The title of monsignor in the Roman Catholic Church signifies a priest who has distinguished himself and has been honored by the Pope for his service to the church. Monsignor is an honorary title, rather than a specific position in the church hierarchy, so a monsignor does not necessarily have any duties distinct from those of any other priest. However, some positions within the Vatican automatically carry the title of monsignor.
The Nomination Process
The Catholic Church is organized into districts known as dioceses. Each diocese is led by a type of priest called a bishop, and all of the parish priests within a diocese are under the authority of its bishop. When the bishop of a diocese believes that one of the priests under his authority should be honored for his exceptional service to the church, he can nominate that priest for the title of monsignor. The Pope reviews the nomination and makes the final decision. If he decides to grant the title of monsignor to the nominee, the Secretariat of State of the Vatican honors the new monsignor with a formal diploma.
Grades of Monsignor
Because the title of monsignor historically designated a priest who served in the papal curia, or Vatican bureaucracy, all monsignors are officially part of the papal household, whether they serve in the Vatican or elsewhere. Unlike regular parish priests, they may wear some of the regalia normally reserved for a bishop. Parish priests honored with the title of monsignor are normally given the title of Chaplain to His Holiness, the lowest grade of monsignor. However, the Pope may raise a Chaplain of His Holiness to one of the higher grades of monsignor, such as Prelate of Honor to His Holiness or Protonotary Apostolic Supernumerary.
Monsignors in the Vatican
These honorary titles are now available to priests outside of the Vatican bureaucracy. However, the title of Prelate to His Holiness and the rank of monsignor is also granted to the Pope’s chamberlain. The title of Protonotary Apostolic of Number, the highest grade of monsignor, is granted to seven priests who fill seven of the traditional administrative positions within the Curia. Assignment to any of these positions is determined by the Vatican, but any priest can become a monsignor if nominated by his bishop and approved by the Pope.
Becoming a Monsignor
If you have decided to pursue the vocation of priesthood in the Catholic Church, you can’t apply to become a monsignor the way you would apply for a job in the secular world. Instead, you would first have to go through the process of becoming a Catholic priest. This requires a four-year college degree, an extensive series of interviews with officials of the diocese, a period of time as a seminary student, a period of time as a transitional diaconate, and finally, ordination to the priesthood after about four years of preparation. Priests receive a salary like any other profession, and they are expected to perform a variety of duties. This could mean serving as a parish priest, teaching in a Catholic college, working at a Catholic hospital, or whatever else the church requires. If you perform these duties well enough to impress the diocesan bishop, you may be nominated for the title of monsignor.