The word "monsignor" comes from the Italian word for "my lord." The Roman Catholic Church uses "monsignor" as a title for certain respected, senior priests. Clergy are not ordained "monsignor." Rather, it is an honorific that is granted by the Pope to a small percentage of priests who have given valuable service to the church.
The history of the priesthood goes back to New Testament times. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, priests are the presbyteros, or elders, spoken of in the Epistles. The history of the term "monsignor," by contrast, is much shorter. In the 14th century, "monsignor" was used to refer to any high-ranking church or secular official. Cardinals, bishops and high-ranking priests were all called "monsignor." Furthermore, the title was not used exclusively to refer to clerics as it is now. In 1630, Pope Urban VIII revamped the conventions for addressing clergy and with them the usage of the title "monsignor." From that time on, cardinals were no longer addressed as "monsignor." Neither were secular officials. For a short while, both bishops and high-ranking priests were called "monsignor." Although bishops are still referred to as "monsignor" in some European countries, most commonly in Italy, in the rest of the world, "monsignor" has come to refer only to priests who have been granted the title.
Ordination and Appointment
Priests become priests by ordination. A bishop confers this ordination by the laying on of hands. Priests, however, do not receive the title of monsignor through an ordination process. Typically a priest's diocesan bishop nominates him for the honor. The pope considers the nomination and, if he agrees that it is appropriate, he grants a diploma conferring the title.
Monsignors and priests both perform the duties of priests. Becoming a monsignor does not allow a cleric to perform any additional sacramental duties he couldn't perform as a priest without the title of monsignor. Some monsignors have no special duties beyond the sacramental, ministerial or administrative duties they perform in their own diocese or monastery. For them, the term "monsignor" is simply an honorary title to acknowledge the importance of the current duties they are preforming as priests. These diocesan or monastic monsignors are called "Protonotary Apostolic" monsignors. Other priests become monsignors when they take on special duties within the Roman Curia. These monsignors include the Prelates of Honor to His Holiness and the Chaplains to His Holiness. These monsignors typically work within the administrative apparatus of the Holy See. Their role within the Holy See usually comes with a promotion to monsignor.
In conversation, priests are referred to as "Father." In writing, they are addressed as "The Reverend John Smith" or "Rev. Smith." Monsignors are addressed in conversation as "Monsignor" or "Monsignor Smith." In writing, the correct form of address is "The Reverend Monsignor John Smith" or "Msgr. Smith." Although monsignors used to have to surrender their title upon the death of the pope they served, since 1969 they can keep their title for life.
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