The importance of different coloured buttons.

As the years gather around me, after 40-plus years of priesthood and retirement beckoning, I find myself progressively in reflective mode. Distance helps to get things into perspective as I sieve through a medley of blessings and regrets, especially three blessings that come to mind.
One blessing was not being sent to Rome for my studies for the priesthood. While the climate and the food might have been enticing, the culture of clericalism could have destroyed me. In Rome, protocols and precedents create a system of the superiority of the ordained that becomes so sacrosanct as to achieve almost biblical status. As the American priest-writer, Donald Cozzens once wrote, ‘the clerical culture in which I lived and worked seemed as immutable as the Creed’.
In simple terms the priest was given to believe that he knew best, was in full charge of everything and should feel superior to mere lay-people. To give this clericalist mentality substance it was wrapped in black soutanes and Roman collars and placed in a context of status, deference and privilege. Priests became part of an exclusive, hierarchical and authoritarian elite.
So a pyramid was established: at the higher echelons from ‘His Holiness’ to ‘Your Eminence’ to ‘Your Grace’; lower down the scale from ‘Right Rev’ to ‘Most Reverend’ to ‘Very Reverend’ to just plain ‘Reverend’; and in the foothills where ‘Archdeacon’, ‘Canon’, ‘Dean’ and mere ‘Father’ advertise descending levels of self-importance – as Archbishop Rowan Williams said of the Anglican Church, ‘the concern with titles, the concern with the little differentiations, the different coloured buttons’.
Where Maynooth scored over Rome was that we didn’t live in the shadow of the Vatican but especially because there were enough of us around (then) to produce the occasional freethinker who instantly mocked any pretensions to self-importance. Like Leo Morahan when he asked ‘why a priest would address a letter to his friend – The Very Reverend Canon O’Malley PP, VF? Who are we trying to impress? The postman?’
A second blessing was to be a priest of Killala diocese, an entity small enough to puncture illusions of grandeur, self-importance and attention-seeking. Many years ago a decision was taken in Killala to put the term ‘Canon’ on the back boiler and to devise a system of personal income where every priest earned the same. The notion that one priest by virtue of his position or friendship with the bishop should be ‘honoured’ above his colleagues became anathema. No one in Killala diocese, publicly at least, now yearns for empty, pointless titles like ‘Archdeacon’, ‘Dean’ and ‘Canons’ that only create distinctions and divide clergy.
A third blessing is to have lived long enough to witness a pope in Rome arguing trenchantly what some have been saying for many years – that the culture of clericalism is damaging, not just our Church, but the message of the Gospel. Time and again Francis has lashed out at the ambition and self-centredness of the Roman establishment, has presented the Church as ‘a field hospital for the wounded’ and has asked us to focus on the gospel imperative of the needs of the poor.
Francis realises that privilege in the Church, a symbolic disfigurement of Christianity, has to be dismantled brick by brick but he has his work cut out for him because clericalism is a noxious weed, taking over even when people don’t realise it.
In recent years, we’ve become used to the term ‘group-think’, a particular mind-set that has ‘tunnel vision’ and ‘time warp’ knitted into its seams. Obsessions with outdated protocols or precedents or dress have become so embedded that instinctively priests and people imagine that a practice accepted in a specific time and culture becomes an immutable norm.
Often the bigger picture is obvious in the small things. Twelve concelebrants at a funeral Mass are introduced one by one with name title and status, as if they were teeing off in the British Open, while in the congregation those with a modicum of theology or good taste cringe with embarrassment or grit their teeth in anger. Or when ‘Father’ is shunted up to the top table. Or when the wearing of black soutanes and cummerbunds advertise a priest’s distinction from the rest of the People of God. Or when a Taoiseach is given a temporary ‘chaplain’ to ensure that he sits in the right place. All a long, long way from the stable in Bethlehem. Francis is right. We’re really lost the run of ourselves.
Some years ago a judge in England was presiding over a trial during the course of which a lawyer referred to Kevin Keegan, then the well-known captain of a moderately successful English soccer team. The judge interrupted to enquire who Kevin Keegan was, whereupon the whole court, including the lawyer, looked towards the judge in stunned disbelief. Did he not read the papers? Or watch television? Or meet the postman? Or engage with people at any level?
That’s the kind of silence that stuns so many Catholics today. Sometimes when bishops and priests say or do something that leaves people breathless and sometimes horrified, they have no idea how out of tune they are with the lived realities of life. Because we live in a different world, with different expectations from the people, so often we genuinely can’t see when we’re completely out by the side of things.
The problem is that we’re insulated from the ordinary; we’re knee-deep in privilege, which often we can’t even see; we live in an imagined as distinct from the real world; and we present our own obsessions as if they made perfect sense, which they do, if like the fish we don’t notice the water.

Similar Posts


  1. Mary Vallely says:

    …”clericalism is a noxious weed, taking over even when people don’t realise it.”
    I am smiling and nodding my head here as I read those words. Thank you, Brendan, for your refreshing honesty and for helping this particular Catholic to feel less alone in her thinking. Here in Armagh diocese we are appointing four new canons, all good men, of course, one of whom I’d like to think MAY be uncomfortable about being bestowed with this title but whose families and parishioners are beaming with pride. Like Brendan I am aghast at the notion of titles and undue deference but the seven hills of Armagh echo the seven hills of Rome and we have pretensions to grandeur at times. 😉
    I do not wish to offend any canon or would-be canon reading this or deacon, arch deacon or whatever but I do believe that such titles (and the trappings, vestments etc; that go with them) are anachronistic in this day and age.

  2. Isn’t it time to do away with “concelebrated masses”. The idea that “a priests place must be in the sanctuary”, must be showing themselves. If there are ten priests present at a Mass would it not be better if the surplus priests took their place in the pews with the ordinary folk.

  3. Ned Quinn says:

    Thanks be to God for the Western People and Brendan’s column! Just as the Skibbereen Eagle of old, was “keeping its eye” on Russia, the W.P. has the Vatican, the CDF and the Nunciature firmly in its sight.

  4. “…. a pyramid was established: at the higher echelons from ‘His Holiness’ to ‘Your Eminence’ to ‘Your Grace’; lower down the scale from ‘Right Rev’ to ‘Most Reverend’ to ‘Very Reverend’ to just plain ‘Reverend’; and in the foothills where ‘Archdeacon’, ‘Canon’, ‘Dean’ and mere ‘Father’ advertise descending levels of self-importance”.
    After more than a few centuries of this we loose sight of the fact that this is just about the opposite of what Jesus talked about.

  5. Michael Maginn says:

    The young priest
    emerges from the sacristy
    in full Roman vestments,
    a throwback to Latin Mass days.
    Another nail in the coffin
    of our ailing Church
    where the only way forward
    is forward,
    not back.

  6. I suggest every negative issue confronting the entire Church, institution and people, has a connection to some aspect of clericalism. Yes, a truly, noxious weed. I so wish Pope Francis would agree to meet with and discuss the Church with reformers. Starting with the International Catholic Reform Group might well…hit the ball out of the park. Perhaps, with such a convening, newness would have a fighting chance. I’m not saying, I agree with all that the reformers have on their agenda, but, it such a meeting and ensuing discussion would open the windows?….again? The Vatican II Council was at the very least an indication that newness and moving in the right direction is not beyond possibility…but…if we remain on the course we are on….it can only be surrendered.

  7. Padraig McCarthy says:

    The “Pact of the Catacombs” entered into by a number of those attending Vatican II had as one of the items:
    We do not want to be addressed verbally or in writing with names and titles that express prominence and power (such as Eminence, Excellency, Lordship). We prefer to be called by the evangelical name of “Father.”
    There’s a copy at .
    Also an article about Helder Camara and the Pact of the Catacombs:
    During my four years in Rome, I remember hearing a saying that Rome would either destroy or confirm your faith! It could go either way.
    Destroy it in the sense that there was so much patently superficial or false that a person might conclude that it’s all a farce.
    Confirm it in the sense that, with all the superficial show and artificiality, a person could recognise those dimensions for what they are, and be able to focus on the radical core of being a Christian.

  8. Are we priests the only group in Irish society still using an honourific title? Other groups simply use the job description as a form of respectful address eg. Guard, Nurse, Doctor, Bishop. The title Father sounds soothing to our ears, a bit of a comfort blanket. What’s wrong with Priest as a title rather than the faux symbolic Father. Since 2006 Judges have dropped honourific tags in favour of “Judge” and the justice system hasn’t collapsed.

  9. In Canon Sheehan’s novels the protestant characters (upper class) refer to the priest as “Mr” and address him as “Sir”. Nothing much wrong with that. People who know the priest well could address him by his first name. Otherwise “Reverand” perhaps?

  10. Padraig McCarthy says:

    @8: Charlie O’Gorman.
    Good question. The honorific titles that seem most frequent are “Sir” and “Madam”. See letters to the Editor in newspapers. I like to use the Irish “A chara” or “A cháirde” or “A dhuine uasail” – are these honorifics?
    Are Mr and Mrs and Ms regarded as honorifics? What about Ladies and Gentlemen?
    We also have Sir Bob Geldof and (until lately) Sir Terry Wogan; I can’t think of any “Lady” (there were Lady Gregory and Lady Goulding), but there must be some. The Irish State does not confer any such titles.
    In the parliament of Brandenburg recently, the Green Party introduced a bill to adopt a “Campaign for Acceptance of Gender and Sexual diversity, Self-Determination and against Homo and Trans-phobia in Brandenburg.”
    Steffen Königer of Germany’s new Alternative for Germany party (German acronym: AfD) opened his speech “Dear Ladies and Gentleman…” and then took the complete list of 60 possible genders which has been adopted by Facebook, and proceeded to name each one in a salutation which lasted over 3 minutes.
    “Your (His / Her) Excellency” is usually used when referring to an ambassador or president of another State. The website of our President reports: “On Thursday, 21st July, 2016 President Michael D. Higgins will receive H.E. François Hollande, President of the French Republic at Áras an Uachtaráin”; or, in Irish: “Fáiltíonn an tUachtarán roimh A.Sh. Francois Hollande, Uachtarán na Fraince.”
    I heard a story (apocryphal?) about Nelson Mandela. After his visit to Queen Elizabeth, someone said to him that he should not have addressed the queen as “Elizabeth.” His reported response was: “She addressed me as Nelson, so why should I not address her as Elizabeth?”
    As regards “Father”, it seems to me to express a particular relationship more than an honorific, much as we might address our own parents.
    One I never like is “Reverend”! At least, not until each and every human being is treated with reverence.
    When asked for my name, I always simply give my name, and leave it to the other person how she or he wishes to address me.

  11. Michael Greene says:

    What a delight it is to discover that so many christians are discovering the total contradiction between the “titles” and the gospel message of brotherhood(=equality)which all priests had the mission to preach.That this class distinction among the priests themselves and between themselves and their people went on unnoticed for so so long especially here in Ireland is a clear proof that the institutional church was off the track.
    As a priest in Latin America I had hoped but never believed that I would live to see a Pope fighting to banish clericalism from our christian communities. I thought such change could only come from the bottom. But lo and behold, the impossible has happened and Francis is leading the way.The Holy Spirit is alive indeed !

  12. John McNulty says:

    Jesus in 23 Matthew admonished his disciples and ordered them to call no man on earth Father because “pou have a Father in heaven”

Join the Discussion

Keep the following in mind when writing a comment

  • Your comment must include your full name, and email. (email will not be published). You may be contacted by email, and it is possible you might be requested to supply your postal address to verify your identity.
  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger. Comments containing vulgarities, personalised insults, slanders or accusations shall be deleted.
  • Keep to the point. Deliberate digressions don't aid the discussion.
  • Including multiple links or coding in your comment will increase the chances of it being automati cally marked as spam.
  • Posts that are merely links to other sites or lengthy quotes may not be published.
  • Brevity. Like homilies keep you comments as short as possible; continued repetitions of a point over various threads will not be published.
  • The decision to publish or not publish a comment is made by the site editor. It will not be possible to reply individually to those whose comments are not published.