What Is the Meaning of the Title Monsignor in a Roman Catholic Church?

In April 2013, Pope Francis suspended the centuries-old practice of honoring certain high-ranking Catholic clergy with the title “Monsignor.” According to CatholicCulture.org, the change does not affect those priests working in the Vatican’s diplomatic service, but no others would be named “honorary prelates.” The title “Monsignor” has a storied past, contrasting with its relatively simple origins, but it is, at heart, an honorary title of respect rather than a formal church rank.

The Meaning

“Monsignor” simply means “my lord,” from the Italian “monsignore,” according to “The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions.” “Signore” is recognizable as the Italian equivalent of the English “mister,” perhaps more recognizable in its Spanish form “señor.” This somewhat pedestrian definition belies its usage as a title for the powerful. In “The Original Catholic Encyclopedia,” Paul Maria Baumgarten explains that by the 17th century, the French version, “Monseigneur,” referred to the heir to the French throne.

To Whom It Refers

Until 1630, according to Baumgarten, cardinals and other high-ranking clergy used the title Monsignor, but Pope Urban VIII assigned the honorific “Your Eminence” to cardinals. He lists 20 categories of prelate who are accorded the title ''Monsignor,'' including bishops and archbishops, the College of the Auditors of the Sacra Rota Romana, and the official, supernumerary private and honorary chamberlains. The title has fallen out of use in many countries, though it has survived among the prelates directly honored by the Holy See.

Those Who Hold the Title

For some of the prelates entitled to be addressed as “Monsignor,” this honorary title accompanies an appointment of rank; for instance prelate canons and mitred abbots achieve the title when they become prelate canons or mitred abbots. For many of the “Monsignors,” however, the title and the appointment expire when the pope who granted them dies or resigns. This has traditionally been true of the several hundred supernumerary private and honorary chamberlains, for instance.

The Signifier

Clerical rank is demonstrated by the color and adornment of a man’s cassock and the style and color of his formal hat. Salvador Miranda, writing for the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church in L’Osservatore Romano, explains the visual honors that distinguish the titular honors for Monsignors. Cardinals may wear a red cassock or a red-trimmed black one, along with distinctive hats; bishops may wear a purple cassock or a red-trimmed red one. Papal Chaplains wear a purple sash.