monsignorsIt was reported today that Pope Francis curbed the use of the ecclesiastical title of monsignor. Some priests I know will be mad and some will go on antidepressants. The papal directive is that the monsignor title will be not available for those under 65 and that when it is bestowed, it be the title of “Chaplain to His Holiness”; the other two titles are shelved (i.e., Prelate of Honor and Prothonatary Apostolic). Gerard O’Connell’s article in Vatican Insider is here.

In the archdiocese where I live there are few monsignori: for the last 30 plus years the archbishops have rarely bestowed the title on priests, though very  few have it. In neighboring dioceses like Bridgeport and New York priests crave the honor and too many feel they are entitled to it. Sadly, too many of those who have received the title of monsignor are sycophants and many unseemly characters who are less loyal to Jesus Christ and the sacrament of the Church than to his bishop. A bishop no longer in Connecticut used the title to reward those who he were behind him in all things–those who never questioned his authority; the criteria to judge a man’s worthiness was understood to be subjective.

In fact, and in my opinion, for a good many priests the discernment of service was too connected with preferment. The call to genuinely serve all people for ever really was sclerotic. Some monsignors would state that being a priest was difficult enough today and that they deserved a little bone now-and-again. The regular ministry of salvation of souls, spiritual and corporal works of mercy, preaching and the administration of sacraments was not enough, not meaningful enough.

Catholics are often happy with their parish priest’s genuine and holy “accomplishments” for the Church; they enjoyed the bishop’s recognition. But laboring in the Lord’s vineyard, no matter how long and how hard, does not warrant such reward. Some are arguing that doing away with outward ecclesiastical signs is a kind of iconoclasm. I doubt it. In fact, what the pope did is not iconoclasm by definition. Ecclesiastical titles neither create nor diminish careerism in the church, necessarily. The careerist attitude is born of another reality based on sin and not discipleship and apostleship. It is true we all like some measure of respect and acceptance for the bishop and society. Human nature will foster other ways for reward. We already of the mentality of the ‘better’ parish, the influential diocesan job, or a softer ministry, or “doing your own thing.”. Humanity can skirt the monsignor title with titles like “executive committee, ” the “Special Advisor to the Bishop” and “Senior Priest.” I am sure some bishop or clever canonist will devise something to reward the worthy.

The place of monsignori in a diocese is not really the only thing that needs reform. Careerism will still exist in a most horrible way with the translating a bishop from one See to another and the creation of auxiliary bishops. Again, we just had a bishop in the State who got “promoted” to a a larger diocese after leaving the diocese in great debt and seeking preferment. After all, he “deserved it.”

Is this move no the part of the Holy Father a jab at tradition? Perhaps, but I would not want to place that criticism on him. It seems to be true that “Pope Francis going back to older traditions” and that is what I think is key for us. An older tradition is sometimes best especially if there it is perceived to be less inclined to immature and sinful behavior. But I would look it this way: Pope Francis comes from a religious order that does not accept the mentality of preferment. The Society of Jesus has always been against, and rightly so, the notion of serving the Lord with the idea of reward in mind and heart. Following under the standard of the cross has a very deep meaning that I think is operative in Francis as the bishop of Rome.

The Jesuit Constitutions (Part X, N°6 [817]) based on experience and desire of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, is against Jesuits being made bishops. Bishops are not monsignors, I know. But the idea is the same when it comes to prelacy. Hence, a Jesuit priest when he makes his final profession in the Society of Jesus vows:

I also promise that I will never strive for or ambition any prelacy or dignity outside the Society; and I will to the best of my ability never consent to my election unless I am forced to do so by obedience to him who can order me under penalty of sin. And moreover, if I shall find out that anyone [another Jesuit] is seeking to secure anything of the two aforementioned things or is ambitioning them, I promise that I will communicate his name and the entire matter to the Society or its Superior.