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Church Reform Wishlist: Precedence and Papal Honors

Of Precedence and Papal Honors (Or, “Monsignors, medals, and more!”)

Full disclosure: i helped get some acquaintances a papal knightood for their commendable service to the Church, i know some others. I know several monsignori, most quite deserving of recognition. If we have these things, we should use them, but first ask whether we should have them at all.

  • The presbyterate and diaconate are equal in ‘rank and dignity’. We really should not even be talking about ‘rank’ with regard to the life of the Church anyway. Are not all equal in Christ?
  • I am not sure we should, but as long as we do  still care about an order of  precedence, patriarchs precede cardinals, and major archbishops ought to be considered equal to cardinal-bishops. .
  • On one hand I think we should eliminate the vestiges of the renaissance court – the three grades of monsignori, the five grades of papal knights, the two medals, and perhaps even the college of cardinals, honorary canons, etc.
  • On the other hand, I believe that if we do have these things – and there are reasons to have the means of recognizing good and faithful service to the church – they ought to be exercised more equitably and transparently, to whit:
    • Clear qualifications or requirements for each honor should be widely available, clearly understandable, and published on the Vatican website.
    • There should be universal consistency, too. A parish organist of fifty years and a Swiss Guard of two can both receive the Benemerenti medal. Likewise some dioceses do not have monsignori at all, some award it after a set number of years of service, and if you work in the curia, it was, until quite recently, all but guaranteed after five years (one term) of service.
    • Nominations should have an open process that allows at least initial proposals to come from all corners of the Church. There are many deserving people who will never be recognized simply because nobody knows how to get it done.
    • Generous donors should either not be so awarded, or only granted the lowest category of  particular order. The higher levels reserved for those who have given of their time and talent.
    • We should make broader use of the awards as appropriate for ecumenical, interreligious, and even non-believing leaders who have contributed in someway to the Church and to the world.
      • e.g., the diplomats accredited to the Holy See are frequently made Knights of the Order of Pope Pius IX. Maybe it would be appropriate to make the outgoing Representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Holy See an honorary canon of St. Peter’s, or of St. Paul’s without the Walls? Or at least a Pian Knight, too!
    • If the papal knighthoods are for the laity, and the monsignori for the clergy, then deacons should be able to be awarded with all the levels of monsignor. Alternatively, restrict the highest (protonotary apostolic) to the diaconate (which is the historic origin of this role anyway), the middle (honorary prelate) to the presbyterate, and the lowest (chaplain of his holiness) to lay ecclesial ministers, or to both presbyters and deacons.
    • Publish a report each year, and a sum total of all awards given, which includes clarification of who was awarded, for what reason, and where they are. I would be happy to help with the research!
    • Gentlemen of His Holiness are, basically, finely dressed ushers. Is it really an honorific? Why not just have the ushers do this job? If it is an honorific, let it become more systematic like the rest.

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A Tale of Two Dames

At the beginning of this year, a small group of Lay Centre residents and friends started asking the question, “During this anniversary year, how can we appropriately honor all the work that Donna and Riekie have put in over the last 25 years?”

And the answer presented itself: “We cannot… but the pope can!”

On Thursday, December 1, 2011, the co-founders of the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas were invested with two of the pontifical orders of knighthood:

  • Prof. Donna Orsuto was created a
          Dame of the Order of St. Gregory the Great;
  • Ms. Riekie van Velzen was created a
           Dame of the Order of Pope St. Sylvester.

The investiture took place during a mass celebrated at the Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo by Archbishop Joseph Tobin, CSsR, Secretary of the Pontifical Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, in front of over 150 residents, guests, and friends of the Lay Centre.

Archbishop Tobin invests Dames Donna and Riekie with the regalia of their orders

Archbishop Tobin invests Dames Donna and Riekie with the insignia of their orders

The Eucharist was part of a week of events celebrating the Lay Centre’s 25th anniversary and a new alliance with the Catholic Theological Union of Chicago, IL, USA. The papal honors were a surprise to nearly everyone present, even the honorees.

“When Donna invited me to celebrate this liturgy tonight, she mentioned that St. Gregory the Great had grown up in the neighborhood and played on the property,” Archbishop Tobin said just before introducing the awards, “she had no idea that her relationship with St. Gregory was about to move to a new level!”

Truth be told, we were a little concerned that if Donna or Riekie found out beforehand, they would be too nervous or too humble to accept!

Nancy Lindsay, chair of the Board of Directors, introduced the nomination at the end of the homily. Archbishop Tobin read the papal briefs officially creating the Church’s two newest Dames, and blessed the insignia of the Orders before presenting them to Professor Orsuto and Ms. van Velzen. I had the great privilege to serve as Master of Ceremonies for the entire liturgy, including preparing the Rite of Investiture (based on resources borrowed from the Association of Papal Orders in Great Britain, who have an excellent website)

Pontifical Order of St. Gregory the Great

Pontifical Order of St. Gregory the Great

The orders carry no obligations, and primarily only ceremonial privileges: Both women are now entitled with the style “Dame” (the female equivalent of “Sir”), post-nominal lettering of the order (Donna Orsuto, DSG; Riekie van Velzen, DSS), a place in processions and seating in the sanctuary during liturgies and church events, etc. They even earn salutes from the Swiss Guard if they are wearing the insignia of the order. But the right attached to the orders that both seemed most interested in was that, as Equestrian Orders, the new Dames have the privilege of riding a horse into St. Peter’s Basilica! (Not that anyone has tried in recent decades…)

The Pontifical Order of St. Gregory the Great was founded in 1831 by Pope Gregory XVI. It is conferred as a reward for services to the Holy See and the Church on gentlemen and ladies who “by reason of their nobility, the renown of their deeds, or the degree of their munificence are deemed worthy to be honored by a public expression of esteem on the part of the Holy See.”

Pontifical Order of Pope St. Sylvester

Pontifical Order of Pope St. Sylvester

The Pontifical Order of Pope St. Sylvester was founded a decade later, in 1841, also by Pope Gregory XVI. It is conferred as an honor for “the laity who are active in the apostolate, in particular in the exercise of their professional duties and masters of the different arts.”

On a personal note, I have to say thank you a thousand times (mille grazie!) to Bishop Brian Farrell of the PCPCU for helping us navigate the process of the nominations, and devoting a great deal of time to the effort on our behalf. It is not as if he has nothing else to do, as secretary of a Pontifical Council and on the team leading the Apostolic Visitation of the Legion of Christ! The demands of his office even meant he could not be there in person, to deliver the awards he had helped obtain, as he was in Constantinople representing Pope Benedict to Patriarch Bartholomew on the patronal feast day of the Holy See of Constantinople (St. Andrew’s Day, 30 November).

Likewise many thanks to Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald for his support and direction in the process, Archbishop Joseph Tobin for presenting the honors on behalf of the Holy Father, to Cardinal Koch for his sponsorship of the nomination, and to Cardinal Bertone for his approval of the same!

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