You’ve no doubt heard that Pope Francis has almost entirely stopped naming monsignors, at least until the meeting of the eight cardinals who are to discuss church reform with Francis early in October. It is not yet known whether the practice will then be continued, or possibly abolished for good.

Perhaps you didn’t realize what a political football the issue of monsignors is. After the Second Vatican Council, any number of bishops stopped nominating priests to Rome to get the honorary title. It was thought to be overly hierarchical, divisive, and unnecessary.

Then, more recently, some prelates have revived the practice. When Cardinal George did so in Chicago about three years ago, it was against the objection of older reform-minded priests. The Chicago Tribune reported at the time,

In Chicago, a stigma has been attached to the title of monsignor since Cardinal John Cody took the helm of the local church in 1967. Priests at that time asked Cody to refrain from asking the pope to confer the title to avoid creating a caste system among the clergy. Nearly three decades later, his immediate successor, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, continued the moratorium after many priests… voted against reviving the honorific.

Some Chicago priests cautioned Cardinal George against reviving the practice, but to no avail. Little did they or the cardinal know that the whole thing would be up for discussion in just a few years.

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I didn’t know any monsignors growing up – this was in the New Ulm Diocese under Bishop Raymond Lucker. Definitely not the monsignor-naming type, he.

The topic came up at table in the monastery some years ago. One monk reported that the head pastor at his childhood parish was a monsignor – and he had his own sacristy! The altar boys had to figure out who was saying Mass that day so they’d know whether to go to Monsignor’s sacristy or the Fathers’ sacristy.

One fun thing about being a Catholic, there are seemingly always yet more strange customs to come across.

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The newly-invented custom for the newly-invented Ordinariate (for Anglicans coming into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church) is that formerly Anglican bishops are named monsignors as a recognition of their previous ministry.

Hmmm, what would they be called if monsignors are no more?? I’m sure somebody has thought about that and has an answer.

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In Austria, (then)-monsignor Helmut Schüller is founder of the Pastors’ Initiative (Pfarrer-Initiative). This group issued the “Appeal for Disobedience” in 2011, which has since been signed by about 425 Austrian priests.

Last December, the Vatican stripped Schüller of the title of “monsignor,” presumably because of his leadership in the reformed-minded organization. He reports he was “not shaken” by the action. For the record, “he had never acquired or worn the cassock with purple-piped buttonholes and the purple silk cincture” that come with the title of monsignor.

If Francis does abolish the monsignorate, I’m sure Fr. Schüller will permit himself a good laugh. His demotion will have turn out to be a sort of harbinger of things to come! (“I was a former monsignor before you were…”)

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If the monsignorate is abolished, I suppose current monsignori will be grandfathered in and retain their titles (and special fancy clothing) for life. Then I suppose each monsignor will have to decide whether to be addressed by his title or not, whether to wear his fancy robes or not.

There’s the example of Dan Mayall, pastor of Holy Name Cathedral, whom Cardinal George nominated to be a monsignor in 2010. “I don’t want people bowing at the ankles,” he wrote to his parishioners. “Call me Dan.”

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I hope Francis abolishes the monsignorate. (You probably already guessed that.) But it seems hard to imagine that he really will. If he does, it will be of no little significance – not because of this issue per se, but because of what his says about Francis’ readiness to rethink all sorts of issues in the church.

awr