How to Address Priests and
Titles and Signs of Respect
Marian Therese Horvat, Ph.D
The dignified sisters inspired respect. Above,
a sister teaches protocol in a pre-Vatican II Catholic classroom.
After the Council, sisters abandoned the habit and took up jobs in the
world. Below, Sister Joy Manthey "ministers" to riverboat
captains and crews. Parade Magazine, December 9, 2001
In times past every Catholic used to
know some of the simple rules that have been set aside from disuse. The general
protocol was taught by sisters in grade school, but more often was learned as in
osmosis from everyday practice. No one dreamed of calling Father O’Reilly by the
nickname “Bill,” or, addressing Sister Margaret Mary as “Maggie.”
Everyone knew you rose as a sign of
respect when a priest or religious entered the room. Speaking before a gathering
that included clergy or religious, a Catholic speaker as habit addressed them
But then came the tumultuous and leveling aftermath of Vatican II that spelled a
death to formalities in the religious sphere. Priests, monks and sisters began
to adopt the ways of a world that were becoming increasingly vulgar and
egalitarian. Distinguishing titles and marks of respect were considered
alienating and only for old-fashioned “establishment” people who were afraid to
embrace the “signs of the times.”
In the spirit of adaptation to the world, the cassock and habit were abandoned,
along with the formal signs of respect paid to the persons who wore them.
Confusion set in: what do you call a nun in a pants suit who says, “Just call me
Ann,” or a priest in a western shirt and cowboy boots, who says, “You can call
me Cowboy Bob”? No, I’m not making that last one up.
This leveling egalitarian spirit violates not only tradition and the laws of
civility, but also the practice of justice. We need only look to a basic
principle of Roman Law, so coherent in its logic, which states that that each
one should be given what he has a right to receive. Because people are unequal
in status, situation, and talent, the necessity of justice demands unequal
treatment. Catholic doctrine used to be applied concretely in Christian
Civilization. Thus one could judge a person according to a code of rights,
merits and honors, and according to this code, use a formula of respect suitable
for each one and each occasion.
It is a great good to know how to give respectful treatment to a superior.
Reciprocally, those in higher positions have a duty of justice to treat those
below them with dignity and consideration. Let me give a charming example from
our Catholic past: King Louis XIV took off his hat for every woman, even if she
were a simple housemaid. But he did not remove it for a man unless he were a
member of the clergy or a royal family. For a man with a Catholic spirit, this
hierarchical order of dignities provides a kind of oxygen that makes it easier
Addressing priests and religious
Today, some serious Catholics are doing more than reminiscing about those “good
old days.” Aware of the importance of not only exterior demeanor and symbols,
but also the ways of treatment and address that were accorded to religious as
their just due, they would like to return to the basic courtesies. It is a very
Let me turn, then, to the first question:
1. Should we call a priest by
his first name or last name? I can remember in elementary school all the
priests went by their last names, but now they seem to want to be called by
The answer is simple. Father William
Walters should be addressed as Father Walters or as Father, not as
Father Bill, and certainly not as Bill. In the really old times, to which I
would like to return, you would address him as Your Reverence.
In addressing an envelope to a priest you would write The Reverend Father
William Walters, or The Reverend William Walters. Don’t forget the
The. If you want to be more polite you could use His Reverence.
If the letter is formal, the salutation would be The Reverend Father Walter;
for a personal letter, the salutation would be Father Walters, or if you
know him better, Dear Father Walters.
If you are writing to priest who is a member of religious order, you would add
the initials of his community after his name, e.g. The Reverend Philip Amato,
O.F.M. , or The Reverend Father Philip Amato, O.F.M. (1) A brother,
one who has taken the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in an order but
has not received the Sacrament of Holy Orders, should always be called
Brother, not Father. In written address, his initials would also follow his
name, e.g., Brother Francis Marie, O.F.M.
(1) Abbreviations for some of the
more familiar religious institutes for men and women are listed for your
reference at the end of the article. A full listing can be found in a
It is my first choice to maintain the
address Father William Walters or The Reverend Father William Walters
in preference to simply The Reverend in the formal or written address.
Since most Protestant ministers are addressed as “the reverend,” this puts a
healthy distinction between the Catholic priest and the Protestant preacher, and
does not place the priest on the same level as men who are not Catholic.
For the same reason, it is inconvenient for a Catholic to call a Protestant
preacher “reverend,” because this is to indirectly confer legitimacy to his
heretical confession. It is much better to call a Lutheran Mr. Jones instead of
reverend Jones, or use the title Doctor or Professor, if it is applicable. In
writing, it is sometimes necessary to refer to a Protestant as bishop, but the
title should be lower case, e.g. bishop Philip Robinson, or Protestant bishop
Robinson, as a sign of differentiation from the Catholic Bishop.
We Americans have the duty to be especially vigilant regarding tolerance toward
Protestantism. It was such tolerance that produced the heresy of Americanism,
which in final analysis, is to adapt Catholic doctrine and practices to
Protestantism. Unfortunately that same penchant that induced Leo XIII to write
against Americanism is still alive today not only among progressivist Catholics,
but even among conservative or traditionalist American Catholics.
The same general rule regarding Protestants – that is, to avoid the religious
title in direct address – would apply to the hierarchy in other heretical or
schismatic confessions. If a title is used in writing, it should be lower case,
e.g. rabbi Jacob Levinsky, or for an “orthodox” bishop, bishop Michael Baldwin,
The Rules Simply Stated
Going up the Catholic hierarchical ladder, these are the basic rules to serve
you in day-to-day circumstances:
Direct address: Brother
Elias. Written address: Brother Elias, O.F.M. Formal introduction: Brother Elias of the Order of Friars Minor.
Direct address: Father
McKenzie, or Father. Written address: The Reverend Father Leo F. McKenzie, S.J. Formal introduction: The Reverend. Father Leo McKenzie of The Society
Direct address: Father
Butler, or Father. Written address: The Reverend Father John W. Butler. Formal introduction: The Reverend. Father John Butler.
Direct address: Monsignor
Smith, or Monsignor. Written address: The Right Reverend Monsignor Thomas R. Smith, or The
Very Reverend Monsignor Thomas R. Smith. Formal introduction: The Very Reverend Monsignor Thomas Smith.
Direct address: Your
Excellency, or Bishop McNeil. Written address: His Excellency, The Right Reverend William A.
Scully, D.D. Bishop of Baltimore. or His Excellency, The Right Reverend
Bishop William Scully of Baltimore. Formal closing: Kissing the Sacred Ring, Formal introduction: His Excellency, the Bishop of Baltimore.
(2) It is common usage in
Europe to address a Bishop, Archbishop or Cardinal as Monsignor (Msgr.
or Msg.). This can be confusing to Americans, who commonly reserve the
title strictly for the Monsignor, who is ranked below the Bishop.
Direct address: Your Grace,
or Archbishop Kovak. Written address: His Grace, The Most Reverend Michael T. Kovak, S.T.D.
Archbishop of New York, or His Grace, The Most Reverend Archbishop Michael
T. Kovak, of New York. Formal closing: Kissing the Sacred Ring, Formal introduction: His Grace, the Archbishop of Baltimore.
Direct address: Your
Beatitude. Written address: His Beatitude, the Most Reverend Michael Cardinal
Sabbah, Patriarch of Jerusalem. Formal introduction: His Beatitude, The Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Direct address: Your
Eminence, or Cardinal Hand. Written address: His Eminence, Thomas Cardinal Hand, Archbishop of
Los Angeles, or, His Eminence, The Most Reverend Cardinal Thomas J. Hand, of
Los Angeles. Formal closing: Kissing the Sacred Purple, Formal introduction: His Eminence, Cardinal of Los Angeles.
Direct address: Your
Holiness, or Holy Father. Written address: His Holiness, Pope Pius XII, or better, The
Sovereign Pontiff, His Holiness Pius XII. Formal closing: Kissing the Sacred Foot, Formal introduction: His Holiness, the Pope.
Abbreviations should follow this form:
Brother – Bro., or Br.; Abbot – Ab.; Father – Fr., or F. (plural – FF.); Reverend Father – R.P. (Reverendus pater), or more often, Rev.
Fr.; Right Reverend, Most Reverend – RR. (Reverendissimus) Monsignor – Msgr. or Mgr.; Bishop – Ep., Epus. (Episcopus); Archbishop – Archieps. (Archiepiscopus), or Arch.; His Eminence – H.E.; Eminence – Emus. (Eminentissimus) His Holiness – H.H.
How should religious women be
Great respect used to be accorded to every religious woman, whose life, one
knew, was one of constant self-sacrifice. Her habit was a sign of her vow of
poverty and renunciation of normal vanities and pleasures as well as her perfect
chastity. It also was a symbol of her life of obedience, which demanded a
constant renunciation of her self-will.
Bridgettine nuns in their beautiful traditional habits
pray before the Blessed Sacrament in a church in Sweden. Inside the Vatican, February 1996
While the terms nun and
sister are interchangeable in the United States, Catholics should always
address a religious woman as Sister: Sister Angela Marie. Like the
simple brothers, the sisters are not distinguished by any special titles.
Often the superior of a religious house is called Mother. The titles can
vary: Mother Superior, Mother Prioress, Mother Abbess, or for all of them
you can simply say Reverend Mother or Your Reverence. The written
address would be The Reverend Mother Catherine Marie of the Incarnation,
O.C.D., or The Mother Abbess Margaret of the Sacred Heart. O.S.B.,
with the initials of the community added after the name.
Above, I gave some examples using the beautiful religious names sisters used to
receive with the hope that there will be a return to the inspiring practice of
leaving aside the name one had in the world to assume another as the spouse of
Christ. Unfortunately, after Vatican II an increasing number of convents and
monasteries have abandoned this practice and no longer assign their novices a
new name in Christ as a sign of their renunciation of the world.
The Rules Simply Stated
Direct address: Sister Anthony
Christine, or Sister. Written address: Sister Anthony Christine, D.S.P. Formal introduction: Sister Anthony Christine of the Daughters of St.
Direct address: Reverend Mother
Francis Louise, Reverend Mother, or Your Reverence. Written address: The Reverend Mother Francis Louise, D.C. Formal introduction: The Reverend Mother Francis Louise of the Daughters
of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul.
What do you do when the Father George O’Reilly wants to be called “Father
George” and insists with you, or your children, on being addressed as such?
There is, of course, the American way of being blunt and honest, which would
dictate an open confrontation about the modern tendencies of the address. “I
just told Father what I thought about it,” the American might later boast. You
can follow this school if you feel it necessary, but it is a bit gauche.
The laws of courtesy we are aiming to restore would counsel us not to be party
to that spirit, which can often leave ugly wounds in its bluntness and cross the
line of honesty into rudeness. Here, it would be much better to employ a more
subtle, and more Catholic behavior.
It is not difficult for an adult to calmly resolve the situation. One does not
need to argue, protest, or correct. Continue to address the priest as Father
O’Reilly, as the Church always taught us to do in English-speaking countries,
and should he persist in his demands for less formality, explain simply that
this is your preference. This should suffice given the reverence today’s society
affords the argument of personal preference.
In the case of a priest insisting with a child on less formality, a parent
should intervene and speak discretely to the priest: “Father, I am asking you
the favor of not insisting that my child call you “George,” since this isn’t the
custom in our family. I would appreciate your help and support in this.” Only
rarely, in the case of extreme revolutionary bad will, is more than this
Children will naturally emulate the daily habits, manners, and attitudes of
their parents. So the best way to instill the laws of civility as second nature
in children is for parents to do what they want their children to emulate. A boy
or girl whose father and mother are unfailingly courteous and considerate of
Priests, Brothers and Sisters knows instinctively both how to act and that the
religious vocation is respected. Here the Latin adage applies: verba docent,
exempla trahunt. Freely translated it means: words teach, but it is example
that makes the impact.
Other normal signs of respect
Because of sacred mission of the priest, a special
respect is owed him in social life. Inside the Vatican, February 1996
Because of the great dignity of the
priest due to his sacred mission, a special respect is owed him in social life.
Men, women and children should rise when a priest enters the room, and remain
standing when speaking to him if it is a brief contact. If it is a longer visit,
after a cordial greeting all present can be seated, giving the priest the place
I remember so well that whenever the priest would enter the room in my parochial
grade school, we would all rise and at a sign from Sister, greet him in unison,
“Good morning, Father Kelly.” At another sign, we could sit down again. What
order and serenity the observance of these small conventions guarantees even the
small society of a classroom.
Back when men and boys more regularly wore real hats, they would remove them and
remain uncovered in the presence of a religious or cleric. Today the ubiquitous
baseball cap at least should be removed.
American manners have almost always been a bit rough – perhaps because of our
tendency to celebrate the spontaneous spirit, and more probably because of a
general egalitarian spirit that disdains class distinctions. At any rate, I am
convinced most young Americans today truly are unaware that there is a proper
order and seating arrangement to be following at Catholic gatherings and home
dinner parties. At a baptismal or wedding party or a meeting of a Catholic
organization, for example, a clergy present should be treated as guests of
honors and in normal circumstances occupy the seat of honor. That place is at
the right of the host or hostess, or chairman.
When several clergy are present, the position of honor is determined by rank in
the hierarchy, or seniority. Thus, a Bishop takes precedence over a priest,
priests take precedence over brothers, and brothers over sisters, an older
priest over a younger.
The hierarchical order is followed in ceremonial
processions involving the clergy. Above, a Cardinal's majestic
cape is solemnly carried.
For example, at a family dinner
celebration at which a Monsignor and a priest are present, the Monsignor would
be seated at the right side of the host or hostess, the priest at the left.
According to the American etiquette books, the guest of honor would always be
placed on the right and left of the hostess. But it is very common practice in
Latin countries, and I believe a more organic custom, for a priest to be seated
at the right side of the host, that is, the father, who is head of the family.
Often, he will even cede his place to the priest, and especially to a Bishop, as
a sign of respect and deference.
A mother can help a child to understand this hierarchical order in a very normal
and natural way as she prepares for a dinner party and “preps” the family
“Mark, please set the table –
remember, Father Burns will be sitting at your father’s right. Be sure to
stand when Father enters and greet him, ‘Good evening, Father.’ Please don’t
just say, 'Hi.' That’s what children without good manners do. And don’t
forget to excuse yourself from the table, and when you have permission to
leave, tell Father good night and that you enjoyed the evening.”
This kind of day-to-day manners class
cultivates a courtesy that is effortless and genuine, which is what good manners
by definition are.
Treatment of a Bishop
There is a special protocol for formally greeting a Bishop that needs to be
dusted off and put back into daily usage. Because a Bishop has received the
fullness of Holy Orders, that is, the power to administer confirmation and Holy
Orders as well as all the other Sacraments, he receives a special distinction.
He is a Prince of the Church and a Successor of the Apostles.
A Catholic formally greets a Bishop by kissing the ring on his right hand, one
of his marks of office. Should circumstances permit, one kneels on one knee to
kiss his ring. Kneeling on both knees as a mark of respect is reserved for the
Blessed Sacrament when it is exposed.
Spanish officers pay ceremonial homage
to the Pontiff in a private audience at the Vatican, 1939.
If the circumstances make it difficult
or gauche to kneel, it is appropriate to make a small sign of deference,
standing and bending forward slightly from the waist to bring your lips to the
ring of the Bishop, whose hand rests lightly in yours.
Do not be surprised if some Bishops step away from this proper address you
offer. Today this formal address is avoided or shunned by many Bishops,
influenced by the egalitarian spirit of Vatican II that calls for a “less
vertical and more horizontal” Church. But this does not render such courtesies
either improper or obsolete. Consider this advice from American Catholic
Etiquette written in 1962:
“It is never wrong, either from a
religious or social point of view, to greet a Bishop by kissing his ring. It
is done at weddings, funerals, ordinations, any entertaining at which the
Bishop is the host, or meetings of Catholic organizations…
“No layman, religious or cleric below the rank of Bishop sits in the
presence of a Bishop until he invites one to do so. If seated, one rises
when a Bishop approaches to address one and remains standing until he
invites one to be seated.
“At a social gathering, the host, hostess or chairman says to the Bishop
before all others present, ‘Please be seated, Your Excellency,’ and
indicates a seat on his (her) right. If the Bishop arrives after the other
guests, all rise when he enters and remains standing until he is seated.”
These marks of respect should also be
shown to clerics and religious by the laity, with the exception of kneeling
before priests. Post-Vatican II Americans can be surprised to learn that a good
custom still followed in well-bred Catholic circles is to kiss the hand of a
priest in greeting him, as a signal of respect for the hand that consecrates in
the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
(3) Kay Toy Fenner, American
Catholic Etiquette (Westminister, MD: The Newman Press, 1962), “Honoring
a Bishop,” p. 227.
The Vatican II leveling spirit
conflicts with Catholic tradition
The relaxed and vulgar new attitude in both the treatment and way of being of
ecclesiastics has produced bad fruits: disrespect, impoliteness, rudeness, and a
great loss of the dignity and sacrality that characterize the religious life. In
fact, this modern spirit conflicts with age-old Church teaching on the spiritual
life, which counsels that Catholic principles should be applied not only in
strictly spiritual matters, but also in the familiar and social life. Catholic
perfection also extends to these fields of human activity.
Confirming this, St. Bonaventure argued that the interior life is acquired and
preserved through the exterior. Just as in nature, he said, there is never a
tree without its leaves and bark, nor a fruit without its rind or husk to serve
as protection, so also interior recollection is preserved by the exterior
demeanor and ways of being and treatment. When the exterior fails, the other
fails also. (4) The reckless experiment of the last decades after Vatican II has
proven the truth of his words.
(4) Alphonsus Rodrigues, S.J.,
Practice of Perfection and Christian Virtue (Chicago: Loyola Un. Press,
1929) Vol. 2, p. 112-3.
magnificent painting, The Blessing (La Benediction), one can see the
ceremonial life of
Christian Civilization embraced and
practiced by the people.
In the picture, the villagers pay profound homage to the Blessed Sacrament
and the clergy in the ceremony of
the blessing of the fields.
Some Common Religious Institutes of
Men in the United States:
C.J.M. – Congregation of Jesus and Mary (Eudists)
C.M. – The Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians or Lazarists)
C.M.F. – Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Claretians)
C.P. – The congregation of the Passion (Passionists)
C.S.C. – Congregation of the Holy Cross (Holy Cross Fathers)
C.S.P. – Congregation of St. Paul (Paulists)
C.SS.R. - Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists)
C.SS.S. – Congregation of the Most Holy Savior (Brigettines)
F.S.C. - Brothers of the Christian Schools (Christian Brothers)
F.S.P.X. - Fraternity of St. Pius X F.S.S.P – Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter
L.C. – Legionaries of Christ
O.C. or O.Carm. - Order of Carmelites O.Cart. – Order of Carthusians
O.Cist. – Order of Cistercians
O.C.D. – Order of Discalced (Barefooted) Carmelites
O.C.S.O. - Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists)
O.F.M. – Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans)
O.M.I. – Oblates of Mary Immaculate
O.P. – Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans)
O.S.A. – Order of St. Augustine (Augustianians)
O.S.B. – Order of St. Benedict (Benedictines)
O.S.F. – Franciscan Brothers
O.S.J.D. – The Order of St. John of God (Brothers of Mercy, or Mercederians)
S.V.P. – Society of St. Vincent de Paul
S.J. - Society of Jesus (Jesuits)
Some Common Religious Institutes of
Women in the United States:
C.S.J. – Sisters of St. Joseph
C.V. – Sorer Vitae (Sisters of Life)
D.C. – Daughters of Charity, Sister of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul
F.M.A. – Daughters of Mary Help of Christians (Salesian Sisters)
M.C. – Missionaries of Charity
O.C. or O.Carm. - Carmelite Sisters
O.P. – Dominican Sisters
O.S.B. – Benedictine Sisters
O.S.F. – Franciscan Sisters
O.S.M. – Order of the Servants of Mary (Servites)
O.S.U – The Ursulines
P.C. – Poor Clares
S.C. – Sisters of Charity
Academic Degrees for Religious
B.C.L.– Bachelor of Canon (or Civil) Law - Baccalaureus Canonicae (sive
B.U.J. – Bachelor of Both (canon and civil) Laws – Baccalaureus utriusque
D.C.L. – Doctor of Canon (or Civil) Law – Doctor Canonicae (sive Civilis)
D.D. – Doctor of Divinity – Divinitatis Doctor
D.S.S. – Doctor of Holy Scripture – Doctor Sacrae Scripturae
J.C.D. – Doctor of Canon (or Civil) Law – Juris Canonici (sive Civilis)
J.C.L. – Licentiate of Canon (or Civil) Law – Licentiatus Juris Canonici (sive
L.S.S. – Licentiate of Sacred Scripture – Licentiatus Sacrae Scripturae
Ph.D. –Doctor of Philosophy – Philosophiae Doctor
S.T.B. – Bachelor of Sacred Theology - Sacrae Theologiae Baccalaureus
S.T.D.– Doctor of Sacred Theology – Sacrae Theologiae Doctor
S.T.L. – Licentiate of Sacred Theology – Sacrae Theologiae Licentiatus
S.T.M. – Master of Sacred Theology – Sacrae Theologiae Magister
S.T.P. – Professor of Sacred Theology – Sacrae Theologiae Professor
Th.D. – Doctor of Theology – Theologiae Doctor.
Abbreviations for religious mottos:
A.M.D.G. – Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam – For the greater glory of God
D.O.M. – Deus Optimus Maximus – The Most Excellent God
U.I.O.G.D. – Ut In Omnibus Glorificetur Deus – That God may be glorified
in all things.