Pope Francis recently made some big waves in the proverbial finger lake of the Catholic blogosphere and social media community when it was announced earlier this month that the Vatican will now limit the awarding of the title “Monsignor” outside of the Roman Curia to those diocesan priests who may be nominated by their bishops who are over the age of 65, and who would then more than likely be limited to the monsignorial rank of “Chaplain of His Holiness” should the Holy Father choose to award it to them.
Readers from East Tennessee may know that Pope Benedict XVI appointed a few Monsignori in the Diocese of Knoxville at the request of Bishop Stika (himself a former Monsignor, and technically a current one since all bishops may use that honorific and can be addressed by it) and our former Bishop, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville. Monsignors Xavier Mankel, Al Humbrecht, Robert Hofstetter, and Patrick Garrity have all had the pontifical honors conferred on them. I doubt very seriously that anyone who knows these priests would challenge the idea that they deserve such recognition.
Monsignor Mankel is my own former pastor, and Monsignor Bob has heard my confession on more than one occasion. Both men are humble priests of God who would never have sought after honor and glory for themselves. I do recall telling my wife some months before Monsignor Mankel received his honors that I thought Father Mankel should be made a Monsignor. Monsignor Al Humbrecht has successfully shepherded our diocese through two episcopal vacancies, and Monsignor Garrity is deeply respected among his fellow priests, and that is why he is our Vicar for Priests in the Diocese of Knoxville.
Because our papal honorees really are fine priests, I have to admit as a matter of purely personal opinion that it did come as a bit of a head-scratching moment for me when I first heard that the Holy Father was limiting the granting of the title of Monsignor. Why not a little recognition for good priests, I thought…let them wear those fancy buttons if it means recognizing loyal service. I admit to having at least some sympathy for the views of the Archdiocese of Washington’s official blogger, Monsignor Charles Pope, who reflected on his surprise at being named a Monsignor as he pointed out that honors can (and absolutely should) be received in humility.
One thing that people have to remember, however, and some people often forget, is that this special title of Monsignor is a papal honor and it can only be given by the Pope. Sure, a bishop may nominate one of his priests, but it is entirely up to the Holy Father whether or not to make a priest a member of the Pontifical Household, because that is what making a priest a Monsignor (i.e. giving him one of the three offices other than bishop on which that title is conferred) does, it makes him a member of the Papal Household. That is a unique status in the Church, even if it is essentially honorary. If a Pope wants to limit that honor, it is entirely his prerogative.
It needs to be remembered that the Holy Father is a member of the Society of Jesus, a Jesuit. While it has become a well-known fact about Pope Francis that he is the first Jesuit Pope, he is not the first member of a religious order to be elected Pope by a longshot. As Supreme Pontiff, Francis certainly has the authority to dispense himself from part or all of his religious vows based on the nature of the Petrine Ministry and Office, and no one within the Church who understands the nature of that ministry would have blinked had he done so. The Holy Father, as a Jesuit, took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience (if I am not mistaken, Jesuits also take a vow of mobility, that is to go where they are needed for the sake of the faith, but if I am wrong in that, I welcome correction from a member of the Society).
The Holy Father obviously does not think himself to be dispensed from his religious vows just because he now happens to be the Pope. As Pope, he has the right to live in the Apostolic Palace, which is outfitted especially for a pope’s security and pastoral needs in our present age. However, he chose to live in the St. Martha House which, when cardinals are not staying there during a conclave, serves as both a guesthouse and housing for Vatican employees. The Holy Father chose to live among many of the ordinary people who visit or work in the Vatican each day. He has appeared to shun many of the perks of the Church’s highest office, and instead of having the papal almoner simply dispense the Church’s charity, he sends the almoner to find those in need and bring them Christ’s comfort as well as the physical and monetary help they might need.
As our own Father Christian Mathis recently pointed out, Pope Francis has named 19 new cardinals and sent each of them a letter this past Monday, reminding each of them:
The cardinalship does not imply promotion; it is neither an honor nor a decoration; it is simply a service that requires you to broaden your gaze and open your hearts. And, although this may appear paradoxical, the ability to look further and to love more universally with greater intensity may be acquired only by following the same path of the Lord: the path of self-effacement and humility, taking on the role of a servant.
The Holy Father goes on to say:
And, while you must do so with pleasure and joy, ensure that this sentiment is far from any expression of worldliness or from any form of celebration contrary to the evangelical spirit of austerity, sobriety and poverty.
The Holy Father clearly does not think that the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience are just for religious or for clergy who are members of religious orders. As has been written on this very blog, Pope Francis seems trying to set an example to show us that the evangelical counsels provide the framework for ideal Christian living. Part of that spirit of austerity is to eschew personal honors when possible (this is not about you), and when honor or attention must be received, it should be done sparingly and with great humility. What the Holy Father has done in choosing to limit the awarding of the title of Monsignor is consistent with this ethos. After all, many good and holy priests may have received this special recognition and they have deserved it, but many other good and holy priests have never received the honor who were no less deserving, and it does not make them anything other than the good and holy priests that they are.
The Holy Father is reminding us that we should not follow the path of Christ for the sake of honor in this life.