The Pope, Monsignors and Me

Pope Francis raised a few more eyebrows last fall when he altered the process by which a priest is named a “Monsignor.” The last time the long-standing tradition had been changed was under Pope Paul VI in 1968. Pope Francis did not eliminate any of the three remaining classes of monsignor; he specified the qualifications of the conferral of the appellation.

In recent history, any diocesan priest could be named a monsignor, either a Chaplain of His Holiness or a Prelate of Honor, or in rare instances, a Protonotary Apostolic. Under Francis’ new rule, no diocesan priest—except a priest working in the Vatican curia—can be named a Prelate of Honor or Protonotary Apostolic. A priest in a diocese can be named only a Chaplain of His Holiness and not until he has reached the age of 65.

Being named a Prelate of Honor at the relatively young age of 40, I have been observing this development with personal interest. I found it curious that the media honed in on the ostensible reason for the pope’s change, characterizing it as “Pope Francis’ attack on the careerists in the Church.” If this be true, why exempt curial priests from the 65 year of age rule? Why confer the “upper” two grades upon curialists but not to priests in the parishes?

I have no window into the pope’s mind, but I do have my own opinions on the matter being discussed. I recall being named a monsignor, and being not a little embarrassed by the fact that many priests, older, more qualified and much more deserving of the honor were “passed over.”

Under the pope’s new regulations, at least naming younger priests as monsignors will no longer be possible—outside of the Roman Curia. Allow me to offer my own opinion: when a priest in good standing reaches age 65, or when he retires, he well could be automatically nominated by his bishop for the title. This would level the playing field and avoid ill feelings. An old saying puts it this way: “some priests are given the red, others turn green”—referring to the red robes of a monsignor and the green of jealousy.

This being said, I do believe that appropriate ways of affirming younger priests need to be solidly set in place. There are precious few ways to build up and praise a priest for a job well done. Naming monsignors—at an age before 65—did precisely that. All in all, the man did sense a warm expression of gratitude coming from his bishop when he received the title.

If this is being sidelined by the Holy Father, then a bishop does need to be creative in seeking other ways to reach out in a positive way to affirm his younger men—for an outstanding job. It is also true that parishes have a healthy sense of pride in having their pastor affirmed for his faithful service in the Lord’s vineyard. A parish has appreciated this affirmation too!

The pope is his own man and has his own mind. I respect him and his decisions. What we all should do is pray more for our priests—that they always may sense the warm embrace of the Shepherd of Souls in their lives. In the end that is all that counts, especially when signs of human affirmation are all too lacking.

MSGR. CHIODO is the pastor of St. Anthony Parish in Des Moines, Iowa.