VATICAN CITY — In a new move aimed at reforming the clergy and eliminating careerism in the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has abolished the conferral of the Pontifical Honor of ‘Monsignor’ on secular priests under the age of 65.
Henceforth, the only Pontifical Honor that will be conferred on ‘secular priests’ will be that of ‘Chaplain to His Holiness’ and this will be conferred only on ‘worthy priests’ who are over 65 years of age. (‘Secular priests’ are priests in a diocese, who are not monks or members of religious institutes or orders).
The Vatican’s Secretariat of State has communicated this news to Apostolic Nuncios around the world, and has asked them to inform all bishops in their respective countries of the decision in this regard taken by Pope Francis.
Thus, for example, on January 2, the Apostolic Nuncio to Great Britain, Archbishop Antonio Mennini, wrote to all the bishops in Great Britain to inform them of the Pope’s decision. He confirmed that “the privileges in this regard” that have already been granted by the Roman Pontiff to “physical or juridical persons” remain in force. This would suggest that the papal decree is not retroactive, those who are already monsignors will not lose their title.
The decision does not come as a surprise to those who know Pope Francis. A humble man, he has always been averse to ecclesiastical titles, and when he was bishop and later cardinal in Argentina he always asked people to call him ‘Father’, instead of ‘My Lord’, ‘Your Grace’ or ‘Your Eminence’; he is convinced that the name ‘Father’ best reflects the mission that has been entrusted to a priest, bishop or cardinal. Indeed, during his tenure as archbishop of Buenos Aires (1998-2013), he never asked the Holy See to confer the title of ‘monsignor’ on any priest in the archdiocese.
In taking this decision, Pope Francis is building on the reform in this area of ecclesiastical titles that was introduced by Paul VI in 1968, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Before Paul VI’s reform there were 14 grades of ‘monsignor’, he reduced them to the three ranks that exist today: Apostolic Protonotary, Honorary Prelate of His Holiness, Chaplain of His Holiness. The original titles dated back to the pontificate of Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644).
These three honors are granted by the Pope, usually on the proposal of the local bishop, to Catholic priests who have rendered particularly valuable service to the Church. The priests are given these Pontifical Honors may be addressed as ‘Monsignor’ and has certain privileges, such as those regarding ecclesiastical dress and vestments.
Many bishops have tended to use the honor as a way of rewarding priests who are particularly loyal to them, or to promote priests who have showed particular initiative, but not infrequently priests in their dioceses have read it in a different light. Just before Christmas, a senior Vatican prelate told me that Pope Francis had recently refused the request of one bishop who had asked him to confer the title of ‘Monsignor’ on no less than 12 priests in his diocese. Another source told me that in some countries the Pontifical Honor is conferred in a ceremony that, sometimes, is far from the style of Church that Francis desires.
The Pope’s decision does not make any changes regarding the conferral of Pontifical Honors for Religious and Lay people, the Vatican Secretariat of State stated in its communication to the nuncios. It said the same conditions apply as previously for such honors, as does the mode for requesting them.