Monsignori non di più?

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.

*               *               *               *               *

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.

*               *               *               *               *

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.

 *               *               *               *               *

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…”)

*               *               *               *               *

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.”

*               *               *               *               *

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.
















  1. 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.

    The exact same thing will also apply if he does not abolish the monsignorate.

    1. @Sean Keeler – comment #1:
      Actually, not to score points on either side, but I don’t think it is symmetrical. If he doesn’t abolish it, it will still tell us that he’s willing to re-examine things, meaning he could re-examine all sorts of other things, whatever his final decision. I think he’s already played his hand a bit by even raising the question.


  2. Don’t a number of European dioceses with cathedrals and cathedral or collegiate chapters simply name priests canons instead of requesting they be made monsignors?

  3. A part of the question will be what becomes of the Curia.

    For example, it seems appropriate to make a Nuncio an Archbishop given he needs to represent the Pope to the hierarchy and the government of a country. So there are always going to be a fair amount of former Nuncio archbishops having jobs in the Curia. That will probably tend to maintain the ranking system there. Many will think that priests need to be ordained bishops or appointed monsignors to be taken seriously within the Curia.

    On the other hand the Pope seems to be making a lot of lay appointments which may well tend to dismantle the clerical ranking system, especially if he begins to make many appointments of people with very substantial credentials who are lay persons or women religious. People will begin to focus on the credentials of the person rather than their clerical rank.

    Maybe the Curia departments will become mainly bureaucracies supporting various committees of bishops where the decions will be hashed out. Maybe curial departments won’t have cardinals any more just an archbishop in charge of coordinating things? Maybe former nuncios will be mainly valued for their particular experience rather than their rank of archbishop?

    As for the honorific side of things Francis could easily let that up to national conferences of bishops to decide and individual bishops to make appointments themselves. An honors structure might work very well in some cultures whereas in other cultures it just gets in the way of efficient administration.

    My suspicion is that we are going to see many things being delegated downward, and this one would be an easy one to do. I suspect this will result in a lot more diversity among national churches similar to that found among the Eastern Churches.

    1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #4:
      I don’t agree that it’s necessary to appoint nuncios as archbishops – they could just as easily be appointed as honorary prelates (aka monsignors) which is, in fact, what they are. A bishop is the head of a local church which nuncios (or curial administrators / bureaucrats) are not.

      In the UK, senior clergy tend to get appointed as canons (of the cathedral) so there isn’t really a need for monsignors – although in practice there is some overlap between both. If the US established cathedral chapters then there wouldn’t be so much need for monsignor-ships (and headstrong bishops would also have to listen and seek counsel from senior clergy).

      1. @Andrew rex – comment #6:

        In theory, the papal diplomatic corps and the entire curial bureaucracy does not have to be episcopal nor even clerical, lay people could do all these jobs. More and more lay people are doing curial jobs in all the chanceries around the world.

        The attractive part for Francis of making the Roman curia, and all curias around the world into lay bureaucratic structures is that it would eliminate a lot of clerical careerism not only in Rome but around the world.

        However such a reform would require the efforts of several papacies over time. It is not as easy as “synodal” reform which already has existing structures and personnel. All Francis has to do is transfer responsibility to them from the curial bureaucracy, and make the curial bureaucracy the servant of synods as well as the pope. A reasonable goal that could be accomplished in five to ten years.

        In regard to Nuncios there is no reason why Nuncios could not be recruited from among bishops around the world. Our state department functions with both a career diplomatic corps plus politically appointed ambassadors.

        Appointing bishops without diplomatic experience to diplomatic posts staffed by professional lay people would give the Pope great new opportunities to remove bishops by promotion. Law could have been appointed Nuncio to Mongolia. That would certainly have gotten him out of the way, been clearly seen as a punishment, and also have given him diplomatic immunity for the crimes he may have committed in the USA. Finn could be appointed his charge d’ affairs.

        Sending cardinals out for a five year term as Nuncio once they reach age 75 rather than giving them a position in the Curia seems like a better use of their talents. They could do a lot of good representing the Pope around the world.

        Francis in choosing his Secretary of State seems to have decided to restore the professional diplomatic service by choosing a product of that service who seems to be very effective at quiet diplomacy. The new Secretary seems to understand well that his job is to make that diplomatic service effective rather than having people occupy positions on a career ladder leading up to the Vatican. Both JP2 and B16 neglected the diplomatic service.

      2. @Jack Rakosky – comment #12:
        I think that you will find that most US ambassadors are professionals with only the largest embassies having political appointments. The political ambassador is valued for his contacts in the USA rather than his skill in running the mission.
        The Vatican missions are so much smaller that the same split in roles may not often be practical.
        Now a diplomat has immunity in the country to which he is accredited but not in other countries and certainly not in his home country. So if Cardinal Law were nuncio in Mongolia he would not have immunity when in the USA.
        An Anglican friend who visited Mongolia told of the excellent work done by Catholic nuns and by the bishop, who was from the Philippines. I suggest that having a disgraced person appointed as nuncio would not show that the work of the local church is appreciated.
        None of this detracts from the thrust of your ideas: it does seem to me that finding a suitable role for retired clerics can be a challenge. I recall that Abp. Couvre de Murville served as a parish priest away from his former diocese. Not all could, or would, do that.

  4. Ambrose Bierce defined a monsignor as a high rank of ecclesiastical office the Catholic Church for which the religion’s Founder saw no use whatsoever — or words to that effect.

  5. “Monsignor” in French is “Mon seigneur” which means literally “my lord”, and it is used to address both bishops and monsignors. If I’m not mistaken, the same thing happens in Italy.

    There are about 1 billion Catholics. The structure of a system governing that many people would have to be complex, and I would think the structure would need several administrative steps between priest and pope, e.g., cardinal, bishop and monsignor.

    In such a hierarchy it would makes sense to have titles signifying the administrative offices and not the individuals who temporarily hold them.

    1. Re: Ann Olivier’s ‘steps between priest and pope, e.g., cardinal, bishop and monsignor.’

      Doesn’t this obscure the difference between orders and honorifics in the Church?

      Cardinals and monsignors do not, to the best of my knowledge, have to be ordained to those titles. Nor indeed does the Pope.

      Holy orders is one thing (I think it’s something to do with ‘…to serve, not to be served’) but all these other titles should not be confused with them. Even the Pope is the Pope because he is, firstly, Bishop of Rome.

      If we must have these titles, I much prefer being a canon to being a monsignor. The latter title sounds rather un-English to me!

      Alan Griffiths.

      1. @Alan Griffiths – comment #15:
        In my much younger days, the Minneapolis-born Archbishop Harold Henry of Gwangju, Korea, observed that deacons and priests were ordained, bishops were consecrated, archbishops were promoted, and popes were crowned, but monsignors and cardinals were created. He then quoted the well-known Scholastic definition of “create.”

    2. @Ann Olivier – comment #7:
      It’s amusing when American reporters use the Continental title of “monsignor” for a European bishop—not realizing that in American English, that’s a demotion.

  6. I much more object to the elevation of Curial leaders and diplomats to the episcopate; perhaps Msgr could be reserved as an honorific for those posts.

  7. The role of nuncio might be a good example of a circumstance where the title monsignor IS helpful, for the reasons Jack R. notes in #4. When we confer ordination to the episcopacy upon a person in order to have him taken seriously in government offices, we’ve surely lost sight of the meaning of the role.

    I’m not a fan of the use of the title, not because there are not priests who deserve special recognition; there are — in fact, far more, surely, than get it. More often than not the title is used to recognize a priest’s business, bureaucratic, or fundraising acumen, rather than his exceptional pastoral care, spiritual guidance, social service, or profound love for the people he serves.

  8. I’ve always thought that “Monsignor” meant “well-regarded by the chancery”. What that recognizes depends on the diocese.

  9. While Canons and Monsignors are not the same thing, one of the most striking memories I still have from my trip to Guadalupe in Mexico was that the sacristy in the Basilica had two sets of restrooms, not “Ladies” and “Gentlemen”, but “Priests” and “Canons”. One way or another clericalism will always thrive, and will outlive even Bingo in the Catholic Church!

  10. I’ve been critical of clericalism here and elsewhere over the years, and I have no intention to stop. That said, when I think of the monsignors I knew growing up in the Archdiocese of Chicago (Cody-Bernardin years) I think really only of gentle and good pastors: the sorts of people you’d want to admire, priests whom I never knew to claim privileges and whom you’d never mind seeing receive a little extra recognition because (as Claire attests above in #11) it said something about what was valued. It appears my experiences were exceptional. But before we throw the baby out with the bathwater (and yes, I suppose–throw out the purple vestments), let’s give a little credit to the men we called “Monsignor” who earned their place of honor by becoming true servants. It did happen.

  11. One of the catechism questions used to run:

    Q: What is a monsignor?
    A: A monisgnor is an ecclesiastical mule – a cleric without illustrious ancestory and with no hope of progeny!

    I suppose the joke no longer applies, if former Anglican bishops are taken into consideration.

  12. Great story about Fred McManus from jfr:

    “Monsignor Frederick McManus, a priest of Boston who served on the faculty of CUA for 40 years, was named at age 37 by the Holy See (Secretariat of State) a peritus to the liturgical commission of the Central Preparatory Commission for the coming Council. He was actually present in the room during the drafting of the Constitution on the Liturgy, which would be presented to the Fathers of the Council at the first session in 1962. When the work of the preparatory commission was finished, Fred McManus was appointed, again by the Holy See, as a peritus to the Council. He participated then both in the preparatory phase and the conciliar phase and actually had a role in drafting for the consideration of the bishops of the conciliair liturgical commission various articles of the constitution, especially those dealing with the sacraments and sacramentals. These remain in the text with some amendments made in the debate before passage of SC in December 1963. Another American, also appointed directly by the Holy See, Father Godfrey Diekmann, OSB, had a large role in the drafting of the important articles (37-41) that deal with inculturation. So in fact the periti nominated by Rome didn’t just have good seats in the basilica.
    An aside, during the Council, Fred’s bishop, Cardinal Cushing, named him a monsignor and sent the nomination along with a fuller list to the then Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Egidio Vagnozzi, a determined opponent of the conciliar reforms, including the liturgical reforms. Abp. Vagnozzi crossed Fred McManus’s name off the list before sending it on to Rome. The Delegate informed Cardinal Cushing of this in a kind of by-the-way when he was visiting Boston. Fred was eventually named a monsignor in 1980. Delegate, Abp. Jadot, invited him to lunch and at that time gave him his official scroll from Rome. Fred never had an investiture and never wore a monsignor’s cassock in the twenty-five years before his death in 2005.

  13. I guess my feelings about monsignori are colored by my now-former pastor being named one shortly before he left our parish. He and everyone at the parish were shocked that the pastor of a small inner city parish with a reputation of providing a home for those on the fringes on Catholicism was named a monsignor. At the same time the pastor of a cluster of parishes in far-Western Maryland (a challenging but not, for most priests, desirable assignment) was also made a monsignor. So it seems to me that it could be used to recognize priests who have taken tough assignments and done well with them, not as a way to puff up those who are already over-inflated.

  14. I may very well be mistaken, but I believe it was Andrew Greeley who said that when a man is made a Monsignor he loses all his priest friends: “If they want to honor a priest give him something he can use – cash, or a new pair if Nikes.”

  15. A priest who studied at the Catholic University of America in the middle 1970s told me that some of his fellow priests there wore buttons that proclaimed “I would have been a monsignor.”

  16. Paul R. Schwankl : @Alan Griffiths – comment #15: In my much younger days, the Minneapolis-born Archbishop Harold Henry of Gwangju, Korea, observed that deacons and priests were ordained, bishops were consecrated, archbishops were promoted, and popes were crowned, but monsignors and cardinals were created. He then quoted the well-known Scholastic definition of “create.”

    Please enlighten — the well-known Scholastic definition of “create”?

  17. It seems that titles besides “bishop” are necessary in the Church. So far the comments have suggested pastoral titles, administrative titles, diplomatic titles, “senior priests”, titles honoring work well done and maybe some others, say, “Saint”.

    Except for the honoring ones, I say titles should go with the job, though “bishop”, of course, signifies life tenure. (Or does it?)

    I don’t like “monsignor”. There is only one Lord.

  18. From the post:

    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.

    I mildly disagree, Anthony.

    I don’t think it’s about Francis being ready to rethink all sorts of issues, but about Francis already having rethought all sorts of issues.

    Abolishing this kind of honorary title would be very much in keeping with his own decisions about his living arrangements (smaller and humbler, and reworking the papal apartments as more of an office/reception area), his travel arrangements (can I interest you in a 1984 Renault?), and his less formal liturgical style and practices. It also would go hand in hand with his calls for greater episcopal closeness with those on the margins of society, rather than those in the seats of power.

    And then there’s the rationale for his choice of a papal name . . .

    All in all, I’d say he’s already thought through a lot of this, and a decision to abolish this title would be of a piece with his other decisions in the same vein.

  19. Speaking of titles that ought to be eliminated, how about “Holy Father” and “Your Holiness”. One alone is your father, said the Master to his disciples. The Triune God is the Holy One. We are all called to holiness and are provided the grace “to become holy even as God is holy”, but should any human being be addressed as “your holiness” or “your beatitude” or “Your Grace” or “Your Eminence” or “Your Excellency”. These honorifics are understandable human conventions, but they lead to inevitable distortions of the ones so addressed. For the record, I have no objection to abolishing the title “Father”. None of these titles is rooted in either the scripture or in that part of tradition closest to the apostolic era.

    1. @Kelly Marie Santini – comment #33:
      You’re right Kelly, and it all goes back to those dang snooty apostles who chose and laid hands on some lesser men so that they didn’t have wait on tables. It’s been downhill ever since.

  20. In the 2013 Official Catholic Directory, pages for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, the listing of retired priests is divided into three sections: retired bishops, retired monsignors, retired priests. Honors must be maintained.

  21. It’s not like all this is unique to the Church.

    In acadamia, there are professors, associate professors and assistant professors, then lecturers and adjunct faculty … and one with a doctorate is addressed as “doctor.” Throw tenure into the mix … and everyone knows exactly where they stand in the hierarchy.

    Go to a police department. There are captains, lieutenants, sergeants and corporals above patrolman. And no matter the rank, everyone has rows of bars on their sleeve letting everyone know just how many years they’ve worked there, so that there is no confusion over which sergeant outranks another sergeant.

    I guess I’m just saying that it’s not so absurd that the Church too has ranks and classes.

    1. @David Jaronowski – comment #31:
      It may not be absurd that the church has ranks and classes, but I seem to recall Jesus expressing a bit of disapproval about mirroring these kinds of practices of the secular world:

      “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-44)

    2. @David Jaronowski – comment #31:

      The problem with the Church’s ranks and classes is that they are not always logical. There are three grades of Monsignor to be found in diocesan Churches outside Rome, but it takes an expert eye to distinguish them since they are all known as “Monsignor”. The following is a simplification of what is actually even more complex, but it will serve for our purposes here.

      “Chaplains to His Holiness”, formerly known as “papal chamberlains” (or more rudely as “papal chambermaids”), are the “black monsignori”, styled “Very Reverend”, distinguished by their dress from

      “Prelates of Honour” (formerly known as “domestic prelates”), the “red monsignori”, also styled “Very Reverend”.

      At the top of the tree, “Protonotaries Apostolic”, dressed the same way as prelates of honour, but entitled to put the abbreviation “Prot. Ap.” after their last name and to be addressed as “Right Reverend”, also the standard form of address for Bishops in the UK.

      [In the US, Bishops are styled “Most Reverend”. In the UK, that is only used for Archbishops. “Right Reverend” is not used in the US.]

      All these titles are paid for, normally by the diocesan bishop who nominates the recipients.

      At one time, one could be named to any of these, with the consequence that no one could be sure of precedence on the basis of “Monsignor” alone. Often, in fact, one could go straight to “red monsignor” without having to have been a black one first.

      In very recent times, however, Rome apparently decided that it would not appoint any higher grade Monsignori unless they had already started at the bottom. In other words, bishops were told that only black monsignori would be accepted for nomination in the first instance, and the appropriate fee paid. To get a red monsignor, another fee would be payable. This was, therefore, a money-making exercise by Rome. (The rumour-mill says that this unofficial decree has recently been rescinded. Perhaps someone more knowledgeable than I can confirm or deny this.)

      The average person on the street, of course, knows nothing of this, with the result that what looks like a halfway step between priest and bishop can be only a one-quarter, or half, or three-quarter step, depending on where you are in the hierarchy of monsignori. It would be good if Francis, rather than abolishing monsignori altogether, would simplify their ranks to one grade at the most.

  22. Jack Feehily # 29

    These honorifics are understandable human conventions, but they lead to inevitable distortions of the ones so addressed. For the record, I have no objection to abolishing the title “Father”.

    I fully agree that we need to abolish titles in the church, and academia.

    One of my favorite articles is William James The Ph.D. Octopus . Written exactly a hundred years ago it makes the case against honorifics and credentialing in academia.

    One of the great benefits of working in the public mental health system was that it was relatively free of the status markings. Only the psychiatrists used titles but they were called Dr. B, etc. by the first initial of their last name.

    As a very intellectual person who loves to think about all sorts of things I found that intellectuality was well accepted and non-threatening to follow managers, clinicians and clients. I was just being myself. That is quite a contrast from both academia and church environments with strong status systems where many people are threatened by my intellectuality.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *