Saturday, January 28, 2017

Who you calling that?

Cardinal Baum probably did not remember much about me after we first met in 1988.  I came to Rome for seminary five years later, and because he was attentive and generous toward us seminarians, he knew well who I was.  That was our acquaintance until 2002, when I came to live with him as his priest secretary, our path to real friendship.  For four years we were together through all sorts of events and challenges, ecclesiastical and personal.  After that I returned to parish life, and every time I visited him over his remaining ten years, he greeted me warmly as his dear friend.  This was a gracious gift he freely gave me.
Do you know what I called him throughout?  Your Eminence.  Always.  Well, sometimes I did it in other languages – Italian (Eminenza), since we were together in Rome; Latin (in the superlative form, Eminentissime!), and even once in a while in my attempt at French.  Some may wonder, is that any way to address a friend?  The only times I ever addressed him by his baptismal name, William, were the two times I administered the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, one of them about two days before he died
There is no term of address more intimate or respectful than Father, and thus at times I do not hesitate to use it in all respect and affection with peers, collaborators, and my dearest friends.  There is no distance imposed nor irony if I call a good buddy Monsignor.  Those two names are how Cardinal Baum called me most of the time.  Why shouldn’t he have used the latter, since I was granted that honor principally at his insistence?  
As his secretary, I knew all his friends, including his long-time priest and bishop friends, his seminary buddies, and even his best friend since kindergarten.  Some would refer to him as Bill or even Billy.  I knew who they meant, and detected not a hint of disrespect.  But as the saying goes, I never went there.  More often they, too, used a more formal term of address in conversation with him.  
All through college, most of my professors addressed us students as Mister, followed by our last name.  It was respect not servitude that led us to call them by their proper titles.  And it was a moment of great joy when, the day after I was graduated, one of the instructors to whom I was closest invited me to use his first name.  We are still close.
Because respect is the basis for any authentic intimacy or friendship, such formality does not preclude or reduce either, but rather can increase both.  A more formal style of address acknowledges not only the relative position of the speaker to addressee, but also the latter’s relationship to other people.  It is therefore also a sign of respect for every person who addresses him that way, be it Major, Doctor, or Your Holiness.  This forms the basis of a better relationship with all of those other people as well.
It may seem stiff to some, or even strange that I often use titles and last names.  I am happy to offer this respect wherever I can, not to impose a distance or obtain distinction for myself, but in order lay the foundation for a relationship based on mutual respect.  Not everyone understands this offer, and not everyone accepts it.   But in my experience, respect appropriately expressed, rather than instant intimacy assumed, leads more often to true friendship. 
Not everybody realizes how much closeness and affection can be expressed with the words, Your Eminence.   But when I said it, Cardinal Baum sure did.
Monsignor Smith

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