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Francis X. Clooney, S.J.November 20, 2010

Cambridge, MA. Blogging is fine, but face-to-face classroom conversation is better – for many reasons, but including the ability to point our attention back to the issue at hand at any given point. So it was the occasion for a great sigh – Sigh — that my last post, on my interreligious day at Harvard, accompanied (as a bonus for those who read to the end) by a link to my October 20 address as new Director of Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions, drew no direct comments. Rather, what intrigued or puzzled or annoyed a number of readers was that in the video, I was not wearing a Roman collar. One reader was kind enough to point out a long and thoughtful article on the topic, “Why a priest should wear his Roman collar,” by Msgr. Charles M. Mangan & Father Gerald E. Murray, Homiletic & Pastoral Review (June, 1995). This present blog — another 45-minute Saturday night special — is not the space for a full treatment of the topic, but just a few reflections that may be helpful.

First, I did actually discuss with my colleagues how to dress for the event of my lecture; I considered clerics, but settled on that conservative gray suit. My hope was/is that I would be rather open and direct about my values and intentions, and my faith and view of the world would be evident in my words and communication with those listening. Just about everyone in the room would already know that I am a Catholic priest and Jesuit, say Mass regularly in a parish on the weekend, etc.

Second, I suppose all Jesuits know from early on that stories of the great Jesuit missionaries in Asia, who learned to fit perfectly into the local cultures, as it were incarnating in every possible and appropriate way. St Francis Xavier famously threw off his shabby cassock and dressed in yellow silk, to reach the Japanese nobles; Matteo Ricci dressed perfectly for the imperial court; Robert de Nobili adopted the saffron robe of an Indian ascetic, knowing that the black cassock would puzzle and repel. Or just re-read I Corinthians 9:22. And so too today: when on campus, dress for the occasion, fit in, that words and deeds be clearer, less encumbered, freer, direct and undistracted.

Third, I think how we dress is instrumental to our purpose, and should be assessed in terms of its usefulness and appropriateness to the occasion, the mission. I am quite happy to wear the Roman collar every Sunday to the parish. (True fact: When teaching in Nepal as a very young Jesuit, I wore a white cassock for two years in the classroom.) One kind reader pointed out that I did wear clerics when I welcomed the Hindu guru, Amrtanandamayi Amma, this past July; in that manifestly and symbolically religious setting, I knew that being visually “the priest” was a good point to be made. (I am greeting another Hindu visitor to Harvard this coming week, and will put my black suit on again.)

Fourth, I do appreciate the points made by Msgr Mangan and Fr Murray about the symbolic value of clerical garb, its clarity, and its sign value about availability to those in need. My generation in seminary — think back 30+ years — was taught that while we are priests 24/7, as they suggest, it is ok to be off-duty or, more to the point, to be inconspicuously present, available when contacts and conversations take place, but not necessarily announcing the fact of being a priest to one and all, all the time. (True confession: I am usually very busy when I travel, with lots to read and write, and would be unhappy to get drawn into conversations by people waiting for planes, etc. Such is life, when 24/7 is not long enough. Also: I am also a child of the 60s in that other sense: being informal is the way to be: shorts and a t-shirt are the ideal garb for almost all purposes when the weather allows. Uniforms of any sort are a problem. Etc. I am sure that some readers, younger included, are much more formal and observant of appearances. Such are the varying instincts we variously bring to our work and lives.)

Such are indications of how one real priest really thinks in 2010. I fear that nothing I’ve just written will satisfy those who simply think that priests should be in clerical garb all the time. But at least, I hope to have indicated that we do think about these things; one of the small mysteries of the priesthood, after all, is how best to be, be seen, act as a priest — and here too, we hope for the grace to make the right decisions even when others might act differently in their own circumstances. But thanks to all who commented on this important point (and special thanks to those who listened to what I said in the lecture…)



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Kimberly Connor
13 years 5 months ago
There is a poignat scence in Anna Deveare Smith's play, Twilight-about the uprisings in LA after the Rodney King verdict-where a preacher describes how he used his clerical collar to hide, as a symbol of protection, rather than as the symbol of Christian proclamation it was meant to be. Eventually he took off his collar when he visited the violence-wracked part of the city and describes this initiatve as createing in him a feeling of warmth that led to "a discovery...if there is any protection I needed it was just whatever love I had in my heart to share with people that proved to be enough, the love that God has taught me to share. That is what came out in the end for me." So removing the collar, in this instance, became more of a witness than wearing it would have been. It is what is in your heart that matters more than what is around your neck.
13 years 5 months ago
Please note that my photo of Fr. Hardon posted after entry # 18 was deleleted. Thus, my remarks in post # 19 do not refer to the photo of the Holy Father.
Crystal Watson
13 years 6 months ago
It's my understanding that Jesuits have no set uniform but are asked to more or less blend in with the community they serve.  I think not wearing a collar is fine.  Sometimes it seems that people expect 'prior warning' about how to treat others .... I'm visually impaired but can see enough to not use a cane, and many people have actually been angry at me for not advertizing with that cane that I can't see.
PJ Johnston
13 years 6 months ago
I have often had the same difficulty generating discussion.  Where blogs are concerned it seems that unless one encounters a passionate exclusivist who is mortally offended by one's work, comparative theology contributions end up meeting the same fate as other theological posts that do not deal directly with gender, sexuality, authority, or other hot-button issues - people just don't have much emotional investment and don't contribute.
13 years 6 months ago
As a priest of over forty years, I have never understood the need for clerical clothing. I'm quite certain that priests outside of liturgical functions don't need to be spotted. Arguments about yoke and witness are less than compelling, and these days I confess to feeling shame were I to wander the general population, dressed as a priest, with the sexual abuse scandal still in the headlines. I'm pretty certain that those who wear clerical clothing do so out of a sense of obligation, fear, clericalism, or some self esteem issue. Then there's that troublesome warning from the Master to beware of people who wear religious garb in order to be noticed.
13 years 6 months ago
13 years 6 months ago
there is a striking difference between many of the older commenters on here and the witness provided by the young priest in the link I posted.

For the slightly solipsistic, older commenters, it is all about their feelings, their comfort, their opinions...me, me, me

For the younger priest, it is about witnessing to something greater than himself (Christ and his Church) - and to which his sacrifices his desires and personal opinions. 

I have great hope for the church not based on our parents - not the baby-boomers - but priests and young faithful coming into the Church.
13 years 6 months ago
Anyone interested in reading the artile go to link below

13 years 6 months ago
Thank you, Father for your refrlections and the subject for discussion. You state above that your "hope was/is that I would be rather open and direct about my values and intentions, and my faith and view of the world would be evident in my words and communication with those listening. Just about everyone in the room would already know that I am a Catholic priest and Jesuit, say Mass regularly in a parish on the weekend, etc".

What if you walked out the door and walked pass someone giving in to despair, someone looking for a priest? You would never know and you would miss the opportunity to help that person.

This bring up priesthood as "sacrifice". The below cited reason for wearing the collar is my favorite: ( from “Why a priest should wear his Roman collar,” by Msgr. Charles M. Mangan & Father Gerald E. Murray, Homiletic & Pastoral Review (June, 1995):

"The Roman collar serves as a "sign of contradiction" to a world lost in sin and rebellion against the Creator. The Roman collar makes a powerful statement: the priest as an alter Christus has accepted the Redeemer’s mandate to take the Gospel into the public square, regardless of personal cost. The Roman collar helps priests to avoid the on duty/off duty mentality of priestly service. The numbers 24 and 7 should be our special numbers: we are priests 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We are priests, not men who engage in the "priest profession." On or off duty, we should be available to whomever God may send our way. The "lost sheep" do not make appointments".

I will never forget a recent encounter I had with a priest at a Catholic Church in Washington DC. I was working hard to find a home for a psychiatric patient who had become homeless. (I am a Social Worker).  I got a clear details on his days off and when I could, and could not, leave a message for him.

If the priesthood is not a sacrifice, if it is not "suffering witness", as Fr. Hardon describes martrydom, then ithe priesthood is no different from any other pursuit. Might as well join the ranks of the laity. Oh, that priest? While joking about the Missionaries of Charity he said: "you know what the Missionaries of Charities stand for don't you? Mass Chaos". My response: " Well, Padre, at least they are doing it 24/7". It was the Missionaries of Charity who helped him...
Marie Rehbein
13 years 6 months ago
My two cents from an etiquette perspective would be that any occasion that would be suitable for a suit should be an occasion to wear the clerical collar.  The collar replaces the tie in the wardrobe of clergy of all denominations.  To do a suit and tie instead gives the impression that the clergy person is a TV preacher.
Vince Killoran
13 years 6 months ago
I never understood the fuss surrounding this issue. The idea that websites exist and people write articles on the subject seems silly to me. Fr. Clooney has offered a perfectly reasonable explanation-it's his vocation: let him present himself to the public as he sees fit.

As for Brett's claim that the younger clergy are more and attentive to their calling: sorry but I've seen too many young priest preening in front of each other to show off their finest frockery.
Cody Serra
13 years 6 months ago
 It is interesting to hear, or read, how people think of "uniforms" as related to the mission and acts of unselfishness in any profession.  For me, a priest is a priest for what he does, or teaches,and for his service and self-renuntiation more than anything else. A physician wears a white apron in some settings, but I am sure, by personal experience, that he/she does not need the white garb to render professional help 24/7, when the situation calls for it.
Why, then, do you think that a Roman collar makes a better priest outside of the liturgical settings, or a visible “soldier” of Christ?
Craif McKee mentions that 'L'habit ne fait pas le moine!' (The robe doesn't make the monk) (in Spanish: El hábito no hace al monje) is the truest saying on this issue and can be applied to many others who wear uniforms. The personal identity is reflected by our values and faith in action, and by a life that shows them, regardless of the robe, or collar or uniform we wear.  
Cody Serra
13 years 6 months ago
David Smith: At these sad times of our Church, I am not sure people think of God when they see a male religious Catholic habit... For many, a Roman collar now reminds them of the priests' sexual abuse and "the sin within the church" (the Pope said what I wrote in quotations).
I don't see the "witness" argument very compelling these days...For me, the collar does not tell us how close to God a priest is.
Marie Rehbein
13 years 6 months ago
C. Serra,

So what if the clerical garb reminds them of the sexual abuse scandal?  Not wearing the identifying clothes does nothing to correct that problem.  It might be that if it were worn more, it would counteract the mental image people have developed because of the scandal.  When I encounter a friendlier than usual man dressed as a priest I am much more comfortable returning the friendliness than I am when the man is dressed like everyone else, lest it be assumed that I am "available".
David Kelly
13 years 6 months ago
I think that your thoughtful approach to the appropriateness of clerical dress in specific situations shows a lot of common sense, and it also carries a lot of weight because of your experience. I appreciate the point you made of the Jesuit missionaries dressing to fit the cultures they were evangelizing. As a member of a religious order, I see how my own order's distinctive dress is frozen in tradition from a long ago time and place, and it no longer remotely resembles anything a man would wear nowadays. I see value in a religious habit, but it needs to be adaptable to different times and cultural settings.
Gabriel McAuliffe
13 years 6 months ago

I do like priests wearing collars but would anyone like to explain this picture?  It is not the only one that is of Fr. Ratzinger in a suit and tie.
13 years 6 months ago
The above is Servant of God, John Hardon SJ. Well, I never thought that Father Martin SJ would make my argument for me, but he does in his prior post on the subject. See link below:


A brief snippet: "When I first saw myself in the mirror, all I could think of was St. Isaac Jogues"...
Liam Richardson
13 years 6 months ago
My concern is not so much the sign value as the tender trap of treating encounters with strangers as likely parasites on one's limited time. (I'll leave the charism of celibacy aside for this discussion.) It's clericalism, but veiled, shall we say. The same kind of sensibility that gave rise to the hideous practice of communal penance services where penitents are instructed they may only confess one sin with the confessor in the individual portion of the liturgy (and otherwise make an appointment to deal with the rest, if you must, you scrupulous ones out there). Don't Bother Father Dearest With Too Much, You Know His Time Is More Valuable Than Your Penitence. I don't think the priests in question mean to seem like they are treating others as potential parasites, but that is the effect. And, even if an individual priest doesn't intend to communicate this, actions by priests have a way of speaking on behalf of the clergy in toto. And it is clericalist: it uses clerical power to place the needs of the cleric over those of the faithful.  And here I was thinking we Catholic progressives should be championing the abundance and ease of access to God, including sacramentally.
Jim McCrea
13 years 6 months ago
Quick answer:  NO!
13 years 6 months ago
I would like to apologize for being a jerk on your last post about this; I definitely appreciate your feelings/ideas about this as you are the priest and I am not! 

That said, I do feel like we should be proud to be Catholics and welcome the debate/heat/intellectual combat/moments to witness etc. when we are recognized as such (either from our clothes, actions or words)

In any case, this was a nice follow up essay and I get where you are coming from (for the most part ;)

Also, here is an interesting take on this from a seminarian - the essay is entitled: "Collar as Yoke and Witness"

Craig McKee
13 years 6 months ago
As the French would say:
''L'habit ne fait pas le moine!''
(The robe doesn't make the monk)

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