Help support New Advent and get the full contents of this website as an instant download. Includes the Catholic Encyclopedia, Church Fathers, Summa, Bible and more all for only $19.99...
It is from Italy that we derive rules as to what is fitting and customary in the matter of ecclesiastical correspondence. These rules the different Catholic nations have adopted with greater or lesser modifications, according to local conditions, resulting in differences which will be here dealt with.
Before describing how an address should be written, or how a letter to an ecclesiastical personage should be begun and ended, it may be well to say that the paper must always be white, no other colour being allowed. The size and form of stationery considered appropriate is that known in Italy as palomba; it is used by the Roman Congregations, and is so called because it has the watermark of a dove (It., palomba). In other countries the paper used for protocols or ministerial correspondence may be employed, but it should be handmade, as both stronger and more suitable.
The ink must always be black; coloured inks are forbidden; first, because they are contrary to traditional usage, and next because they are liable to changes, having, for the most part, a basis of aniline or of animal oil; moreover, these inks on being exposed to the light lose colour rapidly and soon make the letter impossible to read.
The letter must be written as our fathers wrote, and not, as business letters are now sometimes written, first on the right hand sheet and then on the left, in inverse order to that of the leaves of a book. This is expressly laid down in an instruction issued by Propaganda when Monsignor Ciasca was secretary, and rests on the necessity of providing for the due order of the archives and for facility of classification.
Lastly, it is better not to write on the back of the sheet, as the ink may soak through the paper and make the document less easy to read; in any case, it is a rule of politeness to facilitate the reading of a letter in every possible way.
Ten years ago the use of a typewriter was not permissible; at the present day it is. Many decrees of the Congregation of Rites are written in this way; the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars allow it in the case of documents addressed to them, and other ecclesiastical courts have followed their example, but letters addressed to the Sovereign Pontiff personally must still be written by hand. If the letter be sealed, red wax must be used, any other colour, or even black, being forbidden; but the use of wafers, made to look like seals of red wax, which are gummed on to the envelope, is now tolerated. Moreover, according to the practice of the ecclesiastical chanceries, the seal used should be smaller in proportion to the dignity of the person addressed. In practice, however, it is not easy to follow this rule, since it is not everyone who possesses seals of different sizes.
The Sovereign Pontiff is addressed at the commencement of a letter as "Most Holy Father" (Beatissimo Padre); in the body of the letter as "His Holiness" (Sua or Vostra Santità). It is customary to speak to him always in the third person, and the letter ends with: "Prostrate at the feet of Your Holiness, I have the honour to profess myself, with the most profound respect, Your Holiness's most humble servant."
If, instead of a letter, a petition is sent to the Sovereign Pontiff, to be examined by him or by one of the Roman Congregations, it should begin: "Most Holy Father, Prostrate at the feet of Your Holiness, the undersigned N., of the diocese of N., has the honour to set forth as follows:" and the statement of the request ends with the words: "And may God . . ." (meaning, "May God enrich Your Holiness with His gifts"). If written in Italian the petition ends with the formula, Che della grazia . . ., the beginning of a phrase implying that the favour asked is looked for from the great kindness of the Sovereign Pontiff. After folding the petition lengthways to the paper, the petitioner should write at the top, "To His Holiness, Pope N. . . . ."; in the middle, "for the petitioner" (per l'infrascritto oratore), and at the bottom, to the right, the name of the agent, or the person charged with the transaction of that particular business at the Roman court.
In writing to an Italian cardinal, the letter should begin with the words, "Most Reverend Eminence" (Eminenza Revma.); if he should be of a princely family, "Most Illustrious and Reverend Eminence". In the body of the letter itself he should always be addressed in the third person and as "Your Eminence", or "His Eminence", and the letter should end: "Embracing the purple of His Most Reverend Eminence, I am His Eminence's very humble and obedient servant". This is an adaptation of the more complicated Italian formula, "Prostrato al bacio della sacra porpora, ho l'onore di confermarmi dell' Eminenza Vostra Rev'ma dev'mo ed oss'mo servo". The Cardinal's address, as written on the envelope, must be repeated at the left-hand lower corner of the first page of the letter, and this must be done in all letters of this kind, being intended to show that there has been no mistake made in the address.
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".
Moreover, custom requires that the title should be given to the four prelates known in Italian as di fiochetti (those who have the right to have tufts on their carriage-harness), namely: The Vice-Chamberlain, the Auditor of the Apostolic Chamber, the Treasurer of the same Chamber (an office not filled since 1870), and the Majordomo. The other prelates di mantelletta, whether enrolled in a college of prelates or not, have the title of "Most Illustrious and Most Reverend Lord." The letter should begin: "To the Most Illustrious and Most Reverend Lord, Monsignore N. . . ." and end: "I am Your Most Illustrious and Most Reverend Lordship's very humble servant". In addressing a privy chamberlain, honorary chamberlain, or papal chaplain, the term "Monsignore" should be used (in French Monseigneur) "Monsignore Reverendissimo" in Italian, and the letter should end: "I am Your Lordship's very devoted [or very humble] servant," according to the writer's rank.
A religious should be addressed as "Reverend Father" or "Most Reverend Father" ("Reverendo padre" or "Reverendissimo Padre"), according to his rank in his order, and the words "Vostra Paternità" or "Vostra Riverenza", "Your Paternity" or "Your Reverence", used in the letter itself. There are, indeed, certain fine distinctions to be made in the use of these expressions, according as the religious written to belongs to one order or another, but nowadays these chancery formulas, once clearly distinguished, are commonly used indiscriminately. In writing to one of a community of Brothers, such as the Christian Brothers, a simple religious should be addressed as "Very Dear Brother" (the customary form among the Christian Brothers); should he hold a position in his congregation, as "Honoured Brother," or "Much Honoured Brother".
By the motu proprio of Pius X (21 February, 1905), he conferred on vicars-general during their tenure of office the title "My Lord", on canons "Reverendo Signor, Don N. . . . canonico di . . .", in French "Monsieur le Chanoine", in English "The Very Reverend Canon". Consultors of the Roman Congregations have the title of "Most Reverend," and must be so addressed at the beginning and end of letters written to them.
Lastly, parish priests should be addressed in Italian as "Reverendo Signor Parroco" or "Curato di", in French, as "Monsieur le Curé", in English as "The Reverend A. . . . B. . . ." "Parish Priest" (curé) is a general term. Most of the Italian provinces have special names for the office, such as "pievano", "prevosto", and others which it would take too long to enumerate, but "Reverendo Signor Parroco" may always be used safely. All priests in Italy have the title "Don", an abbreviation of Dominus (Lord), and should therefore be addressed as "Reverendo Don" (or "D."); or, in the case of a doctor, "Reverendo [or Rev.] Dott., Don N. . . ." Various formulas of respect still occasionally used by Italian politeness may be noted, such as: "All' Ill' mo e Rev'mo Padrone [Pdne] Coltissimo [Colmo] ed Osservantissimo [Ossmo] Signor", titles without equivalent in French or English, now very rarely given, even in Rome, and which belong rather to the archæology of ecclesiastical civility.
The epistolary style of France is more simple. A cardinal should be addressed as "Eminence Révérendissime" (Most Reverend Eminence); not as "Monseigneur le Cardinal", the title "Monseigneur" being below the cardinalitial dignity. Only the kings of France said "Monsieur le Cardinal", the formula which the Pope uses when speaking to them "Signor Cardinale" but one of inferior rank should never presume to use this form of address, and will evade the difficulty by writing, "Eminence Révérendissime" at the beginning of a letter, in the body of the letter "Your Eminence" or "His Eminence"; at the end, "I have the honour to be, with profound respect, Your Most Reverend Eminence's very humble and very obedient servant" (J'ai l'honneur d'être, avec un profond respect, de Votre Eminence Révme. le trés humble et trés obéissant serviteur). Bishops in France have the title of "Grandeur"; the envelope would, accordingly, be addressed: "A sa Grandeur, Monseigneur N., évêque de . . .", and the letter should end: "I have the honour to be Your Grandeur's very humble servant". Prelates, vicars-general, and chamberlains should be called "Monseigneur" and, both in the letter itself and at the end, "Votre Seigneurie" ("Your Lordship"); religious "Reverend Father" or "Very Reverend Father", as the case may be; the words "Paternité" and "Révérence" being but seldom used in France. Benedictines have the title "Dom", so that a religious of that order would be addressed as "The Rev. Father, Dom N. . . ." an abbot as "The Right Rev. [Revme] Father, Dom N., Abbot of ----". There are, finally, the titles "Monsieur le Chanoine" and "Monsieur le Curé", the latter being used for all parish priests.
The forms used in Spain are as follows: "Emmo. y Revmo. Sr. Cardenal, Dr. D.N." [Most Eminent and Most Reverend Lord Cardinal Doctor (if he have that title) Don N.] The letter should end with: "I kiss Your Eminence's pastoral ring, of whom I profess myself, with the deepest respect. . . ." The same formula is used in the case of archbishops and bishops, only that the word "Excellency" takes the place of "Eminence". Vicars-general have the title of "Most Illustrious", shortened into "Muy Iltr. Señor", which is also given to the great dignitaries of the diocese, and to the canons of the cathedral church. In the letter itself, "Your Lordship" should be used, which is abbreviated into "V.S." (Vuestra Señoría), nor must the academic titles of doctor or licentiate, belonging to the person addressed, be omitted, but they must precede the name, thus "Señor Doctor [or Señor Licenciado], Don" [abbreviated, D.], followed by the proper title of his charge. In the case of regulars the rule to be followed is that which has been indicated for Italy. All simple priests have the title of "Don".
In writing to a cardinal one should address the envelope, "An seine Eminenz den hochwürdigsten Herrn Kardinal N." ("To His Eminence the most worthy Lord Cardinal" Herr, of which Herrn is the accusative, meaning "Lord," or "Mister"). In the body of the letter the cardinal should be addressed as "Eminenz", and the ending should be: "Your Eminence's most humble servant" (Eurer Eminenz unterth nigster Diener). A Bishop has the title of "His Episcopal Grace" (Bisch fliche Gnaden), and his letter should be addressed, "An seine bisch flichen Gnaden den hochwürdigsten Herrn" (To His Episcopal Grace the most worthy Lord); in the case of an archbishop, "Erzbischöflichen" (archiepiscopal) is used instead of "Bischöflichen"; in that of a prince bishop, "Fürstbischöflichen". There are several sees in Germany and in Austria whose titulars have the rank of prince-bishops; such are Breslau, Gratz, Gurk, Lavant, Salzburg, and Trent. The letter should end: "Your Episcopal [or Archiepiscopal] Grace's most humble servant." It should be noted that in Germany the title of "Excellency" belongs only to those to whom it has been granted by the Government, so that it is well to ascertain whether the prelate addressed has obtained it. A prelate di mantelletta should be addressed as "hochwürdigster Herr Prälat" (Most worthy Lord Prelate). There is no title in Germany equivalent to that of the Monsignore given to chamberlains and Papal chaplains; it has, therefore become customary to address them as "Monsignore" or, if more respect is to be shown them, "An seine Hochwürden, Monsignore" (His High Worthiness, Monsignore). "Hochwürden" is also commonly used in the case of parish priests, the superlative, "hochwürdigster", being applied to canons and great diocesan dignitaries. Letters so addressed should end, "Your High Worthiness's [Euer Hochwürden] very humble 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.
"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.
Even, however, with these explanations, which might have been developed at greater length, some difficulty may occasionally occur, in which case it is better to make a free use of titles of respect, rather than to run the risk of not using enough, and of thus falling short of what is due and fitting.
BATTANDIER, Annuaire pontifical catholique (1899), 500 sq.; FRANCESCO PARISI, Istruzioni per la giovent impiegata nella segretaria (Rome, 1785). Some information may be obtained in BRANCHEREAU, Politesses et convenances ecclésiastiques (1875).
APA citation. (1907). Ecclesiastical Addresses. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01137a.htm
MLA citation. "Ecclesiastical Addresses." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01137a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Vivek Gilbert John Fernandez. Dedicated to my loving parents, Irwin & Ivy Fernandez, in thanks for raising me in the Holy Catholic Faith.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at newadvent.org. Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.