Why Clerical Wear?


At my new parish, we have a semi-regular bulletin feature that addresses queries from the students’ Q&A box. One recent question I volunteered to address (but haven’t yet written the response) is:

Why do the priests wear vestments? Do they have any meaning or purpose?

Or something like that.

The conversation on the magna cappa thread is drifting off to this tenor, so maybe I’ll get some practice here before I put my byline on the line in print. Vatican II had something specific to say about vestments, remember?

Ordinaries, by the encouragement and favor they show to art which is truly sacred, should strive after noble beauty rather than mere sumptuous display. This principle is to apply also in the matter of sacred vestments and ornaments. (Sacrosanctum Concilium 124)

It’s not clear to me if the magna cappa picture is liturgical or not. What does seem clear is the general impression of the laity, believers and non-believers alike, of the vesture that the clergy choose to wear, either in liturgy or out of it, can affect judgments.

Unlike Fr Fox, I haven’t heard much complaint about albs, chasubles, and ordinary liturgical wear. But there are snickers about cassocks, and other manner of dress that are outside of professional wear for Roman Catholic clergy–in the eyes of most lay people in almost all locations.

Given the heat of criticism about those openly gay communicants that appeared on YouTube a while back, countercultural attire is not what traditional-leaning Catholics, especially traditionally-attired clergy, should be dissing. Granted, Cardinal Llovera might not personally be critical of gay fashion. If he’s not, all of us snotty bloggers and our commentariats should probably withdraw every mean thing we said or say or will say about him.

Now, there are lots of human beings who aren’t gay who make fashion statements off the mainstream. Most accept the experience of strange looks, strange comments, and prejudice. But personal choice overrides these concerns, usually.

I agree with those who suggest that clergy should consider dressing distinctively, noticeably, and professionally. The decision rests with adult priests, not their bishops, pope, congregations, or parents. Good decisions, consequences, acceptance: all that.

Personally, if I were a priest, I think black shirt, Roman collar, black suit would be standard dress for ministry for me. Definitely vestments on the noble side–no sumptuosity. No lace, no cassocks, no fancy stuff. There is no need.

I know priests who feel differently. A close friend I might kid around with in the way I might poke fun at a friend’s clothing. For other clergy, I don’t pay much attention. I might wonder about Cardinal Llovera’s connections with lay people, given his wardrobe, and a certain isolation from the main flow of Catholic life. But it’s his choice. Sink or swim.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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10 Responses to Why Clerical Wear?

  1. Brendan Kelleher SVD says:

    Let me begin with a story. A now retired SVD bishop, whose diocese was in PNG turned up for a meeting at the Vatican in a black suit and roman collar; both borrowed from his brother, a diocesan priest back in Europe. He was told his dress style was unacceptable, and asked to turn up the following day in full bishops soutane etc. Where he was to acquire such articles at such short notice, and who were going to cover the costs seemed to be the least of the concerns of the ‘minor’ Vatican official who made the request in an imperious manner.
    Our church is no longer a European/Western Church, but a world Church, and as the writings of Philip Jenkins show, one where the balance is shifting to the south, to the third world. Clerical dress, as currently known, is an historical product of a specific cultural milieu. A visit to the Generalte of any major international male religious community will also soon show how diverse are the interpretations of what is appropriate for priests. While ‘when in Rome….’, may still be valid once you cross into the confines of the Vatican and its associated institutions, each country and region has devloped its own interpretation over the past forty to fifty years. So I still remember being told by my first Parish Priest here in Japan that SVD’s don’t grow beards, only to come across archival photographs of confreres, from our early years here, in which all were bearded. I kept my beard, then red and now white, and over the years my nickname has changed from Fr. Lion to Fr. Santa. There are nearly 120 SVD’s here in Japan in school and parish work, and I would possibly need both hands to count those who wear the Roman Collar and black suit everyday. In over thirty years here in Japan, apart from a rather vague and ambiguously worded footnote in the Japanese translation of the Code of Canon Law, I haven’t seen any other significant comment on the matter. I do remember a sudden and unannounced visit from a Bishop who was wearing slacks, a polo shirt and a sports jacket, he was out riding his bicycle and since he was passing by dropped in to see who was at home. I could continue with many more such reminiscences, let the one’s I have written serve as a reminder and a hint of a wider horizon in which this discussion should be undertaken.
    Liturgical dress, simple but dignified, reflecting both the fullness of tradition and the richness of local cultural possibilities, has a significant witness value, and due care and attention should be paid in such matters. Changing from daily wear, which includes clerical dress where it is worn, into liturgical vestments is I always find a strong affirmation of the meaning and value of the sacrament I am about to celebrate. Many priests who seem indifferent to how they vest for the liturgy also seem to be indifferent to how they celebrate. Once, when home on holidays I was invited to participate in an ordination being celebrated in the local parish church. Because I am a little larger of size I always bring along my own alb and stoles. That day I was leant a very fine diocesan chasuble and stole. I wore them with a heart full of thanks for the welcome shown by the local diocesan priests and joy at being allowed to share in the ordination of a new priest. The bishop, to whom I was introduced before the ceremony, later averred to my presence during his homily, reminding the ordinand that his share in the priesthood was a sharing in the brotherhood of priests that extends to the four corners of the world, or as we pray here during the Eucharistic Prayer, ‘from the rising of the sun to its setting’.
    Sharing in that world embracing Ministry of Word and Sacrament is what binds together those of us engaged in ordained ministry. Daily dress should hopefully be determined by what local needs and customs find appropriate and acceptable.
    I type this at school, in between classes, and am wearing a collar and tie. The principal seems to alternate between a grey suit and grey clerical shirt, and a collar and tie. But then we come from the same generation……formed in the sixties and seventies.

  2. Gavin says:

    I must say, I’ve always found it odd that NLM folk, who have a minor theme at times about needing “manly” priests, get overjoyed about who has the prettiest lace and which color is “rose and not pink”. As I’ve said in the past, I tend to see vestments as a part of the liturgy and not part of the priest. So how can they be too beautiful? I would say any musician concerned about his music being too beautiful ought to lose his job. Parishioners concerned about the church building being too beautiful should probably be ignored if they come to the building committee. So I think the issue is rather one for the priest: is he wearing the frills for his glory or for the Mass’s? At the same time, I think the bigger problem is the “progressive” priests in their green felt ponchos with the stole over it: do they really care about the liturgy or do they just want to give their “social gospel” message with the 99 cent chausible pretending during Mass that they care about the poor. Plain vestments can have a certain dignity to them, but often they’re just an “I’m more humble than thou” show.

  3. Mollie says:

    I would say any musician concerned about his music being too beautiful ought to lose his job.

    “Too beautiful” shouldn’t be a concern, no, but it is legitimate to consider whether liturgical music (or any other art) is ornate or showy to the point of being distracting. Since, as you say, Gavin, the art is supposed to be part of the liturgy, it should contribute to the prayer and not distract from it. So you have to consider the likely effect on the congregation, even with vestments — it’s not just about the priest’s interior state.

    It’s never occurred to me that a priest in simple vestments is affecting an air of false humility, but that’s probably because I’ve seen them used in simple circumstances. I assume the priest wears them not to impress us with his humility but to avoid distracting us with incongruous frills when the focus ought to be elsewhere. In other circumstances more ornament might seem entirely appropriate.

  4. Gavin says:

    Correct you are, Mollie! That’s what being “Pastoral” is all about: taking into account people’s reactions to the liturgy and acting accordingly without violating the spirit of the liturgy.

  5. Lee says:

    Were I a priest, I too would opt for the shirt and colar as standard wear- though I might vary blue shirt/black shirt. Something simple, but distinctive, a way of visually preaching to the world.

    Liturgically, I’d probably dress appropriately, but as simply as the “rules would allow. There is a place for the elaborate – and if appropriate, I would wearwhat would fit the occcasion if it had a purpose – but my natural bent is to be simple.

  6. I simply hope, Gavin, that your reflection “Plain vestments can have a certain dignity to them, but often they’re just an “I’m more humble than thou” show…” were not necessarily associated with those of Fr. Kelleher. That they weren’t was not obvious to me, and that could be “my problem.”

  7. Gavin says:

    I’m not familiar with Fr. Kelleher, so I can’t say one way or another. What I’m saying is quite simple: using plain vestments as a show of how great you are to skimp on the liturgy so you can give to the poor is little more than ego-stroking. I’m not making a judgment on the many priests who use them, as I’m certain most use them because they’re more fashionable these days. I’m simply passing counter-judgment on the idea that it’s wrong to have ornate vestments (or architecture or music). I don’t have an ideological dog in the fight, other than that I personally find fiddlebacks silly.

  8. Todd says:

    I think it’s good to differentiate between two strains. First, there are the overly-pragmatic clergy who are just skinflints. They prefer not to drop money either in liturgy or charity. And the religious goods catalogues are happy to accommodate–in all manner of things. Not to mention the parishioners who don’t want to pay for good music, teachers, staff, etc..

    Frankly, good liturgy and good social justice tend to be found together in parishes. Clergy there tend not to either finery or polyester ponchos.

    As for vesture, material, design, and wear can be fine without being attention-drawing. The choice of such wear is in keeping with Roman Rite sensibilities. The fancy stuff is not.

    I have to say the thought of a social justice priest being intentionally plain or in poor taste never occurred to me.

  9. Liam says:

    I think we should also distinguish between liturgical vestments and attire that is really more a development of the court life of prelates.

    And we should also distinguish between the continued use of well-made if very elaborate liturgical vestments of the past (which could be considered appropriate under the virtue of good stewardship) and the purchase of new such where there is no need. I think most of us see that the discarding of fine liturgical vestments and furnishing of the past (and I am not referring to banal catalog stuff) in the name of “simplicity” is not necessarily a virtue but at cross-purposes to good stewardship. There were indeed many times in the past (and not just the recent past but going back centuries) that we have confused “noble simplicity” with a showy rejection of finery to appear “humbler than thou”. Which is just another way of say we must be ever mindful of humanity’s abundant capacity to seek to do X but often achieve what turns out to be the opposite of X in the longer term.

  10. Brendan Kelleher SVD says:

    Given the starting point of Todd’s initial blog, “Why wear vestments?”, and the picture of Cardinal Llovera that has appeared on”Whispers in the Loggia” and numerous other blogs, the resulting comments have seen some get on their hobby horses, and others fail to make important distinctions such as Liam has averred to, that is a)Liturgical vestments, b)court dress for prelates, c)clerical dress.
    Though, over the centuries, there have been directives issued on clerical dress, many calling for simplicity, the black suit and roman collar in its present form is a product of the 19th century, when Ultramontanism was in its heyday. I once read that it was the preferred dress of the Rosminians in Rome, who then brought it to the UK and later to the USA. While, as a dress style, it may have suited the temperate climate of Europe and the USA, archival photoes show that the black suit was soon replaced by a white one, in the tropics and the Far East, and as time went by, the jacket and the collar were also abandoned as impractical. Even more radical adaptations emerged in China where local dress became the norm. While among some younger priests, in one diocese I am familiar with in the UK, I encountered attempts at returns to frock coats, and other styles reminiscent of the Victorian and Edwardian era,”Clerical dress” was and is open to adaptation and change, and any attempt at a universal norm is probably doomed to failure.
    Regarding what Liam notes as a dress style more suited to “court life”, one wonders what message people who cling to such dress styles wish to convey. I suspect that the photo of Cardinal Llovera in his “cappa magna” saw loud applause on one side of the spectrum but equally a shaking of heads and even a questioning of his sense of judgement on the others. Both reactions though, while being backed by valid reasons, also run the risk of seeing those arguements carrying an ideological tinge such as to make any further discussion or dialog fruitless. So any discussion between the conservative and liturgical wings rapidly moved to becoming a dialog of the wilfully deaf.
    A few years ago now an SVD colleague in Japan was named a Bishop and took himself to Rome to be fitted out in the required episcopal finery. His guide was an Italian confrere who insisted he buy boxes of finery which he wondered when he would ever have occasion to wear. Some I am sure is still in the boxes. His episcopal cross, by the way, belongs to the first SVD to be named a Vicar Apostolic in Japan. SVD Bishops in even warmer climes have even less use for some episcopal finery that is still worn in Europe and the USA.
    Liturgical vestments are never unnecessary, though some may be inappropriate. In my early years as a priest I will admit to celebrating the Eucharist, while on camp with young people, using just a stole over casual clothes. As I reflected on the message I was sending, my position changed. While on temporary reassignment back in the UK in the late 80’s and early 90’s, on a couple of occasions, I found myself celebrating the Eucharist outside the Ministry of Defence in central London. All five concelebrants were vested, and we had some Dominicans present in their habits, and provided a striking image to accompany the newspaper reports the following day. Not all were happy with our witness that day, but that is a risk one takes.
    With regard to what should be worn the norms are clear enough. If you travel around, as I have done in the UK doing mission appeals, you wear what the local parish provides, sometimes you feel comfortable in the vestments, they seem right for the style of liturgy of that parish or community. I still remember wearing a vestment from the recusant era while celebrating the Eucharist on the upper floor of a barn that had been used as a Mass center since those days; along with the other sacred vessels used it seems right and I welcomed the chance to link back with the history of those days.
    Though not the only criteria, maybe we should ask about the vestments worn on a particular occasion as to whether they add or subtract from the mystery we celebrate. Also do they reflect the spirit of the reform promoted by Vatican II, or might they be seen as an ideological stance vis a vis a particular interpretation of the renewal and reform of the liturgy. If the latter, then I would suggest we ask whether they are proper and appropriate?
    Once more teaching calls – Am looking forward to the Christmas holidays.

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