Monastic Etiquette

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Maria Elena Vidal will love this. I decided to write something about monastic forms of address and etiquette. There has been a fair amount of confusion over my use of the title Don. It is not the short form of Donald. The same confusion arises with the title Dom used by English and French–speaking monks; it is not the short form of Dominic. A number of folks think that Don is my Christian name and Marco my surname! In my monastic community in Rome and among my Italian relatives and friends I am known and addressed as Don Marco; in the United States people call me Father Mark or, to use my two Christian names, Father Mark Daniel.

Don and Dom

Cistercian–Benedictines in Italy, as well as other Benedictines and Carthusians, are usually addressed as Don. The same title is given to secular priests in Italy. In other countries monks (and some Canons Regular) use the form Dom, but it means the same thing. The title derives from the Latin Domnus, a form of Dominus, and passed into Italian use under Spanish influence. It is perhaps best translated as Messer or as Sir. It expresses respect. In Southern Italy the title is also given to men of some social standing and to those of noble background. The title Donna, meaning Lady, is still given in Italy to Cistercian and Benedictine nuns; it is also the correct form of address for women of noble background, especially in Southern Italy.

Rule of Saint Benedict

The Rule of Saint Benedict orders that no one is to be addressed by his Christian or monastic name alone. "Even in the manner of addressing one another, let no one presume to call another simply by his name. The seniors are to address their juniors as Fratelli, and the juniors are to address the seniors as Nonni, which means "Your Paternal Reverence" (RB 63). In practice, all solemnly professed priest monks came to be addressed as Don, while novices and juniors were called Fratello. In a few monasteries the title Nonnus, meaning Reverend Father Elder, is still used on formal occasions or in documents.

In Italian monasteries the title Padre or Father, usually preceded by Reverendissimo, Molto Reverendo, or Reverendo, tends to be reserved to the Abbot, the Prior, and those Seniors who belong to the Abbot's Council. The title Father expresses a certain spiritual intimacy; one speaks of one's Spiritual Father. It is not a title given automatically to priest monks. In a sense, one has to demonstrate one's capacity for spiritual fatherhood first! In monasteries of women the title of Madre is generally given to any mature solemnly professed nun, while the younger members of the community, at least until Solemn Profession, are called Suor or Sorella.

Fathers and Brothers

In the Middle Ages the Mendicant Friars, Franciscans, Dominicans, and others, chose to be called Frater or even Fra or Fratello. It was when they began preaching and hearing confessions that the people began addressing the Friars as Father. They continued to use Frater among themselves, even for their superiors. Later on, when Saint Philip Neri and the first Oratorians came to be addressed as Father, it was an expression of confidence in their spiritual wisdom and discernment and an acknowledgement of their supernatural paternity.


An anti–paternal/maternal trend was generated by the social upheavals of 1968 and by dissent within the Church from Pope Paul VI's prophetic encyclical, Humanae Vitae. Those in rebellion against all forms of authority found it necessary to "kill both father and mother." At the same time, in monasteries and religious communities the spousal and generative dimensions of the consecrated life were minimized or even erased from the collective consciousness by radically changing the inherited vocabulary that expressed the mysteries of spiritual fatherhood and motherhood. This opened the way to the frenzied search for "self–fulfillment" and to the practice of a kind of spiritual contraception. The monasteries and communities that accepted the secular culture's "contraceptive mentality" are dying out.

Eros and Agàpe

The spousal dimension of consecrated life corresponds to Pope Benedict XVI's presentation of eros: the love that desires union. The paternal and maternal dimension of consecrated life corresponds to his presentation of agàpe: the sacrificial love that engenders life. The titles of Father and Mother affirm and express the spiritual gifts by which life is transmitted from one generation to the next. Woe to the communities that have suppressed the vocabulary of spiritual generativity inherited from tradition or replaced it with terms that are deemed "politically correct" such as "leadership."

Celibate Contraception

Some religious argue that the exclusive use of the titles of Brother and Sister better corresponds to an ethos of evangelical humility, simplicity and, of course, equality. They fail to see that this usage reflects inadequately the normal spiritual development through betrothal and espousal into spiritual fecundity and generativity. Sociologists will argue that the things a society refuses to acknowledge will, with time, disappear from the culture. The traditional expression of eros and agàpe within the consecrated life is effectively suppressed by the kind of social engineering that manipulates changes in vocabulary. How many religious have been lured, albeit unconsciously, into a mentality of spiritual contraception?

Words Matter

When I realized that some readers of Vultus Christi understood that my Christian name is Don and my surname Marco, I decided to clarify things by putting Father Mark in my sidebar. Names and titles are the expression of much deeper things. Etiquette matters, in the Church and everywhere else.


I do love it, and had a good chuckle while reading it. I remember when Don Stefano Gobbi came to Maryland, many people thought his first name was "Donald," too. Well,dear Father, I will call you whatever you want, although I think "Don Marco" is such a nice "salon name."

Beautiful commentary on the meaning of religious titles.

I also appreciate this post.

In the monastery many called one another by their first names - or nicknames.

I once made the mistake at work of calling a rather dignified priest Fr. Peter. When I called to say his order was in, I said, "Hi, is this Fr. Peter?" and he said,
"Yes this is Fr. -last name-."

He was gracious about it and I learned a quick lesson in the proper address for a priest.

Thanks for this post... Father Donald. :)

(Sorry - I couldn't resist!)

While diocesan priests in the US, Great Britain, and Ireland tend to use their surnames, as in Father Jones, Father Grady, or Father Connelly, it IS proper to address monastic priests and some religious by their monastic or religious name, e.g. Father John of the Cross, Father Bernard, or Dom Anselm.

In Italy, even diocesan priests tend to use their Christian names preceded by the title Don as in Don Giorgio or Don Giovanni. Monks use their monastic names preceded by Don. Friars who are priests use either Padre or Fra as in Padre Pio and Fra Pasquale.

In France priest were addressed as Monsieur le Curé, or Monsieur le Vicaire, Monsieur l'Abbé, or by their surname, as in Monsieur Dupont. Since 1968 there has been a frightful reaction against anything deemed formal or ancien régime. Many Bishops, properly addressed as Monseigneur, now want to be called Père. They are still Monseigneur to me . . . and (surprise!)I also kiss their rings!

The Carmelite nuns I knew were strict about calling each other "Sister" and "Mother" and not by their first names. They thought that first names in a monastic setting could lead to favoritism and familiarity. They thought it important to use titles to protect the dignity of the Brides of Christ.

This is so informative. Thank you for posting.

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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