Here is How to Address Your Bishop
One of my most embarrassing moments happened when I was a freshman in college and met my diocesan bishop for the first time. It was a September morning and I was standing in line after the bishop celebrated mass on campus to open the school year. I was eager to shake his hand and wish him a happy Sunday. I was just starting to understand that side of the faith more and had only seen a bishop once before, at my confirmation ceremony years earlier.
Normally, I over-rehearse what I’m going to say in my head when preparing to approach anybody I haven’t met before. But I was at ease having just received the Eucharist and it was a nice day. I shook his hand, looked him right in the eye, and said, “Happy Sunday, Bishop...er….uh...Bishop...um...sir.”
I wanted to die. I was ready for the angels to open the heavens and announce Jesus’ second coming right then and there. I don’t think the bishop noticed or cared. He simply gave me a blessing and wished me a happy Sunday. I then proceeded sprint back to my dorm and hide from embarrassment.
I know I’m not alone. Most Catholics have no idea where how to formally address clergymen. We live in a more informal society now, so most bishops don’t have particularly strong feelings about formalities and are satisfied with a simple “Hello Bishop [insert last name here].” I like the idea of recognizing them as my shepherd and respecting their spiritual leadership.
One thing to note is it’s inconclusive where and how a lot of these titles were developed. Most of them are very traditional and it’s speculated that the historical origin may be from the Early Middle Ages when the majority of Bishops and Cardinals were from noble families. Bishops and Cardinals needed to be well educated and in those days, only the noble classes could afford such a luxury, so their sons were the ones selected for these positions.
Although it’s no longer the norm, a more formal address for presidents, governors, and ambassadors is “your excellence.” It’s traditionally a title that is held by one who holds governance.
The title was the general term for officials in the Middle Ages. However, governors of the colonies in the British Empire were addressed as Excellency. George Washington used the form “Excellency when he was President, although today it’s more typical to directly address that office as “Mr. President” or “President [name]”.
The traditional title is now most often associated with bishops. It recognizes them as the leader of their diocese.
Bishop Robert Barron, Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles and founder of Word on Fire, is a great modern day example. On his podcast, he is introduced as “Bishop Barron,” but when he does media appearances as a religion correspondent for NBC, he is often called, “Your Excellency.”
Cardinals have historically been known as Princes of the Church and hold a unique responsibility within the College of Cardinals to participate in Papal conclaves. Their office is highest among the bishops (aside from the Pope’s seat) and so they get a much more formal title.
When calling a cardinal “Your Eminence,” you recognize him as an eminent member of the College of Cardinals with a very unique relationship of service and obedience to the Pope.
Cardinal Seán Patrick O'Malley, Archbishop of Boston has publicly said that he prefers to simply be called Cardinal Seán. [See link]
“Your Holiness” or “Holy Father”
If you are blessed to have an audience with the Pope….
The typical address would be “Your Holiness” or “Holy Father”
As the successor to Saint Peter and the rock of the church, we recognize the Pope as our Holy Father and teacher. He is sanctified, set apart (but don’t confuse that with sinless), and called to this special office.
Regardless of formal titles, at the heart of every clergyman is role as a father to his flock. As a young priest, Karol Wojtyla’s parishioners and students called him "Wujek" (Polish for "Uncle") to prevent the intolerant communist loyalist from deducing that he was a Catholic priest. When he became Bishop of Krakow, he insisted they continue to address him as Wujek, which they did, ever when he became pope.