A Lenten Reflection

Publishing deadlines being as they are, I write this on the day of the announcement of Pope Francis’s decision to eliminate all but the lowest “rank” of monsignor, and to restrict even that to diocesan priests over 65. We are now beginning Lent, and it seems that perhaps this decision might give all of us, priests and deacons alike, an opportunity to reflect on the nature of service during this time of “purification and enlightenment.”

The pope’s decision garnered widely diverse responses, ranging from those who welcome the move to those who regret it. As we all know, this honor has nothing to do with sacramental ordination to ministry, even though it was an honor conferred only on presbyters (that’s OK, deacons don’t mind!). Still, it was a significant honor in the sense that priests, and very often, the people they served, took great pride in having their hard-working pastor being named a monsignor. There was a certain gravitas and respect that seemed to come with the title, and probably all of us can name revered monsignors who serve with great humility and wisdom.

On the other hand, honesty demands that we acknowledge that just as often, younger men were given the honor to signal greater roles for them in the future, certainly what the secular world would easily identify as a career promotion. Many priests want nothing to do with this kind of honorific, and certainly those who serve in ordained ministry should need no further “honor” than that!

The bishops at the Second Vatican Council agreed. They were dead set against retaining structures and processes that no longer served any practical, pastoral use in the life of the Church, and they urged the Holy Father to streamline things. Pope Paul VI took this task on, and in 1972, the whole structure of Holy Orders was revamped in the Latin Church, eliminating the Rite of First Tonsure, while suppressing the four minor orders and the major order of the subdiaconate. The diaconate was to be exercised permanently and could be opened to both celibate and married men. More to the point here, Pope Paul also reduced the number of “classes” or “ranks” of monsignors, taking them from as many as 15 different classes of monsignor to three. Now, Pope Francis has reduced this list to one.

How can this help us as we journey through Lent? First, we might reflect on what motivates us to serve? Are we perhaps a little too concerned about signs of human approval, the pat on the back after Mass for a good homily, for example? What is the “driving force” (to use Pope Paul VI’s expression) for our mutual diakonia?

Second, how might we redouble and recommit ourselves to this diakonia? Perhaps now is a good time to review our pastoral activities over the last year. Someone has suggested that most of us spend three-quarters of our time on matters internal to the administration of our parishes and other institutional matters, and only about one-quarter on actually meeting and serving people in need. Could we not try to see if we could reverse that priority?

Third, good pastors do deserve our respect and thanks. For deacons and priests who are not serving as pastors, how might we find positive ways to show our appreciation? Many bishops with a certain degree of frustration felt that the only way open to them to recognize outstanding priestly service was through the mechanism of naming monsignors. What other ways might be found?

Fourth, we might broaden the question even further: How do we, as a community of disciples, acknowledge the grace and Spirit-filled service of all — clergy and lay — who minister in the name of Christ and Christ’s Church?

DEACON DITEWIG, Ph.D., former executive director of the Secretariat for the Diaconate at the USCCB, now teaches and ministers in the Diocese of Monterey, Calif. He writes and consults extensively on the subject of the diaconate and contemporary ministry.