Kathy Schiffer is a Catholic blogger. In addition to her blog Seasons of Grace, her articles have appeared in the National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Zenit, the Michigan Catholic, Legatus Magazine, and other Catholic publications. She’s worked for Catholic and other Christian ministries since 1988, as radio producer, director of special events and media relations coordinator. Kathy and her husband, Deacon Jerry Schiffer, have three adult children.
How do you talk about your parish priest when he's not listening? What about your local bishop? The Pope?
I ask because recently, I was involved in a conversation with some good Catholic folks concerning an article in the mainstream media. Repeatedly, the writer of the article had referred to one of the bishops by his last name – omitting the religious title (the honorific). Others in my Catholic group shrugged, accepting that culture had shifted and in these casual times, that was to be expected. I had a hard time with it.
Skipping a religious title in a print article does, in fact, mesh with the AP Stylebook, which recommends that reporters use a formal title the first time they mention an individual, then switch to only the last name in subsequent mentions. The same policy is espoused by the Religion Stylebook, a free on-line resource from the Religion Newswriters Foundation.
But I just can't do it. Embedded in my consciousness after years of Catholic school is this message: Always give men and women religious the respect that is due their station. For me, old-school as I am, that means that priests are always called “Father.” That can be “Father Smith” or “Father Jim,” depending on the priest's preference (not my preference); but it can't be just “Murphy.”
To take that to the next step, I'd never refer to the bishop by just his last name, or to the Pope-emeritus as “Ratzi.” Cardinal Burke will always be “Cardinal Burke,” even in a second mention.
The Wall Street Journal agrees with me. In February 2011, the WSJ ended their long practice of using honorifics in the sports pages; thereafter, their reports would no longer say that “Mr. Howe scored a goal” but would instead use only last names. The other sections, however, maintained their longstanding tradition of calling people – even ordinary laypersons – by their titles. That policy was outlined in the paper's monthly “Style and Substance” bulletin on July 29, 2010.
Last year, my husband and I spent a few weeks in the South. Attending Mass in venues including a historic wooden church and a sprawling suburban parish, we had the opportunity to meet many good priests. One of them, dedicated to God and eager to bring the good news of the Gospel to the people of America, had left family and friends behind in his native Africa. One was elderly, a weathered evangelist who had labored for many years in Christ's vineyard. Another had been raised in a Protestant denomination but had been attracted to the Catholic faith in college, then enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to serve God's people in the Catholic priesthood.
The common thread? All had given of themselves for Christ's Church – spending many hours in prayer and many years in study, sacrificing the joys of marriage and family life to devote full-time to the ministry to which they were called. All offered hope to the world, sharing Jesus' Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity on the altar each morning; hearing confessions and extending God's forgiveness to a hurting world. And all deserved my sincere thanks and respect.
For me, that means looking for things to praise, and perhaps remaining silent – not gossiping or publicly criticizing – if I'm disappointed by a homily or if I wish Father would place greater emphasis on a particular aspect of parish life.
In a society that is increasingly casual and increasingly secular, insisting on the honorific title may seem quaint. But in my mind, for a guy who's a stand-in for Christ, who's given his all to help us on our heavenly journey, it's the least we can do.