QUAERITUR: Why call bishops “Monsignor”?

From a reader:

Why do people sometimes refer to Bishops as a “Msgr. [name]”? I’ve seen this occasionally, and never understood why. It seems the most logical way to do it would be “Bp. Name”, or “The Most Rev. Bp. [name]”, or something like that.

The title “Monsignor” is really just “My Lord”.

Bishops are commonly addressed as “Monsignor” in some countries.  In Italy, for example, they are normally called “Monsignore”.  If you run into someone using “Monsignor” for a bishop or an archbishop, they are probably doing so because of European influence.

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25 Responses to QUAERITUR: Why call bishops “Monsignor”?

  1. chonak says:

    It’s probably worth noting the counterpart case expressly: when a priest is called “monsignor”, he’s being honored with some of the dignities that belong properly to the rank of bishop.

  2. ErnieNYC says:

    Building upon Fr. Z’s explanation, the use of “Monsignor” for certain lower level prelates (those which we in the US call Msgr, e.g., Chaplains of His Holiness, Pronotaries Apostolic, etc.) is likely derived from the idea that such individuals enjoy certain privileges, like address and vestiture, ordinarily reserved for bishops.

  3. Vincentius says:

    I’m wondering if the reader is referring to a recent post about traditional Bishop Rifan of Brazil where he was referred to as “Monsignor.” I once served a private Mass for him, after which the thought occurred to me if the “et tibi/et te PATER” in the Confiteor were appropriate for a bishop. I asked him expecting to say “episcopus” or the like. He said that “pater” is fine and that “dominus” would also be appropriate. I guess this conveys the same idea.
    BTW for Fr.Z or any of the Latinists out there- why is not the vocative used for pater in that situation? Or is this an irregular vocative like Deus?

  4. chonak says:

    In “et te, Pater”, “Pater” is accusative, agreeing with “te”.

  5. Hieronymus says:

    Correction, Chonak:

    Pater is vocative. The accusative of pater is patrem

  6. In recent years, I have taken to addressing a bishop as “mon signore” in formal situations upon meeting, especially when they are in clerical or choir dress. Not so much so when he’s wearing a clerical suit, especially in the absence of “solita oscula.”

  7. EoinOBolguidhir says:

    Calling the bishop of a diocese “Bishop X” is worse than disrespectful, it’s bad grammar. It is the equivalent of addressing His Grace the Duke of Norfolk, whose name is Edward Fitzalan Howard, as “Duke Fitzalan Howard.” You can refer to him as His Grace, or as the Duke of Norfolk. Similarly, you can refer to the Bishop of Seattle, whose name is Peter Sartain, either as the Bishop of Seattle, or as Monsignor Sartain, or as the Most Reverend Peter Sartain, but never Bishop Sartain. While etiquette may by ductile, there is no excuse that justifies bad grammar.

  8. wchoag says:

    Twelve years ago when I passed over to a regular status in the Church after years with the FSSPX, I could never–indeed I still cannot–adjust the dissonance of everyone addressing the ordinary and auxiliaries as “Bishop N.” Apart from those who employ the style of “Your Excellency” common among other places in the USA and Italy, in “Society-land” the bishops were always addressed as “Monsignor” or, less formally, just plain “Father”.

  9. catholicmidwest says:

    Well you can avoid calling him monsignor if you don’t like it. When you see him coming, do what I do, and head the other way.

  10. luiz says:

    In Portuguese, a bishop is called “Dom” (from Dominus). Monsignors are also called “Dom”, but because of influence of the italian language, they are nowadays called “Monsenhor”.

    Eg.

    Dom Burke or Vossa (2nd person; Sua 3rd person) Excelência Reverendíssima.

  11. Ed the Roman says:

    We just had the Bishop at mass, and he was noted as “Bishop [last name]”.

    Had I been doing the announcements, it would have been “His Excellency the Most Reverend [full name], Bishop of [here].” But I was not.

  12. It is not bad grammar. It is a usage problem. It’s a very common pattern in American life, to use the name of a job as the honorific title of its holder. President Obama is addressed as Mr. President. Mayor Bloomberg would very seldom be addressed as Mr. Mayor, however; Mayor is what you hear the newspeople say.Neither would be addressed as “Your Excellency” by anybody but the most high-falutin’. It’s not surprising, because we’re a very utilitarian society in that way, and because the pattern predates the American colonies.

    The only place where “The Reverend” survives, in most situations in the US, is in those denominations where a minister is called “a reverend”. “Father” survives as a title mostly because it’s a possible job title — “I talked to the father that was in church right then, and he said….” Same thing for “Sister” and “Brother”.

    So if you want bishops to be addressed by their proper style, stop using “bishop” as the noun for referring to a bishop. Talk about the US Conference of Catholic Most-Reverends. Otherwise, prepare to be unhappy, because fighting English usage is like bailing out the Marianas Trench.

  13. moon1234 says:

    I personally always use “Your Excellency” when addressing a Bishop in the United States and “Your Grace” when adressing an ArchBishop.

    From the Catholic Encyclopedia:
    A Bishop’s title is “Most Illustrious and Most Reverend Lord”. The words, “Your Greatness”, a translation of the Latin, Amplitudo Vestra, used in chancery letters, are not customary in Italy, except when writing in Latin. On the other hand, bishops there generally receive the title of “Excellency” (Eccellenza). A decree of the Congregatio Ceremonialis, 3 June, 1893, assigns this title to patriarchs, instead of “His Beatitude”, wrongly assumed by them. Traditional usage, indeed, reserves this title to the Sovereign Pontiff, one of the most ancient instances being met with in a letter from St. Jerome to Pope St. Damasus (d. 384), but in practice patriarchs still use it, and it is still given to them. Nuncios take the title of “Excellency” in accordance to the usage of European courts, and custom accords it to legates of the Holy See in virtue of their office (see LEGATE), of whom the best known is the Archbishop of Reims, in France. As all Bishops in Italy take, or accept, this title, a letter should be addressed: “To His Excellency, the Most Illustrious and Most Reverend Monsignore N. . . ., Bishop of . . .” and should end with the words: “Kissing his pastoral ring, I am His Most Illustrious and Most Reverend Excellency’s very humble and very obedient servant”.

    “The Catholic Directory” (London, 1906) gives the following brief directions for forms of address, which, with the slight exceptions noted, may be safely taken as representing the best custom of the United States, the British Isles, Canada, Australia, and the British colonies in general:

    “CARDINALS. His Eminence Cardinal . . . If he is also an Archbishop: His Eminence the Cardinal Archbishop of . . . ; or His Eminence Cardinal . . ., Archbishop of . . . ; [to begin a letter] My Lord Cardinal, or My Lord; Your Eminence.
    “ARCHBISHOPS. His Grace the Archbishop of . . . ; or The Most Reverend the Archbishop of . . . ; My Lord Archbishop, or My Lord; Your Grace.
    “BISHOPS. The Lord Bishop of . . .; or The Right Reverend the Bishop of . . . ; or His Lordship the Bishop of . . . ; My Lord Bishop, or My Lord; Your Lordship. In Ireland, Bishops are usually addressed as The Most Reverend. [In the United States the titles My Lord and Your Lordship are not usually given to Bishops.] An Archbishop or Bishop of a Titular See may be addressed, 1. by his title alone, as other Archbishops and Bishops; or 2. by his Christian name and surname, followed by the title of his See, or of any office, such as Vicar Apostolic, that he holds, as The Most Rev. (or The Right Rev.) A.B., Archbishop (or Bishop, or Vicar Apostolic) of . . . ; or 3. by his surname only, preceded by Archbishop or Bishop, as The Most Rev. Archbishop (or The Right Rev. Bishop) . . . . The addition of D.D., or the prefixing of Doctor or Dr., to the names of Catholic Archbishops or Bishops, is not necessary, and is not in conformity with the best usage. [It is, however, the usual custom in the United States.] When an Archbishop or Bishop is mentioned by his surname, it is better to say Archbishop (or Bishop) . . . than to say Dr. . . . ; for the latter title is common to Doctors of all kinds, and does not of itself indicate any sacred dignity or office. “Vicars-General, Provosts, Canons. – 1. The Very Rev. A. B. (or, if he is such, Provost . . ., or Canon . . .), V. G.; or The Very Reverend the Vicar-General. 2. The Very Rev. Provost . . . (surname). 3. The Very Rev. Canon . . . (surname); or (Christian name and surname) The Very Rev. A. Canon B. [The various ranks of Domestic Prelates are addressed in English-speaking countries according to rules laid down above under ITALY]. – Mitred Abbots. The Right Rev. Abbot . . . (surname). Right Rev. Father. – Provincials. The Very Rev. Father . . . (surname); or The Very Rev. Father Provincial. Very Rev. Father. – Some others (heads of colleges, etc.) are, at least by courtesy, addressed as Very Reverend; but no general rule can be given. The title of Father is very commonly given to Secular Priests, as well as to Priests of Religious Orders and Congregations.

  14. asperges says:

    As above for the UK, but I have a feeling recently the more formal modes of address (at least for correspondence) have been simplified. In practice, “My Lord” for Bishops in conversation; “Your Grace,” for Archbishops, “Your Emminence” for Cardinals.

    BTW: Foreign Bishops, epecially Americans, love being addressed as “My Lord,” by us. They think it is rather quaint. “Excellency” to our ears sounds like an ambassador: I would never use it, but each to his own…

  15. gio says:

    Monsignior, meaning “my lord”, is really just a generic title for prelates from archbishops down to papal chaplains. In the Philippines during the Spanish times, bishops and archbishops are styled as “Excelentísimo y Reverendísimo Señor Doctor Don N……….(Name)”. They are referred to as “Señor Obispo /Arzobispo” (Lord Bishop/Archbishop) and are commonly addressed as “Monseñor”. This usage in Spanish was common even up to the time of the american commonwealth in the early part of the 20th century with american bishops. Confusion arose in the later part of the 20th century when the people were more exposed to american media and therefore to american forms of address and titles. Now most older people as well as traditionally minded people still use “Monseñor” to address bishops while the younger generation generally do not associate the word Monseñor or Monsignor with bishops but rather to Papal Chaplains and Honorary Prelates .

  16. Hilde says:

    Here in Norway we recently got a priest from Poland that is called monsignore, and that’s my first meeting with that title. And he’s not a bishop but a papal honor prelate.

  17. Gaz says:

    I was once serving a mass celebrated by an elderly Monsignor (Chaplain of His Holiness) who had left the ablutions after Communion to other Ministers of Holy Communion. Seeing that he hadn’t cleansed his fingers after handling the Blessed Sacrament, I went over to him at the sedelia with cruet, bowl and towel. He smiled at me and said, “I feel like a bishop”. I smiled back and said, “We call him ‘Monsignor’ too”.

  18. Marcin says:

    We just had the Bishop at mass, and he was noted as “Bishop [last name]“

    Actually, bishops are mentioned in the Canon (and any EP) by their first names: “et Antistite nostro Theodoro”. That’s the most ancient way of referring to the clergyman. This tradition is still well and alive in the Christian East, for the Byzantines always refer by first name e.g. “Patriarch Gregorios” (in Anaphora or litanies), or “His Beatitude Gregorios” if written (sometimes with last name appended in parentheses). Same goes with any clergy. Interestingly, in some countries (like Poland) Roman Catholics still use this manner when referring to the priest, especially in the familar setting of one’s church/parish (the secular press always uses last name though). However it’s not simply a familarity, for even if you visit another parish, that you don’t know at all, looking for a priest to which you were referred to, you ask for Father Karol, not Father Wojtyla.
    As far as prelates go, the use change into last names long time ago.

    Least to say, I like that way. It’s not disrespectful at all, yet bring you somehow closer to the person, who IS (spiritual) Father, whatever his ecclesiastical rank is.
    And it’s a very, very old custom (that being my crown argument).

  19. Supertradmum says:

    I have noticed that the more conservative bishops want to be called by their last name-Bishop Finn,
    Bishop Bruskewitz, Bishop Moran, and some half conservative, Archbishop Dolan, while the more liberal bishops call themselves by their first name, Bishop Crispian, Bishop Declan, or dear, just call me, Kieran. As there seems to be a choice in this matter, or at least cultural preferences, are we merely to call the Bishop what he desires to be called?

  20. albinus1 says:

    A local parish has a priest from Nigeria, who addresses the bishop as “My Lord”, which, he says, is the custom in Nigeria.

    Vincentius and chonak– As Hieronymus pointed out, the vocative of “pater” is “pater”. In Latin, the only nouns (and adjectives) with a distinct vocative singular are 2nd-declension masculine nouns (and adjectives) whose nominative singular ends in -us or -ius. Hence, the vocative of “dominus” is “domine”, and the vocative of “filius” is “fili”. But the vocative of “puer” is “puer”. “Deus” is an apparent exception; the vocative singular should be “dee” (or “di”, since the voc. sing. masc. of “meus” is “mi”, also irregular), but all the evidence is for “deus”, same as the nominative. “Pater”, on the other hand, is a 3rd-declension noun. For all 3rd declension nouns (as well as 1st, 4th, and 5th declension), the vocative singular is the same as the nominative singular. So the vocative of “Spiritus Sanctus” (Holy Spirit) is “Spiritus Sancte”, because “spiritus” is a 4th declension noun, but the adjective “sanctus”, when modifying masculine nouns, follows the 2nd declension. As for the plural, for all nouns in Latin the vocative plural is the same as the nominative plural. In prayers beginning, “Orate, fratres, …”, “fratres” is technically vocative.

  21. Emilio III says:

    There are times when too much formality is out of place. On July 16, 1212, Alfonso VIII, realizing the situation was not completely hopeless, ordered to get ready for a last charge, then called to the Archbishop of Toledo: “Arzobispo, vos y yo aquí muramos.” “Archbishop, let’s die here, you and I.”

  22. Vincentius says:

    Albine! gratias responsus clarus.
    Luiz – Don is used in Italian, but generally to address a parish priest such as Don Luigi or a term of respect for a layman- eg. Don Corleone!
    Not to go too far down a rabbit hole, but how did that word singnor, signore, signeuer etc get into the Romance languages? Was it one of those common usuage words like equus becoming carvallus to cheval, carvallo etc?

  23. Fr. Basil says:

    \\Calling the bishop of a diocese “Bishop X” is worse than disrespectful, it’s bad grammar.\\

    Actually, there was a time that instead of a bishop’s surname, one used the name of his diocese (usually in the Latin form). This is seen in referring to the Anglican Abp. of Canterbury as Cantuar or York as Ebor. The Anglican Religious Water Frere, CR, upon becoming the Bishop of Truro signed himself Walterus Truon.

    Byzantine usage (Catholic and Orthodox) calls both priests and bishops “Father Ordination name” or “Bishop Ordination name”, though in direct address, Bishops are addressed in English as “Your Grace”, an Archbishop or Metropolitan (not primate of an autocephalous church) as “Eminence,” and the head of an autocephalous church as “Beatitude), or in the case of Orthodox Patriarchs, “Holiness.”

  24. albinus1 says:

    “Sen^or” (sorry, my keyboard lacks a tilde), signor, sieur, etc. are from “senior”, which in Latin is the comparative of senex (old man) and thus means “elder”. It’s a perfectly good classical Latin word, but I haven’t often seen it in classical literature in any sense but the clear meaning of “older” (than someone else). Perhaps it came to be used as an honorific in colloquial language, which is why it survived into the Romance language in that sense.

    “Equus” did not *become* “caballus”. “Caballus” is found in classical Latin, but seems to have been considered a colloquial word, seldom used in formal writing. They’re two different words. I’m not sure why “equus” fell out of usage (except for its adjectival form — in Romance language today one sees “equino”, etc. as adjectives). Perhaps it simply came to feel too formal — “steed” as opposed to “horse”, but it was once the normal Latin word for horse. It would be almost as if the word “dog” fell out of use in English and were replaced by “mutt” or “cur” or something like that as the standard word for that animal. Actually, come to think of it, something like that *has* happened in English: “dog”, a word of doubtful ancestry, has all but replaced “hound”, a word of good Germanic pedigree, in everyday usage.

  25. Vincentius says:

    Albinus-thanks for the analysis- very interesting- I didn’t think of senex, instead I though it may have been from the person who seals or signs (signator). I’m not yet 60 and I have wittnessed a discernable evolution of our own everyday language. When you change your tag fro Albinus to Blancus, then I know I’ve lived too long!