Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Unbearable Cross

Please let me apologize now, for I'm about to get curmudgeonly for the second straight post.

I must have unreasonable expectations because, like Rich Leonardi, I tend to have preconceived notions regarding how priests ought to dress, and I prefer that my priest look like a priest. Unfortunately, I've grown accustomed to picking up our diocesan newspaper to see pictures of priests and religious who are indistinguishable from any common lay person (or even a mild-mannered atheist). A few years ago, I underwent a personality profile for the Archdiocese. I had to drive down to Cincinnati to meet with a Franciscan priest to discuss the results. I went to an office in a commercial park, where I met a man with short cropped hair who was dressing in loafers, khaki pants, and a polo shirt. I never would have guessed he was a priest if I hadn't been told before hand.

Is there a persecution going on, about which I am totally unaware? This isn't Elizabethan England or Soviet Russia. I've never worn a Roman collar - is it really so uncomfortable that men who are eager to take up their cross and earn the privilege to wear it now can't take it off fast enough?

Fr. Charles Conner records many programs on Church history for EWTN. I clearly remember one program on St. Charles Borromeo. When he became a bishop and was placed in his diocese, he found that the formation and conduct of his clergy was badly in need of reform. Among the faults listed was a fondness for secular clothing.

It doesn't seem like that long ago when vocations offices were including the simplicity of the wardrobe among the benefits of choosing the priesthood as a career (maybe that career option focus was part of the problem). As a priest, you'll never have to think about what you're going to wear! Unless, that is, you're off-duty. In that case, you'll need one closet for your clericals and another for your "normal" clothes. Fortunately, you won't have to share your closet with anybody else!

There is a T-Mobile commercial that asks what it's customers want. It shows a priest standing in front of a sausage stand. "Unlimited texting," he says. "Why, you think we don't text? We do." The commercial works because you can see that he's a priest, even though he's not engaged in any kind of priestly duty. Remove the collar, and the scene falls apart.

In the film Saint Ralph, there is a young Salesian priest who, before becoming a priest, was an olympic runner. When Ralph wants to know why he gave up running, he says it is because Salesians don't run - they'd look silly doing it in cassocks. The young man loved running, but he saw his vocation to the priesthood as being far greater in value. (Note: it's been years since I've seen this movie, and it's possible that I'm misremembering the scene.)

As I said, I'm probably being completely unreasonable in suggesting that priests ought to dress in a way that identifies them as priests. But what do the bishops of the United States say?

Complementary Norm: The National Conference of Catholic Bishops, in accord with the prescriptions of canon 284, hereby decrees that without prejudice to the provisions of canon 288, clerics are to dress in conformity with their sacred calling.

In liturgical rites, clerics shall wear the vesture prescribed in the proper liturgical books. Outside liturgical functions, a black suit and Roman collar are the usual attire for priests. The use of the cassock is at the discretion of the cleric.

In the case of religious clerics, the determinations of their proper institutes or societies are to be observed with regard to wearing the religious habit.

Canon 288 exempts permanent deacons from the clerical dress requirements of canon 284. The national norm cited above was promulgated on November 1, 1999, with an effective date one month later. The norm was signed by the President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as the General Secretary, who at the time was Reverend Monsignor Dennis M. Schnurr. Schnurr is now the Archbishop of Cincinnati. That's him, in the photo below, on the right with Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk.

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