Friday, October 20, 2006

To wear - or not to wear....

That is the question in this neo-Benedictine age.

"When in Rome..."

I'm not a priest so I don't know much about these things. I was a monk for awhile - and when we went into town we never wore the monastic habit. When we worked, we wore jeans and work-shirts. Several novices were taken with the habit, one liked to wear the hood up when he walked through the cloister - very "Nun's Story-ish". Another took his with him when he left monastic life - for Halloween? I never figured that one out.

All of our seminarians in this Archdiocese are required to have a cassock. I would say every priest I know has one for liturgical functions when they wear a surplice over it. (Albs and a stole are more the fashion since Vatican II.)

When I was little, the priest always wore one, even in the rectory - but never on the street. Supposedly the Council of Baltimore forbade that. The rule today is no longer in force - it maybe expired. Many good priests I know do not like the cassock, much less the biretta, and seem to be suspicious of those who have an affinity for wearing them. Although, many young seminarians embrace the custom heartily. Younger people and converts seem to love traditional clothing.

I was talking to two priest friends of mine one day when a young priest came in and was wearing a full length coat over his cassock. We asked where he got the coat and he said in Rome. It was like the Pope's white coat, only black. (It was a beautiful coat.)

One of the priests I had been speaking with called me a day later to ask about cassocks. I told him we sell many. We discussed them. Then he asked about the priest in the coat and also asked how many priests come into the Store wearing cassocks, which is not many. I realized the cassock is sort of a litmus test. Who wears one, the why and wherefores, etc. It was an interesting conversation. (My friend thought it pretentious, but I wonder if that has more to do with our age and training? Maybe, with the younger new priests, trained in a seminary where the cassock has been worn, may think otherwise.)

Although, when the seminarians started wearing cassocks, another well respected priest friend of mine, who had been rector at the seminary, thought it absurd and said he would never be caught dead in a cassock. While another dear priest friend, when he visited our Store at my invitation, spied a biretta, called me over and jokingly whispered, "It's a mortal sin to wear one of these!" He has never been back since.

I'm ambivalent about what a priest chooses to wear. If I were a priest, I would hate wearing any sort of clericals, and never would wear a cassock except for liturgical functions. But I'm not a priest. Because a priest may wear a cassock doesn't make him more of a priest in my eyes. If a priest is out of clericals, meaning the suit, I don't care about that either; although I've heard people say to priests, where I work that is, that they should be dressed in clericals. I don't agree - especially when it's their "day off" and they are running in to pick something up. Priests are people too.

That could be one reason why we don't get all the priests in our Archdiocese shopping at the company I work for. (Of course it could also be that they just don't want to get into the "mix".)


  1. When I was a lad, the priests were almost always in cassocks around the church and school. This was early to mid 50s. I don't know that I ever saw one away from the church.

    I still can recall my shock when one day I spied the young assistant in khakis and a t-shirt mowing the lawn of the convent next door. It didn't seem quite right to my 4th grade eyes.

    But given the slope of that front lawn, about as steep as it could be, it would have been nigh near impossible had he been decked out in a cassock. This was a push mower, too.

    Fortunately, they didn't wear berettas in Duluth so he didn't have to cope with that.

    Yard duty like that was probably why he left the priesthood ten years later.

  2. The clerical shirt is an odd little American invention that has become a clerical convention: a cassock, really, cut off at the waist and tucked into one's trousers. Now, isn't that bizarre? (Like our bishops hiding the cross they wear and showing off the fancy chain. What is THAT about?)

    The American reluctance to wear the cassock in public stems from a neurotic but understandable need to fit into and not offend the dominant Anglo–Saxon Protestant culture. A way of kissing up to the establishment and pandering to the Anglo–Saxon Protestant nervousness about anything that smacks of Rome or of the "religion of the warmer climes."

    The cassocks and birettas of the 19th Anglo–Catholic revival in the C of E were a deliberately provocative statement of identification with continental (and therefore Roman) Catholic practice. I think that the younger generation of Roman Catholic clergy who sport cassock and biretta today are, in effect, saying something similar. "We have had enough of you, 'American– Catholic–forever–trying–to–fit–into–the–dominant–culture" and we want to be identified with something else: a Church that is unabashedly liminal and critical of the dessicated secular trends that contribute to the expulsion of the sacred from society.

    I remember when in the the 60s, clergy in France who, until that time, wore the soutane everywhere, even riding their bicycles, began to give it up. Again, the argument was the need to fit in, not to clash in anyway with the ethos of Western secular society, an ethos that came, by the way, not from the Latin cultures of Europe, but rather from those chilly northern cultures infected with Protestantism and with what Von Balthasar called, "the anti–Roman virus."

    There is a certain Puritan narrowness that twitches whenever religion and fancifulness (or fun!) come together. Religion is supposed to be grim. Wall Street grim. WASPy country club grim. The cassock and biretta are a little clownish, a little fanciful, and yes, are Roman too. They may be just what we need!

  3. Don Marco10:20 AM

    Reminds me of a Congregation of French nuns that cut off their tunic and scapular at the knees and adopted a wispy mousy–brown little veil. I saw the new look and asked why. "Oh! là, là! To fit in! We do not want to offend zee peopull." Like I say, "Managgia!"

  4. just me4:27 PM

    One reason for which I think wearing clericals at all times is best is because priests can be identified as priests if an emergency arises. If I'm in a car accident and not sure I'm going to make it, I don't want a guy in jeans and a t-shirt giving me the last rites. Call me old fashioned if you want, but the roman collar would be very consoling at that time.
    The other reason is due to a personal experience that I had a few years ago. I was in line at a very fashionable restaurant in town one Monday, and could not stop my wandering eyes from noticing the tight and fitting jeans in front of me and the oh, so unwanted thought from popping into my head...."Nice butt!".... To my regret, the cute butt turned around and I was oh so embarrased to say: Father Joe? to my parish priest.
    That image stayed in my head for a while.... Here was the conservative priest who would not be caught without a cassock on church grounds but looked like a GQ model on Mondays.
    A habit does not make the priest, but if I were a religious I would be very proud to be identified as one on the street. Even on Mondays.

  5. That's a wonderful comment Just Me!
    What a curse to be so attractive. I know a woman who drools over cute priests in clericals.
    Crap! No one drools over me anymore! :)
    [I know who you are now and I am so scandalized by your filthy mind! :)]

  6. I think priests and religious should be in the habit as much as possible. I think they should be clearly identified in case they are needed. I don't think they should look like everyone else, because they aren't like everyone else.

    That said, there are times when I think it's fine for them not to be in the habit. One example: when it's extremely hot. My parish priest, who is nearly always in clericals, will wear a simple cotton shirt in the summer in the Adoration chapel when it's really hot. There is no A/C in there.

    The priests who wear the cassock tend to be younger (JPII era) and more conservative then those who don't. At least, that's been my observation.

    I'd have to think the cassock would be very comfortable and definitely cooler then pants and a shirt in the summer.

    I think the cassock is flattering too most priests. There, how "gay" sounding is that sentence! True, though.

  7. Cathy, The funny thing about the cassock is that underneath, most priests wear trousers. Kind of hot in summer.
    But I've been criticized for this post and directed to canon law and supposedly they are expected to wear clericals of some sort whenever they are in public.
    I don't care what they wear. But obviously many people do. I just do not want anyone to feel intimidated or judged when visiting the Store.
    I do hope I never gave the impression that the cassock is gay however - I deeply respect the priests who wear them.

  8. Uhurum10:11 AM

    Priests are cool. Wear something that makes the church visible everywhere.


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