” or suchlike – they’re showing their respect for Christ. I once heard of a bishop who chipped the tooth of an elderly nun who was attempting to kiss his ring. He yanked his hand away from the dear sister with such force that she was required to see a dentist. For shame.
The titles, and the garb and the decorum is not about us.
Of course it is possible to be over the top in expressions of respect, “Your Reverence”, constantly repeated, isn’t necessary. Once or twice, fine… every other sentence, … perhaps not. Please, don’t.
That said, it is also bad form for priests to insist on some sign of reverence. So many people today are casual in their attitudes not out of disrespect, but because they simply have never been taught anything else. If someone were to call me by my first name, I might gently correct them and say, “It’s Father Zuhlsdorf, thank you.” Of course some do this, use just a baptismal name, as a pointed insult. In that case, the one whom they are insulting is really not the priest, but Our Lord and His Holy Church. I also am not a fan of “Father John… or Monsignor John…”. That’s a bizarre hybrid.
We can reassert some formality and respect in our culture by showing it. For example, teachers could address their students by their titles and surnames rather than their first names. Oddly, they seem to be the same teachers that have less difficulty with discipline than some of the “call-me-Mike” variety. Priests can show decorum in the way they dress and in the forms of address they use.
And let’s bring back hats, gentlemen.