VATICAN CITY — Commenting on Pope Francis allegedly restricting the honorary title of “monsignor” to priests over the age of 65, one historian has suggested that the move could be a return to traditional practice.
On Jan. 4, the Italian daily La Stampa reported that, “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.”
James Hitchcock, professor emeritus of history at St. Louis University, told CNA/EWTN News Jan. 6 that the honorary title had been one given “almost always to senior priests, very few in number.”
“It meant, in effect, this was a man who deserved, or was qualified, to be a bishop, so we’re honoring him with the title of monsignor, and he can wear some of the episcopal garments, so in a way [Pope Francis’ decision] seems almost like a return to that.”
“Monsignor” is an honorary title bestowed on priests that makes them members of the papal household; the title is granted by the Pope on the recommendation of local bishops and entitles priests to certain privileges of dress and precedence in choir.
Prior to Paul VI, there were 14 grades of the title, but he reduced them to three in 1968.
In his motu proprio Pontificalis Domus, Paul VI said that “many of the attributions given to the members of the papal household have been deprived of their function” and are “purely honorary” and no longer “correspond to the concrete realities of the times.”
The document simplified the papal household, retaining what Paul VI held to be “essential and vital,” while removing those positions deemed “nominal, decorative, exterior.”
“The honorary ecclesiastical titles will comprise, henceforth, only three categories of Protonotaries Apostolic (numerary and supernumerary), Prelates of Honor of His Holiness, and Chaplains of His Holiness,” wrote Paul VI. “All other categories are abolished.”
According to La Stampa, Pope Francis has further reformed the practice, such that the sole remaining grade of monsignor is “Chaplain to His Holiness.” However, the Vatican has not publicly released any document or statement confirming the modification.
Under the rules established by Paul VI, chaplains to His Holiness could be appointed after 10 years of priesthood and 35 years of age, but Pope Francis reportedly has increased the age requirement to 65 years.
Hitchcock supposed that the new policy could lead to some standardization across the Church, saying that, currently, it is “full of … anomalies,” with “such enormous variation: Some dioceses where the bishop in effect stopped making monsignors some time ago and others where they make large numbers.”
Those priests who have already been named monsignors will not lose their titles, according to La Stampa, which cites a Jan. 2 letter from Archbishop Antonio Mennini, apostolic nuncio to Great Britain, to the bishops there notifying them of the change.