Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Priests Dressing Like Laymen

The priests of our diocese are on retreat this week, and they were told that “clerical attire is optional”. The vicar general told them so. A vicar general is supposed to know Canon Law…Canon 284, anyone? But then, who cares about Canon Law?

Priests dressing like laymen… Why would they want to do that?

Once upon a time, when I was the parish secretary at the Cathedral, a man in a brightly-colored short-sleeved shirt, khaki-colored hiking shorts, and sandals, came breezing into the office. He said he was going to bury the cremains of a family member, and he wanted me to get the funeral rite book and make a copy of the rite for him. He was quite imperialistic about it, as if I were his servant. He described vaguely where the cremains were going to be…placed…I don’t remember whether he said “scattered” or “buried”…

Can you imagine that I was a little skeptical? And uncertain as to what to do? At that time I had not been Catholic for very long, and I wasn’t sure exactly what was allowed and what was not. A strange man asking for a copy of the funeral rite…hmmm…I’d better ask Father, I thought.

Yeah, you can TELL he's a priest...
I told the man quite honestly that I didn’t know whether I could give him the rite, and that I needed to ask my pastor. He was a little indignant; he said he was just asking for a copy, how hard was that? Well…he sure wasn’t paying my salary, and of course I would have to find the book and do the copying for him…

We went back and forth for a bit; seems he was in a big hurry, and I wasn’t cooperating with his schedule. I bristled and dug in my heels. I just didn’t know if Joe Blow Off The Street should have the rite, and I didn’t want to do something wrong. And the more he pushed, the more it seemed wrong.

Finally, he said, “I’m a priest, for heaven’s sake!” as if I should have known that all along.
Then I was mad. I said, “Now how was I supposed to know that? You’re not dressed like a priest! It’s not stamped on your forehead! Where’s your collar?!”

He became even more indignant, told me to “forget it”, and said that this was certainly not a “welcoming” parish. And he departed in a huff, never to return. Grrrr.

I would pay good money to see a
group of priests from our diocese
dressed like this.
I think it was that same summer that three priests came to visit. They were good friends of the pastor, and when he saw their car pull up outside, he excitedly encouraged me to come outside and meet them.

Not a single one was dressed in clerical attire. Surprised, I blurted out something about that fact. (If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you have probably noted that tact is not my strong suit).

They just laughed and said, “We’re on vacation.”

Not able to let that slide, I protested, “You’re priests. It’s who you are, even when you are on vacation.”

The awkward pause in the conversation was ended by Father whisking his friends off to the rectory.

And then there was that first summer when Bishop Vasa invited some religious sisters from another state (I don’t recall where, exactly) to participate in the diocesan youth retreats. For some reason, he was bringing three of them through Baker City, and of course he brought them to the Cathedral.

Now, there is exactly one religious sister in Baker City, but she does not wear a habit. And it happened that she was in the office at the very moment when I could see out the window that Bishop Vasa’s car had just pulled up, and three habited sisters were disembarking.

Father said, “Oh wow, there’s the bishop.”


Remember what I said about my lack of tact? Well, I just didn’t even think about our local sister at that moment. I just stood there grinning and gushing over the sisters in habits and asking them about their order. I finally noticed that our local unhabited sister looked a little less than comfortable as she explained to the habited ones that she, too, was a religious. Well…too bad.

If only priests would always dress like priests, and religious would always wear habits! What a witness for the lay faithful!  A different manner of dressing says they are special. Sure, there’s a cost to that. The priest might be called to do something…priestly – hear a confession or something.

If only priests and religious knew the effect of their attire on the rest of the world!

In an article in The Remnant (2/28/12) entitled “Please, Sisters, Come Back”, Susan Claire Potts describes her childhood experience of seeing Catholic religious sisters for the first time. She wasn’t Catholic at the time, but she sensed the significance of the habit:

… and then I saw them. I forget how many. Six, maybe eight, walking in twos toward the church, faces down, their hands hidden in their voluminous sleeves. They seemed to glide across the sidewalk. Were their feet even touching the ground?

My sister stared, transfixed, then turned and looked up at me. Her eyes were huge. “Why don’t we have Blue Angels at our church?” she asked.

I didn’t answer. I couldn’t. Angels. That’s what they looked like. We knew nothing of nuns or priests or religious. We didn’t know the angels were Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, consecrated forever to God. Chosen Brides of Christ. Ignorant of that amazing, beautiful reality, we only knew there was something singular about them, something touching the supernatural. We could feel it.

Two little girls sensed the forgotten truth: Nuns are women set apart. They live in a state higher than the rest of us. That’s what people don’t want to say—that some things and some people are higher than others. Catholics used to understand that better than anyone, but no more. Their perceptions have been flattened, their discernment dulled by a religious Declaration of Independence. They want to believe that everything is the same; that all men are created equal and stay forever equal. Nothing is better than anything else.

Yes: please, sisters, come back.

And please, priests, wear “clerical attire”. Preferably a cassock. ;-)


  1. One tactless blogger to another... I couldn't agree more about the (beautiful, engaging, Catholic, artful, holy) witness that religious attire provides. A "picture" is worth a thousand words.

    I've posted on a similar issue recently (Wednesday April 12th).
    Drop by for a visit: catholicsacristan.blogspot.ca

  2. My nephew is somewhere at the far end of the line! He will be ordained a priest next month! He loves his cassock. God Bless him and all his fellow seminarians at the seminary in Columbus, Ohio.

  3. I have mentioned the need for clerical attire to the local Roman pastor He countered that "dogma" does not require it.
    However, Our Lady wishes it
    AND a requirement for such attire is a constant discipline of the Church.

  4. But I wouldn't make them wear it fishing. Or changing the oil in their car. Or cooking their dinner.

    In public, yes. But "at home" or on vacation, not so much.

  5. You should take a look at some of the pics from the LA religious education congress. Their adverts name all these priests who will speak and 90% are in lay dress. Go figure.....

  6. Good post. Isn't that just such a stirring sight, priests in cassocks? I remember very clearly the first time I'd ever seen that (except maybe from when I was a little girl at Catholic school). I was downtown Chicago 6 or more years ago for the Eucharistic Congress. You can imagine how MANY people were there, both laity and religious and priests. Huge event. But in the midst of it all what profoundly stood out to me was a small group off to the side of 10+ priests in full cassocks standing with a group of 10+ sisters in full habits. I was mesmerized, truly. I had to find out who they were, they were so odd to me but oddly "holy" if you know what I mean. Turned out they were Miles Christi priests who had driven to Chicago from Michigan for the Congress, and the sisters were Mother Theresa's.

    That was early on in my conversion to Catholicism and the sight of those priests led me to take a retreat with them. Powerful stuff, that retreat. And THAT led me further and deeper into Traditional Catholicism. Of course, I'm still learning but they were the beginning that opened my eyes.

    1. Wow! What a great story!

    2. I forgot to mention that the priests of FSSP, Institute of Christ the King, SSPX, and even Miles Christi (who are not "Latin Mass priests" all wear the cassock ALL THE TIME, even when they're "at home", and even when they're playing touch football with seminarians and at their camps. They truly look like priests ALL THE TIME and don't seem to mind it one bit. In fact, they seem to be well aware that no matter where they are, except the obvious bathing and sleeping, they are grateful to be priests and are called to be set apart ~ like it's their new skin.

  7. Right - like many of the habited sisters. I've seen photos of them playing soccer etc in their habits. I think that wearing clerical garb all the time would both help the faithful to remember that Father is a PRIEST, and also help the priest to remember who he is in Christ. That knowledge is necessarily in his heart, but having an outer layer that proclaims it helps too.

  8. It is what motivates them to NOT wear clerical garb that I find the most disturbing. Gotta walk, talk and dress like the rest of the guys to relate to them. Oh really? How about NOT walking, talking and dressing like them in order to set an example and to demonstrate focus on the spiritual rather than the popular? Guess I'm just dreaming.....

  9. Recently, we attended an event where my 3 year old son (perhaps for the first time in his life) caught sight of 3 sisters in full habit, and joyfully exclaimed, "Look! There's Marys." In his innocence, he associated their habits with our Holy Mother. I thought this was a unique way to remember our sisters, as they educate us, pray for us, and lead us to Jesus.

    Sometimes, regarding this topic of religious dressing in clerics or habits, I wonder how others will know that I am Catholic. What sets the laity apart? I don't have a sign on my forehead, only my outward actions coupled with if others find out or know that I am Catholic. The religious have an obvious and distinguishable way to witness the faith. It draws our attention and hopefully directs our thoughts on higher things. And it is admirable.

  10. Karina - out of the mouths of babes! Isn't it funny that little children can recognize and even articulate that holy "difference" that so many adults want to downplay, ignore, or deride.
    I think it's also a shame that we no longer allow "third orders" to wear a habit of some sort. I think it would encourage vocations to the priesthood and religious life if it were still allowed - because there WOULD be an outward sign to identify laity who had chosen to embrace religious practice in a systematic and intentional way.

  11. This Stella Artois commercial of clerics in cassocks always makes me smile:


  12. Oh yes, Fr. X, I remember seeing that commercial on Fr. Z's blog! (Poor seminarian!!)


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