Why do we call some priests; Reverend, Very Reverend or Monsignor?

While most commonly Catholic priests are called “father,” their official title in the English language is “Reverend.” This also extends to deacons (“Reverend Deacon” or “Reverend Mister”), and even some women’s religious orders (such as the term “Reverend Mother”). 

The word can be traced to the Latin reverendus, which essentially means “to be respected.” In this way, the word “Reverend” is simply a word that honors an individual who is to be respected. In the Catholic Church, there are even various “levels” of “Reverend,” denoting the different levels of the Catholic hierarchy.

Priests who are vicars of the diocesan bishop are given the title “very reverend.” Vicars are priests appointed by the diocesan bishop who have authority to make decisions on behalf of the bishop through his ordinary power. 

Some vicars appointed by the bishop are specified in canon law. For example, a bishop appoints a priest as vicar general to assist him in the governance of the diocese.  He appoints a judicial vicar who is given ordinary judicial power in a diocese. A vicar foraine (often referred to as a “dean”) is a priest that a bishop places over a designated area.  A bishop can name other vicars to whom he grants authority to make decisions on his behalf for particular needs.  

Archbishops and Bishops are referred to as “Most Reverend.”

“Monsignor” is an honorific title given to priests by the pope, often based on the recommendation of the local bishop. It is granted to individuals who have rendered valuable service to the Church or who provide some special function in Church governance. “Monsignor” is a form of address, not an appointment: properly speaking, one cannot be “made a monsignor” or be “the monsignor of a parish.”

Before 1968, there were as many as 14 different types of monsignors. Pope Paul VI in his Motu Proprio (motu proprio is Latin for “on his own directive”) Pontificalis Domus of March 28, 1968, reduced the number of types of monsignors to three: 1.) Chaplain of His Holiness addressed as Very Reverend Monsignor, and 2.) Honorary Prelate, and 3.) Protonotary Apostolic, both addressed as Right Reverend Monsignor.  

Soon after his election in March 2013, Pope Francis suspended the granting of the honorific title of Monsignor except to members of the Holy See’s diplomatic service, and asked that any such honors be bestowed after a priest reached the age of 65. Pope Francis indicated a desire to scale back such practices as part of a broader effort to project a more modest and pastoral vision of leadership among priests.

A few other titles you may have heard:
Pastor: Under the bishop’s authority, the priest has responsibility for the pastoral care and governance of a particular parish — the sacraments, administration and teaching. The assignment is considered stable and long term, usually for five years or more.

Parochial administrator: A priest temporarily placed in a parish to fulfill the role of a pastor for the sacraments, administration and teaching. The bishop determines the scope and length of the assignment. Some parochial administrators move on to become pastor at the same parish, while others simply care for a parish until the pastor returns or another is appointed. 

Parochial vicar: Under the authority of the pastor or parochial administrator, the parochial vicar assists in the pastoral care of the parish. Some parishes informally call parochial vicars “associate pastors.”

Sacramental minister: A priest who helps out with the sacraments at a parish. He doesn’t need to live at the parish and typically has a full-time assignment elsewhere, such as to a school or hospital.

Chaplain: A priest assigned to provide regular pastoral care for a school, hospital or other non-parish entity, or specific Catholic groups, such as those who worship in a particular language.

Rector: A priest in charge of an institution, oftentimes a cathedral, basilica or seminary. If the cathedral or basilica has a parish, then the rector could also serve in a dual role as pastor of the parish community.

(Sources: aleteia.org, linconlndiocese.org, thecatholicspirit.com)
Read more in the “Why Do We Do That?” series from Deacon Mike Fritz.