Priests Should Wear Collars
It’s happened again. Someone I thought was a layman happens to actually be a priest. This time I was sitting in St. Mary’s Chapel and the regular priest was late. Another man, whom I see everyday, celebrated Mass, and I never knew he was a priest. The reason for this is that he goes out and about in regular, everyday clothes. I wish that priests in general, but especially the Jesuits, wouldn’t do this. While Vatican II called for a reform of the dress of religious, it did not say to abandon it. Jesuit deacon Chris Collins says, “We were taught in the novitiate that we do not have a specific religious habit, but are to wear what is common to respectable diocesan clergy- that is, the Roman collar...” Many diocesan priests do not wear the collar because they feel more pastoral without it. Dressing in street clothes allows them to relate better to some people. However, times have changed and many people now feel they relate better to priests who wear the collar. While many priests do not mean anything bad by not wearing their clerics, to avoid ambiguity it seems like a good idea for priests to dress properly.
From a practical standpoint, it is beneficial to actually know who is a priest and who is not. For example, a person in a state of sin could easily identify someone to whom to go to confession, or a woman would know that a man is unavailable. Clerics are a priest’s wedding ring. People would also be properly able to address priests as “Father” and not as “sir.” Furthermore, clerics are a sign of poverty, as a priest does not own excess clothing.
Secondly, there is a spiritual reason why priests should be dress differently. It reminds the priest that he is not his own but belongs to God 24/7. He is a source of inspiration for all of us who are not priests, remind us to follow Jesus in all the ways we are called. The collar raises our minds to God in a secular world, as it is a sign of contradiction in a world in rebellion against God. As seminarian Carlos Suarez states, “A collar is a matter of identity. By wearing it the priest is declaring something about himself, challenging the perspective of the world by standing out in proclamation of the Christian message. It makes him easily identifiable and sets him apart from other people, not as a matter of setting him higher, just setting him apart…there is an identity that goes with it, an identity that they must strive to live up to, and that others assume of them. Lastly, it’s a defense for the priest. If you're wearing your collar, you're less likely to do things, say things, or go places that you might be tempted to if you weren't wearing it”
Lastly, for Jesuits, it is particularly surprising that they do not wear their clerics. Jesuits take a vow of obedience to the Holy Father, and Pope John Paul the Great expressed his desire for priests to return to dressing visibly. Pope Benedict has not stated a contrary view, nor has he changed canon law which says, “Clerics are to wear suitable ecclesiastical dress, in accordance with the norms established by the Episcopal Conference and legitimate local custom.” In the Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests, which JP approved, it says, “In a secularized and materialistic society, where the external signs of sacred and supernatural realities tend to disappear, it is particularly important that the community be able to recognize the priest, man of God and dispenser of his mysteries, by his attire as well, which is an unequivocal sign of his dedication and his identity as a public minister. The priest should be identifiable primarily through his conduct, but also by his manner of dressing, which makes visible to all the faithful, indeed and to all men, (his identity and his belonging to God and the Church…This means that the attire, when it is not the cassock, must be different from the manner in which the laity dress, and conform to the dignity and sacredness of his ministry…Because of their incoherence with the spirit of this discipline, contrary practices cannot be considered legitimate customs; and should be removed by the competent authority…Outside of entirely exceptional cases, a cleric's failure to use this proper ecclesiastical attire could manifest a weak sense of his identity as one consecrated to God.” Exceptional cases include physical activity (even John Paul changed for skiing), in house, and other circumstances.
Whether or not a priest wears his collar does not make a him good or bad priest. Let us also thank those priests who do wear their priestly dress and ask that all priests on campus wear the collar most of the time outside of St. Mary’s Hall so we can know who they are. There’s no need to be ashamed of being a priest.
I do not claim to judge priests who do not wear their collars, but I think it may stem from a lack of an understanding of priestly identity. A priest is not his own. He belongs to God. Priests need always need to be ready to serve God's people. I know priests who have been stopped in public to hear confessions. This would never happen if the priest was hidden in street clothes.
Similarly, I don't think there is any better way to promote vocations than to be a young priest in public wearing a collar. For many, being a priest is something for white, old men. If many of the younger, non-European/American Jesuits wore their collars at Boston College, it would draw interest in Catholicism. People may ask a younger man a question he is not comfortable asking someone older.
Furthermore, it is a constant reminder of the faithful that we are to give our lives to God as well. The black dress, representing mourning, keeps our eyes on something other than this world, and the white collar focuses us on the resurrection, our hope.
Finally, it is sign of true poverty of spirit for a priest to own few clothes and dress in clerical attire. It's always disappointing when I see a Franciscan wearing a suit that probably cost hundreds of dollars.