The Cassock… to wear or not to wear?

“Seminarians in Barcelona circa 1900 in Cassock, Greca & Saturno”

Another old post from “The Parish Blog” archive [March 27th 2009]. Anyone in Brighton would probably recognise me from this picture… not because I am in the picture, but because they will recognise the clerical dress that I most usually wear!

On March 16 this year whilst declaring a “year of the priest” that will begin on June 19 in a bid to encourage “spiritual perfection” among clerics, HH Pope Benedict XVI stressed that priests should be “present, identifiable and recognisable for their faith, their personal virtues and their attire”. It has become something of a yard-stick in recent years between some clerics (and their acolytes) to measure the “traditionalism” or even “orthodoxy” of Priests by what they wear… Certainly in Anglican circles to be identified as “Anglo-Catholic” there is a certain expectancy that one would majoritively wear a Cassock. For “traditionalist” [Roman] Catholics, Priests of the SSPX and other similar congregations would hardly be expected to turn up to any public or even private event without wearing a Cassock.

As a “traditionalist” [Old Roman] Orthodox Catholic Priest, I wear my Cassock on a fairly regular basis… saying Mass, taking Funerals and other “occasional” services but I wonder then, in light of the Pope’s exhortation, whether I should wear it more often?

It used to be a running joke amongst colleagues that “Father Jerome” would be easily identifiable by his Cassock! It is also sadly true that my appreciation of wearing a Cassock, most especially during Clergy meetings and retreats, has also been the subject of derision amongst other colleagues; I have been accused in the past of “parading around” and even of “night-clubbing” in it! The simple truth of the matter is, that I have sometimes remained in my Cassock after a service, perhaps a Funeral or Nuptial Blessing, to attend the Reception afterwards and sometimes these have been located on Licensed Premises… I certainly have never been “night-clubbing” in a Cassock! But on those occasions where I have remained in my Cassock to attend a Reception I have received nothing but either complimentary comments or conversations with people genuinely interested to know more about my vocation or about my ministry. Say what you may about a Cassock – but it certainly gets people talking and makes one a focus of their attention!

I remarked once in a homily how sad it was that I as a Western Orthodox Catholic cleric should feel and sometimes be made to feel “uncomfortable” walking in public in a Cassock. Nowadays with the cultural diversity of our cosmopolitan societies, people think nothing, turn even a blind eye to seeing Buddhist Monks in their red and saffron robes, Sikhs in their turbans or muslims in their Shalwar Kameez, Hijab or even Burqa… but see an Orthodox Catholic Priest walking down the street in “proper attire” and people stare – even in Brighton!

There are some, even traditionalist Roman Catholics, who are uncomfortable or who might resist the notion of a Priest wearing a Cassock in a street in the UK. This partly is a hangover from Penal Times and there is (apparently) still a Statute forbidding Roman Catholic Clergy from wearing their habit or Cassock outside of their ecclesiastical premises/buildings (try as I may, I cannot seem to track this Statute down, but believe it exists). Such people hold this opinion even in defiance of the fact that such a Statute would no longer be enforceable and yet might even hold to it with a certain recusant snobbery that “no real Catholic” would do such a thing… Perhaps this is why the Cassock is forbidden in the English College in Rome (even to visiting Priests). Rumour has it that even if serving at Papal Masses, English College students must carry their Cassocks and Roman Collars in bags than wear them to and from the Vatican. This despite admonitions by the Vicar of Rome that all seminarians past Candidacy should wear clerical attire in the Eternal City and even the regret expressed by John Paul II after visiting the English College at the lack of Cassocks and of kneeling during Mass!

One interesting example of the kind of “recusant hangover” I refer to above comes from a most unlikely quarter than one would expect for Cassock-wearing reticence. It was the custom of the Brompton Oratory priests when they took Holy Communion to the sick to wear their habit plus surplice and stole but that always (even in summer) to wear an ankle length “Greca” or overcoat over the top. The sign to any Catholics they passed in the street that they were carrying the Blessed Sacrament was that they would keep their right hand inside the coat across their chest “Napoleon” style. Then one would know not to speak to them but to genuflect as they passed! Apparently, even now, the Cong. Orat’s prefer not to go out in public in their particular Cassocks and style of clerical collar but wear a simple black suit or dark clothes. This is in stark contrast to their brethren in Rome and the North American continent however.

There is also too, I am told, a “phobia” of being recognised not as a Catholic Priest but as an Anglican cleric… As I mentioned above, it is expected of Anglo-Catholic clergy to wear their Cassocks more often than a “clergyman” (code for black suit and clerical collar) and certainly an Anglo-Catholic cleric would not wear a grey (or other colour) clerical shirt as his “low church” colleagues might (although these days one often meets Roman Catholic clergy in similar attire). It always seems slightly absurd to me that a Roman Catholic priest should not want to wear what is historically his by right to wear… for fear of being mistaken for someone who feels the necessity to wear what they perhaps are not entitled to?!

Regarding the “Statute” of course, if such a law were still in force it would probably be unenforceable as the Human Rights Act 1998 provides that “So far as it is possible to do so, primary legislation and subordinate legislation must be read and given effect in a way which is compatible with the Convention rights” (s 3(1)); one of the Convention’s rights is the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion which includes a person’s right “to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance” (Article 9.1). I doubt therefore that any (stripe of) Catholic Priest has anything to fear these days by wearing his proper clerical attire in public on the streets of the UK!

There are of course, some people who claim that it is “off putting” to people for Priests and others in consecrated life to wear their habit or Cassock. Such thinking to my mind has always seemed totally absurd. How is a person to know who is a Priest or Nun or Monk if they are not wearing their “uniform”? Why should the interior life (particularly of Religious) of their vocation be cluttered up by the unnecessary burden of having to decide “what to wear”… what is “off-putting” and what is “normal” or even “approachable”? Anyway – how are people supposed to recognise them in the first place?! If a Priest is in “civvies” how is anyone to know he’s a Priest and therefore approachable (unless he doesn’t want to be approached of course)? All of this, of course bears deeply and significantly on pastoral vocation and the necessity of Sacred Ministers to be seen to be available to serve and in what capacity they are able to serve. This is really the crux of what Benedict XVI and others are driving at…

So, “to wear or not to wear” more often my Cassock?! I think realistically the answer has to be in the affirmative and thinking about it, at least it will be a bit of PR and reactionary propaganda to that being peddled by the Secularist and Atheistic campaigners prevalent at the moment! It may also, I have no doubt, provoke people to think about their spiritual state. It was said by someone that the reason why people are put-off by seeing a clerical collar was that it reminded them of their guilt! Think about it, you see a priest and what is the first thing you think of…? At least then I might be able to remind them of the need, or even speak to them about the need, for salvation and the forgiveness offered us by God in Christ Jesus and bring some back to the fold or bring other new souls to faith in Our Lord.

True to my word, here is evidence of my wearing the saturno and cassock whilst raising money for charity [the Sussex Beacon, August 13th 2009]. Images of this event were picked up around the world by journalists, newstreams and bloggers and there was even a foolscap centerfold photograph in the “Guardian” newspaper the next day!

Reaction on the whole was overwhelmingly positive, the novelty factor was appreciated without too much derogation – I don’t think I damaged the “street-cred” of brother clergy.  There was some negativity, mostly from uncharitable quarters with other agendas including a local ecumenical colleague who described me on his blog as being “mad as a box of frogs” [it was originally worse than that, but private correspondence sorted that out]!  Truth beknown, he was probably envious, certainly some of his parishioners thought he might be?  A lot of people have recognised me locally since – and further afield – and almost all have congratulated me, praised me for my “braveness” or “foolhardiness” and the charity were especially pleased at the thousands of pounds worth of media coverage they received – at no cost to themselves! For the parish too it provided heightened local awareness of our presence and our mission and I was invited several times to local Radio Stations to give interviews. Overall, I think it would be fair to say, the “stunt” was a success and made priests recognisable again in their proper uniform.

It would be fair to say that the few negative experiences of my wearing cassock and saturno have been from other clergy rather than the laity and certainly not the “unchurched” who, it would seem, appreciate being able to recognise someone whose vocation is to serve them.  Wearing the cassock has if anything, demonstrated my availability and has encouraged, rather than prevented, people introducing themselves to me.  So this summer, as usual, I will stroll along our lovely promenade on Brighton seafront and welcome visitors to our city and direct them to Mass – whether mine or others appropriately – bless babies, children and pets and engage in conversations most usually instigated by strangers who recognise me as being someone they can talk to.  I encourage other clergy to consider doing the same, being visible in their communities, demonstrating their availability to serve…


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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Andrew says:

    From their apparent age, I think these must be junior seminarians. I remember there being a junior seminary at Monte Cassino when I visited 24 or so years ago – the boys there were the best servers I have seen!

  2. Indeed Andrew – with an Archepiscopal privilege I shouldn't wonder re the piping and buttons!

  3. Reblogged this on Audi alteram partem and commented:

    The Cassock… another archival entry during the run up to the feast of St John Vianney. Again this was written in 2010, much still pertains though since my consecration I generally wear my cassock even more!

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