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.