This is one of those stories that I hesitate to comment on because I’m indirectly implicated in it. But according to substantial rumors, the Pope has decided to eliminate the title “Monsignor” being conferred on any priest under 65.
I say “rumors,” because I have not seen any official Vatican statement. Further rumors like this circulated couple months back and proved unsubstantiated.
The second reason why I consign this to the category “rumors,” is that these reports also claim to explain why the Holy Father has done what he has apparently done. But, without any Vatican statement what is actually in the Pope’s mind, speculations as to why the Holy Father has (reportedly) done this, seems to me to be a lot of conjecture and presumption. Perhaps he just wants to simplify. I don’t know, it is his prerogative.
With that said, I’d like to base my comments more on the discussion that is taking place on the Internet about the title “Monsignor” rather than on the Pope’s thoughts, which we don’t clearly know, at least as of yet when I write this. Here are a few of my thoughts:
1. It is not a huge matter. It is more of an “inside baseball” discussion among clergy. So whatever the Pope has decided to do, or not do, involves little more than ceremonial titles which are sometimes, and in certain places, conferred on clergy. Many dioceses have not named Monsignors in decades; in other places it is more common practice.
2. Of course it should go without saying, the Pope has every right to do this. Although local bishops make the nominations, the title Monsignor is a papal honor, making the recipient the ceremonial member of the papal household. So if the pope doesn’t want to confer this title as widely as has been done before, that’s obviously up to him.
Future popes may have different ideas; and that will be up to them. The practice of naming Monsignors, at least here in America, dropped dramatically after 1970, and slowly reemerged in some areas. My guess is that the waxing and waning of things like this will continue going into the future based on the preferences of popes and bishops.
3. I am alarmed that many link the restriction to the Pope wanting to clamp down on so-called “careerism” among the clergy. The Holy Father has not said this, that I am aware. And while there may be some connections people like to make here, it is possible that the connection of this move and careerism says more about those making the connection, than the Pope’s full motives.
My own experience in the priesthood, is that careerism is not a huge problem. As with any collection of human beings, one can always find a few priests who are angling for certain positions etc. But most priests are happy to live and work in parishes. I don’t think any of us ever went to seminary because we wanted to hold a high position in an office at the Chancery office. Most of us dreamed of living and working in parishes, and trained for that alone.
And most who priests who do serve in diocesan leadership, and on the Bishop’s staff, do so at often high personal cost. Many of them long to return to simple parish ministry.
Indeed, the vast majority of priests I know, are humble and dedicated men who love God, love his Church, and his people, and work very hard, whether in parishes or other special ministries or offices.
I can’t even remember the last time I heard a priest say he wanted to be a bishop. We’d probably try to get him into therapy. Most of us instinctively know that being a bishop is often a very lonely duty, involving great hardships, demanding schedules and often unrelenting criticism from many sectors. Priests who are called to be bishops often have to say farewell many close and supportive relationships they developed with parishioners over the years. Surely, to be a bishop is a noble task. But most priest know that it comes a great personal cost.
Also regarding so-called “careerism,” a good number of the comments along those line which I read in comboxes on blogs state that many priest avoid teach on hard or difficult topics, because they are afraid of how it will affect their clerical “career.” Hence they equate silent pulpits with the problem of careerism.
But I think this misses the more poignant and widespread cause of this among priests, which is the problem of “human respect.” Human respect is the sinful disposition wherein one is more concerned about what people think of them, than what God thinks. Alas it is a sin usually committed in weakness.
At the end of the day, priests are human beings, and like most human beings we don’t like conflict, and tend to get anxious when people are offended at us or what what we say.
Let me be clear, as I have commented before on this blog, this is a sinful tendency among priests. I am not excusing it. The fact is, we were not sent out to win a popularity contest, we were sent to preach the gospel whether in-season are out-of-season. If even Jesus, who was sinless, and the best of preachers gave offense, how much more so those of us who are sinners and not as good as Jesus at preaching!
The point here is that most priests are not too silent because it careerism. Most priest are not really quaking in their boots all that much about what might happen to their so-called “career” if they preach the hard truths. No, most priests are struggling with the more common human problem of wanting to be liked, of not wanting people to be mad at them. The problem is about courage, not careerism.
4. A wider cultural trend also manifests in linking honorific titles like “Monsignor” to “careerism” by some. It raises in my mind concern over the increasing hesitancy (and even hostility) in our culture toward bestowing honor, or recognizing achievement.
Why be so cynical about honors given or received? Many comments in com-boxes I have read contain some of this cynicism about the honoring of some priests with the title “Monsignor.” A comment on one site, during the first wave of rumors (a few months back) went so far as to say, “This serves those ambitious Monsignors right. Now their title will evoke only laughter.” This speaks to me of the wider anger that some have toward the bestowal of honors.
But the bestowal of honors, and the recognition of achievement, are signs of a healthy culture wherein excellence is appreciated and held forth both in gratitude, and also as an encouragement to others to seek and manifest excellence, and other virtues such as generosity, service, love, and so forth.
In recent decades, likely due to excessive application of egalitarian principles, bestowing honors has come to provoke anxiety and also significant degree of cynicism and anger. These trends go all the way down to the schoolhouse level, and children’s sports programs.
In the past, certain students, and sports team members who showed special excellence, received awards. Certain students, because of consistently high grades were recognized as outstanding with honors such as the Principal’s Honor Roll, etc.
Today, at honors ceremonies in most schools and sports banquets, feature almost endless awards. The goal is to largely make sure that no student or sports team member leaves without a trophy, or ribbon, or medal of some sort. Parents and educators often insist on this tactic, saying that to honor certain students is to not to honor others. But of course, this is just a point of honors, to single out those who show for the superlative excellence, who go beyond the average, or norm. But Heaven forfend that a certain child might come away little sorry or sad at not getting certain honors.
At the end of the day, I would argue, this insistence by educators and parents is envy, pure and simple. Envy is: “sorrow, sadness or anger, at the goodness or excellence of another person because I take it to lessen my own standing.”
But the proper response in observing excellence or the good fortune of another, should be joy and zeal. Joy for the gifts they have, that we can all share in; and zeal, to try to imitate wherever possible the excellence we observe in others. Really to be sad that others got honored and I didn’t, is by definition “envy.”
Culturally, we have come to enshrine envy is a kind of a right: “My right not to be hurt, or feel diminished because someone else, deserving of honor, is honored.”
My point: Somehow, we have lost the ability in our culture to confer honors, and bestow rewards without others taking offense. Yes, I fear that we, as a wider culture, have lost the important ability to bestow honor and have sunk into cynicism and some degree of envy when it comes to the practice of recognizing achievement.
It will be admitted, that no culture or institution bestows honors perfectly. Sometimes people are genuinely overlooked who should be honored. Sometimes certain individuals are honored for more political purposes, than due to genuine achievement or honor. But as a general rule, bestowing honors and awards on those who work hard and have excelled, should be seen a good thing.
The bestowal of the title “Monsignor” has traditionally been seen as a way for a Bishop to give special honors to priests who have, for various reasons excelled in some work for the diocese. It is a true fact that not all priests can be honored, some Priest are overlooked, and yes, in certain situations, the title was given for less than stellar reasons. As a general rule however, most priests who are so honored, are honored for good reasons.
5. The majority of the faithful genuinely like the bestowal of honors on their clergy by the Bishop.
I remember when I received the honor in 2005, how excited my parish was. They knew instinctively, and I clearly stated to them, that this award was not for me per meipsum, (for me alone) but was due to the fact that we, as a parish, worked very hard to accomplish several major goals that the Cardinal had set forth for us; including assisting him with a capital campaign and also bringing to our local community the wonderful gift of a $5 million recreation center.
The parish where I was at the time, St. Thomas More Parish in Southeast Washington was one of the smaller parishes in the diocese, and in one of the poorest neighborhood in the city. What an incredible zeal they had to undertake these works of charity in support of God’s people. I may have gotten the title, but I was clear with them, (and they knew) the honor bestowed on the leader goes to all the people. Three busloads from the parish joyfully went to the Basilica the day the honors were bestowed.
In my experience that most Catholic people love their clergy and are happy to see them honored, realizing that honors bestowed on their clergy also accrue to them.
I can only conclude that the cynics in some com-boxes have issues of their own, for it is not my experience tat they reflect the view of most of the faithful, who are glad to see clergy honored.
6. Finally, a few personal notes. When I was a child, my mother said that when someone offers you a gift, say “Thank you” and accept it graciously.
So there I was in the Fall of 2005 in my car, and my cell phone rang. The screen said it was Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Nervously I answered the call, and His Eminence said to me, “Charlie I’ve got good news for you. The Pope has decided to name you a Monsignor. I’m very happy for you, and I know your mother would be so proud.” I had to pull over to catch my breath.
He went on to tell me the reasons he had nominated me, and we both agreed that whatever meritorious things I had attained to, was thanks to God, and God’s wonderful people. He went on to tell me he was also very happy and proud for the people St. Thomas More Parish.
I did as my mother said. I said “Thank you, Your Eminence” and, as graciously as I could, I accepted. I thought of many priests older and wiser than I, who were more deserving of the honor than I.
I never consciously sought the title, and certainly did not think it would come to me in my mid 40s. But I was grateful, and deeply moved.
I only tell my own story to illustrate that every priest has these personal stories, and all of us are human. Like anyone, we enjoy a little recognition. We know that we don’t deserve most of the recognition we get, but we try to graciously accept the love and honors bestowed on us.
I honestly don’t think its all about ambition and careerism, and I’m sure the Pope doesn’t either. Most of the monsignors I know are humble and hard-working priests. We who have the title did not seek this recognition, but were happy and move to receive it.
Epilogue: When I was young, and my mother was proud of me, she would stand before me, look me in the eye, and then mess up my hair. This was always her sign of affection. One day, not long after the papal honors had been conferred on me, I was praying quietly. I became somehow mindful of my mother’s presence, and then something of a breeze moved through my hair. It was at that moment that I somehow knew and experienced that my mother was proud of me.
In fulfillment of my mother’s instruction I can only say thank you Lord, thank you Pope Benedict; thank you Cardinal McCarrick; and thank you, God’s holy people.
And yes, Your Eminence, you were right, my mother is proud of me, and for that, I am deeply moved and grateful.
St. Paul says that when one member is honored, all the members rejoice and are honored (cf 1 Cor 12:26). Hence this video that reminds us that whatever distinctions and honors we have, we are all ultimately one and need each other.