Monsignori: Masters in the Service of the Church

                          *Fr George Adimike*

The word monsignor comes from the Italian ‘monsignore,’ which means ‘my lord’ on the model of earlier French monseigneur, with roots in Latin ‘meum’ (mon – my) plus ‘seniorem’ (seigneur – lord). It is an honorific of distinction that honours the nobles of the church, court and royal dignitaries before the Vatican adopted it for the prelates and dignitaries of the papal court and household. Within the current context, monsignorhood is not an office but an honorific offered to priests due to the merit of their service or office. They are masters in their own right, my lord (mon signore). They are lords by the fact and degree of their stewardship, servanthood and friendship with the Lord―it is never lordship of power but of service.

The quantity and quality of the service and witnessing of a priest recommends him for recognition as ‘dominus’ master/lord, monsignorhood. The honoured one is invited to deepen his relationship with Christ for its exemplary effect and never for domination. Monsignorhood encompasses three grades of honours bestowed by the Holy Father for stellar services to the Church and the Papacy. These three grades, the apostolic protonotary, the ‘domestic’ prelate of honour to the Holy Father and the papal chaplain or chamberlain to the Holy Father, enjoy certain privileges, which include distinguished ecclesiastical dress.

In going further, this periodic preferment of some priests with the honorific title of monsignor calls for an interrogation of the honours and privileges in the Church. In the ensuing euphoria that attends this preferment, the significance of such an honour or privilege is either lost or ignored. While recognising some priests as masters in the service of the Lord and the community of the brethren, the Church expresses her dual or theandric nature. In affirming her spiritual nature, the Church acknowledges her human dimension, subjecting herself to the vagaries and mysteries of historical realities.

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Monsignorhood, an honorific preferment in the Church, can be adequately appreciated with eyes of faith (2 Cor. 5:7). Honours in the Church are not vainglory but grace-borne positions and privileges, with their attendant responsibilities. Generally, preferment in the Church invites one to a more authentic discipleship as a standard. It offers a new platform to serve God and glimpse the glory through the cross. It is presupposed that the recipient undertakes a journey to the Calvary, experiencing the mix of suffering and glory at every step. While encouraging the journey, the Church appreciates the value of positive reinforcement through encouragement and honours. Accordingly, man awards, God rewards, and monsignorhood falls between the human award and God’s reward.

A one-sided and inadequate understanding of the Church tends to spiritualise her meaning and existence. This understanding of the Church excludes her sacramental nature and her human context. An exaggerated spiritualism, as a matter of course, accentuates a disincarnated Christianity and erroneously considers earthly honours and privileges as distractions or vestiges of the mundane accumulation of the Church in the course of her history. This pseudo-spirituality inadvertently denies the mystery of the Incarnation and represents a façade of a hidden Gnosticism. It views human experience and history as bizarre, corrupt and corrupting. But in reality, Jesus the Christ redeems humanity and material creation by his assumption of the flesh. The flesh is redeemed, and materiality has become an instrument of salvation. God redeems the entire creation in Christ, underscoring its metaphysical goodness by that mystery.

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The ramifications of the redemption by Christ, especially his Incarnation, include that time and space are factors in our salvation. In other words, history gains an important place in the salvation of man. Human existential realities are not ordinary but grace-borne actions, events, and realities through which honour, worship and glory are offered to God. By her human nature, the Church honours her faithful with an advance of the ultimate reward. When lived well, such an honour participates in the eternal reward because it is not a simplistic social preferment; instead, it is more of a spiritual affirmation by the bride of the Eternal Lamb. So, having been baptised, living according to our nature as humans is sacramental. Christians are sacramental beings by bearing the Spirit of Christ. Though they are Pneumatophers, they walk and work as Christophers.

Earthly honour on account of the good is a tribute to the Creator, who is the source and sustainer of that which is good. When humans acknowledge and appreciate truth, goodness, or beauty through public approbation, they speak the grammar of gratitude to God. By that act, they radiate the glory of God in the recipients and attribute further glory to Him as the ultimate destination of all honour and glory. While the human recipients are directly honoured, God is indirectly glorifying His creature to encourage and reinforce the good. Ultimately, He is being glorified.

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It is also the Church’s way of appreciating providence and thanksgiving for counting humans worthy of service. It is, therefore, a celebration of humans’ elevated position and dignified status. Humans give award; God gives reward. In this case, the honour of being preferred a monsignor is usually a foretaste of the reward God gives when the Christian responsibility of the honour is adequately expressed. So, an award is a wish, a prayer, and a motivation. Whoever is awarded is being singled out to highlight the reward. So, by the conferment of such an honorific title of monsignor, the mastery in service or stewardship of God’s grace in the forms of talents and pastoral competencies lived by the priest is not only acknowledged and celebrated — the priest in question is called to an expanded domain of service and sacrifice for the greater glory of God and the building of the people of God.

Fr George Adimike

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