Pope Francis and Monsignors, The Anchor, January 24, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
The Anchor
January 24, 2014

Back in May during a daily Mass homily, Pope Francis described the type of earthly promotion and honor to which priests should aspire and for which the lay faithful should hope for the priests they admire.

“When someone is given a higher position — in the world’s eyes — we say, ‘Ah, that person has been promoted to’” vice-president or principal or to the starting rotation. He added, “It’s a lovely phrase and we in the Church should use it,” but in a very specific way. We should say, “This person was promoted to the Cross. … That is true promotion. It is what makes us more like Jesus.”

To be more like Jesus through sacrificial love to the point of total self-giving, according to Pope Francis, ought to be every priest’s great ambition and reward. If lay faithful want to see their priests honored, the best thing would be to pray for them to be “promoted to humiliation,” he said, because God always exalts the humble.

This is, I think, some of the background needed to understand Pope Francis’ decision, announced earlier this month, to restrict the title monsignor to priests 65 and older or to those who hold specific offices in the Church. The reform of the Church in any age begins with a reform of the clergy and Pope Francis seems to believe that such titles impede rather than impel that reform.

This change had been long rumored. Since his election, Pope Francis had put a quiet moratorium on the naming of monsignors in diocesan priestly work and had never named a monsignor in his 15 years as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

It’s clear that Pope Francis doesn’t favor the use of exalted ecclesiastical titles and the status they suggest. When he was Archbishop, rather than being called “Your Excellency,” later “Your Eminence” or even “Monseñor,” he had people call him, “Padre Jorge.”

During a telephone conversation in August he encouraged 19-year-old Stefano Cabizza to refer to him not with the Italian formal “lei” form of address given to superiors but rather with the informal “tu” that is used among friends, family members and inferiors. When Stefano expressed his astonishment, Pope Francis replied, “You don’t think that Jesus had the apostles refer to him as ‘Your Excellency,’ do you?”

Like Pope Francis, I’ve long been uncomfortable with various ecclesiastical titles that historically emulate the culture of European nobility that codified a way of speaking that would make everyone else remember who was noble and important and who wasn’t.

The title Monsignor, of course, means “my lord,” and I’ve always thought it’s awkward calling anyone “my lord” other than the Lord.

In the Gospel, Jesus told his disciples that we needed to be behave differently than the Gentiles who sought to lord themselves over others and make their prominence felt (Mt 20:25). He told us not to desire places of honor, special greetings or longer tassels (Mt 23:5-7). Instead he taught that true greatness comes from being a humble servant of all the rest.

There are of course many exemplary priests who have been given the title Monsignor who never sought it. At the same time the designation perpetuates a type of spiritual worldliness — the worst evil that can afflict the Church, according to Pope Francis — in which some can be tempted to seek vainly after personal glory rather than God’s.

The naming of some priests Monsignor can also provoke useless resentment, cynicism and envy in a diocesan presbyterate, especially when priests believe that a brother was named not because of exemplary priestly service, sacrifice and holiness but because he was the bishop’s friend or brought home the bacon in a wealthy parish for a diocesan fundraising campaign. Nothing is gained and much can be lost from a priestly caste system.

I’ve long been a secret admirer of the humility of one of the priests of our Diocese who was a conscientious objector to the system. Years ago I was doing academic research in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, the publication of record for the Holy See, and I was startled to see a mention of the Diocese of Fall River on the opposite page of an article I was photocopying. It was a decree naming monsignors for our Diocese. There were ten names on the list, but only nine had appeared in The Anchor. The tenth designee obviously desired to keep the news secret and continue to have everyone refer to him as father. He obviously still does — so don’t bother asking me to divulge his identity!

I wish that Pope Francis had gone further and decided to cease to award the title altogether, including to those over 65, those who serve in special offices like vicar general, seminary rector, or general secretary of a bishops’ conference, those who work in the Vatican for five years or those who serve in the Vatican diplomatic corps for three. Banning the title outright, however, is a bolder step than restricting its use, and still may come in time.

I also hope as part of his reforms that Pope Francis will reexamine the use of the traditional titles that have us to refer to bishops as the personal embodiment of excellence, eminent superiority, grace, beatitude, and holiness. It’s clear that at a personal level “Padre Jorge” shunned people’s referring to him in such ways, but such princely appellatives should make any good and humble prelate blush. Referring to them by the titles of their office — Bishop, Archbishop, Cardinal —not only reminds them of who they are but mitigates the danger that such haughty honorifics will create an exalted self-identity to the detriment of the mission Christ has entrusted to them.

Perhaps the reform could begin at the top. In the Gloria, we say to Jesus, “You alone are the Holy One.” There is therefore an obvious theological awkwardness in referring to the Pope as “Your Holiness.”

None of this is meant to imply any lack of love or respect for the successor of St. Peter, the successors of the apostles or meritorious priests. It’s simply to suggest that such inopportune nomenclature doesn’t flow from the mentality of the Gospel and hinders, rather than helps, authentic priestly identity and spiritual paternity.

If children were to cease to refer to their fathers as “dad” but instead call them “my lord” or “your Magnificence,” it would obviously affect the tenor of their relationship. The same thing happens spiritually with those called to be spiritual fathers for Christ’s family.

That’s why the papal reform of the title monsignor is a much-needed step in the right direction.