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A monsignor-free Church? What next?

We need to hold on to our hats, alright. Almost every day that passes Pope
Francis launches another aspect of his reform, the broad sweep of which he
has already telegraphed in his interviews and recent ‘Exhortation’.
Last week, in an effort to control careerism in Catholic clergy, he
abolished the honorary title of ‘Monsignor’ for diocesan priests under the
age of 65. It wasn’t unexpected, as in his years as archbishop of Buenos
Aires (1998-2013) he had never appointed a monsignor and since his elevation
to pope he’s made no secret of his very critical attitude to career-driven
But it was a surprise, nonetheless. In a church where clericalism – that’s
the unhealthy focus on a narrow clerical world where ‘Father’ is presumed to
know best – is now regarded as a debilitating virus, the conferring of empty
titles encouraged clergy to believe that we could live in a narrow,
make-believe world, as in Alice in Wonderland where words always meant what
we wanted them to mean. A bit like the old East German state where generals,
laden down with empty honours and a row of medals on their chests, imagined
that all was well with their world.
This penchant for honours used to assuage the egos of self-important clerics
started in the Anglican Church. Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of
Canterbury, named that difficult truth some years ago: ‘The Anglican Church
has bought very deeply into status. It’s one of the most ambiguous elements
in the whole of that culture – the concern with titles, the concern with the
little differentiations . . . It’s about guarding position, about fencing
yourself in. And that is not quite what the gospel is’. And the Catholic
Church, in an effort to keep up with the neighbours, bought into this
Historically, in an Irish context, the lack of self-confidence of Catholic
clergy in their education and place in society led to them to imitate their
Protestant betters. Protestant clergy were educated at Trinity College,
inhabited a literary and civilised world, were respected in society and at
ease with the finer points of living. Catholic priests sometimes knew just
about enough Latin to say Mass, were once hunted as criminals and – I
generalise – were often regarded as rough-hewn individuals, out of their
depth in the drawing-room.
So the Catholic Church tended to buy into the externals of their Protestant
counter-parts, dressing in ‘Roman’ collars and high hats and calling
themselves ‘Mr’. And of course, giving themselves, a series of
self-important though empty titles.
So a whole culture of titles and entitlement evolved: Archdeacons, Deans,
Chancellors, Prebendaries, Canons, honorary Canons and, of course,
Monsignors. Some were called ‘Reverend’, others ‘Very Reverend’ and others
again ‘Most Reverend’. Others were called ‘My Lord, ‘Your Excellency’, ‘Your
Grace’, ‘Your Eminence’.
But while some formal titles couldn’t be multiplicated – for example, you
couldn’t have two archdeacons in a diocese – that didn’t apply to
Monsignors. And like rabbits, before mixametosis, the number of monsignors
seemed to be getting out of hand. Recently, it emerged that one bishop had
asked that 12 of his priests be made monsignors.
After the Second Vatican Council, in 1968, Pope Paul VI tried to reform the
whole area of church  titles. Before that incredibly there were 14 grades of
‘monsignor’, but Paul VI reduced them to the three ranks that existed up to
now: Apostolic Protonotary, Honorary Prelate of His Holiness, Chaplain of
His Holiness. Each grade brought with it the entitlement to be addressed as
Monsignor’ and other privileges, such as wearing semi-episcopal purple in
cassocks and special vestments. Now Francis has reduced the three to one –
Chaplain of His Holiness.
Usually this honour (Monsignor) is granted by the Pope, on the proposal of
the local bishop, to Catholic priests who have rendered particularly
valuable service to the Church. But there is more than anecdotal evidence to
suggest that many bishops have tended to use the honour as a way of
rewarding priests who are particularly loyal to them, or who are friends. In
the US, almost every PP seems to be a monsignor.
In recent years clergy, apart from those who can’t hide their ambition, have
become increasingly sceptical about such titles. To such an extent that
Cathedral Chapters in some dioceses have virtually  disappeared because
clergy are refusing to accept the title of ‘Canon’. In Killala diocese
there’s now only one ‘Canon’ in active ministry and in another diocese the
bishop sends a letter through the post more or less telling clergy that they
are now canons whether they like it or not!
Pope Francis as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, didn’t like to be called ‘Your
Grace’ and asked people to call him ‘Father’ because he felt that title
described the work he was trying to do. Most priests, I believe, are the
same so the sooner all titles are done away with the better for everyone –
and for the Church.
No one would doubt but that Francis is serious about this aspect of the new
‘Franciscan reform’. He has already contacted the Nuncios (his
representatives) in diocese around the world asking them to inform bishops
of his decision. And no doubt Archbishop Charles Brown, the nuncio in
Ireland, has written to all Irish bishops to that effect.
While bishops can still propose priests over 65 as monsignors I think that
few bishops, knowing the mind of the Pope, will chance it anymore. And even
though already appointed monsignors retain their spurs – – the papal decree
is not retroactive – it looks as if the role will now effectively be eased
out of existence.
But wouldn’t it be, in the times that are in it, wouldn’t it be a gracious
and generous gesture if all monsignors, whether apostolic protonotaries or
honorary prelates of His Holiness or chaplains of His Holiness, were to
resign as monsignors to support this aspect of Francis’ reform?
A monsignor-free Church? What next? Roll on the Francis band-wagon.

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  1. The Monsignor title has been suppressed everywhere but in the Vatican: http://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2014/01/business-as-usual-in-roman-curia.html
    Fr. Dwight Longenecker criticises Pope Francis for the lack of consultation on this move which he describes as iconoclastic… Why not allow local bishops to decide for their own dioceses instead of issuing a Papal decree? He says, ”Is this the nature and level of Pope Francis’ “reforms”–abolishing outward church traditions in hopes that the inner man will somehow change? It’s a bit like expecting a man to embrace vegetarianism by removing steak from the menu.”
    [I’m just laughing to myself how things have changed. Only last year I was defending BXVI, now I’m the papal critic.]

  2. Guadeamus Igitur ! Well done Pope Francis ! If only attitudes could be doffed as easy as titles. Hopefully that will follow !

  3. No more Monsignors. A title created by man can be abolished by man. In 23 Matthew v. 9 Jesus said:
    9 You must call no one on earth your father, since you have only one Father, and he is in heaven.
    Perhaps it is time to abolish the practice of calling clerics Father. Perhaps even abolishing the Roman collar. Now that would have an impact on clericalism. Imagine being no different from anyone else.

  4. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Fr Joe McGuane has been busy over the past month, sizing up his new surroundings from his mansion above. He had a piece in their Christmas Newsletter, putting some manners on an Irish lay contingent who felt they had a permanent tenancy on God’s Right Hand – mainly a clique waving their Irish Times notices: ‘Ar Dheis Dé go raibh a (h)anam dílis/cróga’ srl.
    Since then he’s raised his sights to take on the Angelic Professionals in their Choirs and Hierarchies. Just who do they think they are, he wanted to know, and where did they get their ridiculous titles? You thought Cloyne was title-ridden, but an Archangel of Ahgabullogue would be laughed out of the parish first weekend; and what of the Seraph of Shandrum or his Deputy? Would the Cherubim of Carrigtwohill or Kanturk be given the time of day? In Youghal and Ballycotton the whole parcel of them would seem as outlandish as the Thrones of Turners Cross, Dominions of Doneraile or the Powers of Portlaw.
    In short, Fr Joe’s questioning ways are beginning to unsettle the Powers that Be Above. He has a soft spot for the ordinary run of the mill angels, the plain one-stripe errand boys who seem to do all the running and messages: the ‘poor bloody infantry’ he’s taken to calling them. Language not calculated to please the Titled Ones. At least, he reflects with some satisfaction, the cardinals and archdeacons and Rt-Angled Monsignori don’t seem to be too thick on the ground up here.
    It was after he intervened at a recent ACP (Association of Celestial Personages) meeting that the angel dust really hit the fan. “May I begin,” he began, “by saying that the Professional Archangel gives thanks every day that he opted for the high road to the ranks of Cherubim and even Seraphim rather than languish for all eternity among the errand boys and good news bearers, mar dheá.” That’s as far as he got. Joe was bundled from the Aula by a pair of hefty Principalities, the lower-rung thugs who make sure that the higher Hierarchs are not disturbed by songs they may not wish to hear. Later along the cloister he noticed that even the Holy Spirit bypassed him hurriedly as if She had something else on Her mind. Nothing new about that then, he thought.
    Next morning Joe found himself reduced to the ranks of errand boy and permanent messenger to some lowly cattleshed, Domus Sanctae Marthae.
    “Jesus wept!” exclaimed Ger, his fellow Munster stalwart, as he joined him.

  5. Good day’s work by Pope Francis. How about getting rid of mitres and simplifying a lot of regalia and also forbidding their return. We need to go wholeheartedly and fully for simplicity in the church. Pope Francis is the man to do it. To the best of my knowledge Jesus never heard of a mitre!

  6. Eddie Finnegan says:

    “To the best of my knowledge Jesus never heard of a mitre!”-Jim@5
    “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” – Matt.13:55
    “Isn’t this the carpenter, Mary’s lad?” – Mark 6:3
    What? 30 years apprenticed to Joseph or running the carpentry shop himself, and he never heard of a mitre or couldn’t make a good mitre joint? Window frames, tables, chairs: he couldn’t dovetail all of them. No wonder he took to the preaching – some of the brothers may have taken over the Nazareth Joinery. But Jim, maybe you didn’t mean useful mitres?

  7. I hope that Pope Francis now considers stopping the ridiculous practice of facilitating the advancement of career priests by elevating them to the episcopate as bishops and archbishop as a consequence of years sitting behind a desk and making other peoples’ lives a misery. What an abuse of Holy Orders, and what a mockery. One day you are a Pope’s altar boy, the next you are Bishop of Cloyne – and look what happened there. One minute you are a monsignor companion to a Pope, the next you are an altar boy archbishop who spends most of the day sitting beside the Papal seat of an old man in red shoes and a red woolly cape! Am I being disingenuous? probably, but it is tiresome none the less.

  8. @Shaun 1. Hopefully this signals the revival of Monsignor as a working rather than honorary title in the Vatican and in dioceses. To be honest I’m not a big fan of these titular bishops whose diocese is a desk somewhere(whether in the Vatican or in a large diocese somewhere) rather than a genuine shepherd of a flock. Monsignor was once such an alternative in the papal household, men who were suitable to be a bishop or who had many of the duties or responsibilities of a bishop but did not have a diocese to minister to. If however it transpires to be, as you put it “like expecting a man to embrace vegetarianism by removing steak from the menu”, then I will also be disappointed.
    On another point, regarding the bishop and his twelve monsignors, which I’ve heard about several times already, we(or at least I) don’t know the full facts. Take for example the archdiocese of Milan in Italy, there are over 2000 priests in this one archdiocese, or Krakow in Poland where there are also over 2000 in this one archdiocese. Twelve priests over the age of 65, or indeed twelve priests in significant roles in the diocese(such as vicars general) becoming monsignors, and which is still permitted by Francis, doesn’t seem all that excessive. Of course if its just ‘jobs for the boys’ that’s another matter.

  9. Matthew O'Hora says:

    I am very amused: trying to compare the attitude of modern day clergy to the reform that Pope Francis is trying to do. I agree totally with Pope Francis because I think that there are far too many monsignors. I would agree with a stricter criteria for the appointment of monsignors and that is exactly what the Holy Father has done.
    The role of a canon is a vital one as they act as advisers to the Bishop. I believe it to be funny how certain people see the refusal of such titles as an act of humility: how wrong can they be!

  10. Patrick Conway says:

    @1 Shaun. Fr DL is not by any stretch a typical representative of US RC clergy. It sometimes happens that those who are received into full communion with the RC church from another tradition, are more Catholic than the pope.
    @8 Diffal. 1121: number of diocesan priests in Krakow. (AP2010)

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