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The return of the monsignor

September 30, 2010

I went to see my friend Dan the other day. He'd just been named a monsignor, and in these days of uncertainty over rank and religion, I wanted to find out what that meant.

Monsignor is an honorary title bestowed on Catholic priests, which is what Dan is. It had been common enough when I was growing up — the pastor of our parish, St. Catherine of Siena in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, had been named a monsignor not long after taking the job. The title was commonly given to priests in prominent positions; St. Catherine's at the time was a large, prosperous parish. Dan is the pastor of Holy Name Cathedral, the most prestigious church in town.

Still, I was surprised to open an e-mail a month ago to discover Dan's new title; monsignors in Chicago have been scarce, for reasons to be explored. Now, after an absence of nearly 40 years, they're back — 20 of them, announced by Cardinal Francis George in August.  I knew 10 percent, both former classmates from my time in the high school seminary. I've had other friends who've made good, but here was an achievement of a different sort, as perhaps even non-Catholics can appreciate. It was like having a new round of Apostles appointed, and discovering you're on a first-name basis with two.

The title monsignor confers no special powers, but is accompanied by considerable pomp. There were two grades of monsignor that I knew about as a kid. The superintendent of Catholic schools in Chicago in those days — this was in an era when the average tuition in Catholic grade schools was $25 per year — was the Right Reverend Monsignor William E. McManus, whose name and title I remember because it was printed on parochial school report cards. There were also very reverend monsignors. I had the idea these outranked the right reverends, but looked it up just now and discovered I was wrong. The very reverends were monsignors of the lowest stature — the buck sergeants of monsignordom — while the right reverends sat closer to the throne. Evidently it's also possible to be a most reverend monsignor, but these individuals for the most part are bishops, and for purposes of this discussion may be ignored.

Monsignors were also entitled to certain refinements of costume. Priests years ago commonly wore cassocks, a floor-length black garment. A monsignor's cassock had red buttons, piping, and cuffs and a purple sash, and looked exceedingly grand. On ceremonial occasions a monsignor might wear a purple cassock, calling to mind my friend Al's translation of the letters L.L.B., B.A., which one occasionally finds appended to the name of a learned cleric: Looks Like Bishop, But Ain't.

Largely for such reasons the title monsignor was objected to, at least in Chicago, at one time a hotbed of liberal ecclesiastical sentiment. To be a monsignor, the argument went, was mainly an excuse to put on airs. This view prevailed; the last time large numbers of monsignors were named was in the early 1970s. The years chipped away at the archdiocese's monsignor corps; prior to last August, there were just seven left. 

But times change. In the 1990s Cardinal Joseph Bernardin had asked Chicago priests to vote on whether the naming of monsignors should be resumed. (The honor is formally granted by the pope, but the local bishop submits the list.) The question had been narrowly defeated. Today some think it would pass — 59 percent of priests in Chicago are foreign-born now, and they tend to be conservative. Cardinal George, a prelate of the old school, had been plumping for monsignors for some time. This drew some denunciations, but at length he got his way. Of the 20 new monsignors, three were pastors and seven held other high-profile positions in the archdiocese. The other 10 priests were retired.

I had lunch with Dan last week to see what he made of all this, idly wondering if he'd show up in a cassock with red piping, unsurprised when he didn't, instead wearing civilian clothes. We spoke relatively little about the wisdom of reviving the monsignoriat. (For the record, Dan had been opposed, thinking the move would be divisive.) The main question in my mind, although I didn't put it so bluntly, was this: what was it like to be the first mate on a sinking ship?

We talked about that for quite a while. We'd seen the evidence of the church's reduced state in our own lives and those of people we knew, Dan of course at a much closer remove than I. There had been 155 of us that first day at the high school seminary; as I recall, three never made it back for day 2. Attrition thereafter was steady. At graduation four years later just 76 of us remained — that was the point at which I dropped out. Twelve had made it all the way to ordination, a couple after personal odysseys. Six were still in.

The number of practicing Catholics in Chicago meanwhile had declined precipitously. Of the 2.3 million nominal Catholics in the archdiocese currently, just 20 percent attended church. The number of students in Catholic schools had dropped by half; an equal fraction of those schools had shut down. (The high school seminary we'd attended had ceased operation in 2007.) The number of nuns had fallen by two-thirds. Nearly 100 parishes had closed. 

A little more than 800 diocesan priests remained, one-third fewer than 30 years previously, plus another 800 priests from religious orders. The net loss of priests had flattened out in the past few years, with roughly 15 ordained annually to take the place of the 20 who had died, a seemingly manageable rate of decline. But the average age of a priest was 60; inevitably mortality would rise. Over all else loomed the disaster of clerical sexual abuse. Matters appeared stable for the moment, but ahead one sensed the abyss.

Some no doubt thought: so what? Religion was all superstition anyway; who cared if it withered away? But that judgment was too harsh. The world offered few opportunities to talk about values; however well or poorly religious institutions of any denomination may have done in that respect, there was very little else.

Still, even if you agreed that the ecclesiastical enterprise were worth preserving, disagreement over the point of it all made for some uncomfortable discussions. Dan and I spoke of the popular Catholic grade school housed next to Holy Name Cathedral, with which the archdiocese maintained an arm's-length relationship. Shortly after his appointment as pastor Dan had visited a classroom and asked what the kids had done over Easter break, then just concluded. "We don't say Easter, father," said the teacher, a believer in the school's ecumenical mission. "We say holiday break." It had stuck in his craw.

I said nothing; there was nothing to say. We concluded lunch and I walked back with Dan to the cathedral. When I last saw him he was greeting the kids then being dismissed from the school, none of whom in all likelihood thought to call him monsignor, a title that seemed unimportant. He was in the difficult position of any churchman in 2010, having no real quarrel with anyone around him about what needed to be done. The dispute was about why.

— Ed Zotti

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