Fifty years ago it would have been unheard of to call a priest by any other name than "Father (insert last name here). At some point, probably about the same time that churches started looking more like malls and less like places of worship, there began a transition. It started with Father (insert FIRST name here ) which eventually just became (insert first name here). My generation of priests express frustration at the lack of a title. We often get accused of trying to be separate from the world or of having a misguided sense of authority and power by insisting on being called Father (insert last name here). I've even been told it was during the height of clergy power and authority that the sexual abuse crisis took place, which seemed to imply to me that I should just be called by my first name or I am a sexual abuser. Of course, pointing out that the same guys that argue for only using the priest's first name are usually the ones that make unilateral decisions (it's just that their decisions are unilaterally ecclesiastically liberal) is fruitless.
I was watching reruns of West Wing this morning. President Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen called a friend who is a priest to visit him. Despite the hypocrisy of the fact that the President kept calling the priest by his first name, I couldn't help but reflect that there is a certain translational property that can be applied to what President Bartlet says to what my generation of priests is asking for...
Priest.: I don't know how to address you.Would you prefer "Jed" or "Mr. President".
President: To be honest, I'd prefer "Mr. President."
Priest. That's fine
President: You understand why, right?
Priest: Do I need to know why?
President: It isn't ego.
Priest: I didn't think it was
President: There are certain decisions I have to make when I'm in this room; do I have to sent troops in harm's way, which fatal disease gets the research money.
President: It's helpful in those situations not to think of yourself as the man but as the office.
Priest: Then "Mr. President" it is...
One could certainly argue that the decisions the president has to make in any given day are much larger than any priest does most years. I don't have my finger on a button controlling a bundle of nuclear weapons. I certainly don't determine financial policy affecting millions of dollars and people. But, as a priest, I need to be constantly reminded that my life of service shouldn't shouldn't be determined by who I like and who I don't like, who is nice to me and who isn't nice to me. When someone comes to me for confession or wants to be anointed, they get it because they ask for it and they get my time because they need it not because they are attractive, not because they have money, not even because I see them on Sundays. I am called to emulate the Father, to be the image of the Father in personae Christe and I need you to remind me that that is the office to which I was ordained.