Padri or Frater – not Fr. And related issues

June 8, 2012 by  
Filed under newsletter-miscellaneous

Don Bosco and Padre Pio, two of the greatest and most popular Priest-Saints of the Roman Catholic Church in modern times, bear titles as plain as “Don” and “Padre”. Yet, in some countries a priest / cleric, even one newly ordained, becomes “Father”.

Now love and respect are the very essence of Christian/ human conduct, however it is obvious that what we have here is a gross exaggeration – and even the Bible advises against it: Mt. 23: 8, 9.

In Italy, elsewhere in Europe and in Latin America priests are addressed as Don, Abbe, Padre… while Father is used in the English-speaking nations by Catholics, Anglicans, Episcopalians … and Pastor / Reverend … by the other denominations. In India (pop. 1.2 billion) it is Padri,  Purohit, Dharmaguru, Guru, Swamy, Aachan … depending on the region / state.

An agnostic British surgeon and long-time benefactor of the Missionaries of Charity, who wishes to remain anonymous, once said: “I’ve no problem with Mother Teresa our venerable, old, saint but her followers will always be Sister or Brother to me never Mother or Father, both of which are far too specific to be used carelessly.

A Catholic says “I find it absolutely ridiculous calling men who are definitely younger than me, “Father” … As an adult woman I am not willing to place myself in a child-parent relationship, and all it implies, with a priest. I prefer the more accurate woman-man relationship …”

And Bonze Chen, a globe-trotting Buddhist monk who is making a study of world religions, had this to say: “I hold your religious people in respect. I have found them polite, educated and dedicated. However this does not justify calling them Father or Mother. For me they are: Padre, Sister.”

There are many others besides, even amongst the clergy, who concur about the unsuitability of the title “Father”.

Perhaps, under the circumstances, FRATER – Latin for brother – could also be considered. Changing-over too would be easy: Fra-ter when conversing and Fra. instead of Fr. when corresponding.

So the alternatives to Father would be Padre/ Don/ Priest/ Frater. While with the higher ecclesiastics, it would be just their functional titles: Bishop/ Archbishop/ Cardinal and Pope/ Holy Padre/ Vicar of Christ. The simplification helping people and clergy feel more comfortable and close.

A bishop when asked for his views on the topic replied: “I am basically in agreement with (this) thinking. I do not like paternalism in anyone who is in authority because it keeps those under him / her infantile. But it is difficult to change long-standing traditions. We have all to keep trying”.

Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Theology, Fordham University, U.S.A. writes : “… using “Frater” rather than “Father” sounds very much like something Jesus would (want). Further, I am delighted to have confirmed again my long-standing belief that these issues are not only important within North America, but are issues throughout the world”.

And the late Fr. D. Cortadellas a Spanish Jesuit at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai would say: “We (priests) prefer to be taken for what we are, one with the people in all respects”. Adding humorously: “I take for granted that many priests feel uncomfortable when addressed as Reverend Father even if it be by a Very Reverend Mother Superior.”

An old, Italian missionary now back at Don Bosco, Florence, Italy cautions: “… (this) is true … but at most it can have the effect of arousing awareness of the issue … I think priests will be called “Fathers” still for many years to come”.

This practice originated centuries back in some quarters of Christendom and then spread to other parts of the world during the period of British colonization.

In fact during the Middle Ages, high offices in the Church, bishoprics in particular, were often wrested and occupied by princes/ personages from the royal families and wealthy houses of Europe, with the intention of influencing ecclesiastical decisions to their advantage. Consequently, much court-craft and court-conduct found their way into Church protocol.

It became customary, for instance, for the Pope to wear a bejeweled, triple-decked crown, to be carried around in an ornate throne with fanfare and pomp and even to have his foot kissed, before being addressed, by anyone who sought his counsel.

Awkward, embarrassing, unchristian though they were, both clergy and laity in common human frailty had mutely accepted these observances, thus weakening our witness and obscuring our identification with the “Man-in-sandals” and the humble and lowly Church He envisioned.

Vatican II transformed much in consonance with the Heart of Jesus: shedding Latin and adopting local languages, bringing Priest and Altar closer to the congregation, discontinuing the use of Tiara, Throne and Biretta, minimizing the use of the cassock and so on.

However, some of the dust and dross of the ages remained: Hand / Ring kissing, spectacular vesture, etc. – the last-mentioned surely justifiable on extraordinary/ ceremonial occasions to enhance the beauty, grandeur and solemnity of the holy services and uplift and heighten the faith-experience of the congregation.

An ecumenically-inclined Protestant remarked: “when it comes to greeting a Pope, Cardinal, Bishop I would rather kiss the Crucifix/ Pectoral Cross about their necks and pay homage to the Lord, than kiss their rings/ hands and honour men.”

Jesus Christ, foreseeing all this, taught in precise and unambiguous terms:
“As for you … you are all brethren.
And call no man your father on earth,
For you have one Father, who is in heaven”.
– Mt. 23: 8-9.

In the early Church therefore the Pope (Peter) and the Bishops (Apostles) were all addressed as Brother – but not for long. Over the millennia that pristine simplicity was sacrificed to hollow, worldly embellishments such as: Reverend Father, Right Reverend Lord Bishop / Archbishop, Most Gracious Eminence / Cardinal … as elements in Rome strove to match the royal protocols of the kingdoms & courts of Europe.

Now in the new Millennium – with the 2000th Anniversary of the Birth of Christ – the Church is appealing to its members world-wide to make concerted efforts to be more authentic, more fraternal. Indeed, Pope John Paul II had declared 1999: The Year of God the Father, ABBA. The Father of the “Our Father” wherein we pray: “…hallowed be thy Name.” The Father with the Son Jesus and the Holy Spirit the Triune God of Christianity.

It is the quintessence of the infinite love, omnipotence, omniscience, eternity of God that the Son sought to convey through the word Father, and it is the reason for His insistence that it be used with profound discretion.

– (Fra) Michael Condillac, SDB

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