It is our contention that the
rather widespread practice of priests neglecting to wear their collar when they
should is both a sign and a cause of malaise in the Church.
The Directory for the
Ministry and Life of Priests, prepared bythe
Congregation for the Clergy and approved by Pope John Paul II on January 31,
"In a secularized
and tendentiously materialistic society, where even the external signs of
sacred and supernatural realities tend to be disappearing, the necessity is
particularly felt that the priest – man of God, dispenser of His mysteries –
should be recognizable in the sight of the community, even through the
clothing he wears, as an unmistakable sign of his dedication and of his
identity as a recipient of a public ministry. The priest should be
recognizable above all through his behavior, but also through his dressing
in a way that renders immediately perceptible to all the faithful, even to
all men, his identity and his belonging to God and to the Church.
"For this reason,
the cleric should wear "suitable clerical clothing, according to the norms
issued by the Episcopal Conference and according to legitimate local
customs." (Canon 284) This means that such clothing, when it is not the
cassock, should be distinct from the manner in which laymen dress, and in
conformity with the dignity and sacredness of the ministry.
"Apart from entirely
exceptional circumstances, the non-use of clerical clothing on the part of
the cleric can manifest a weak sense of his own identity as a pastor
completely dedicated to the service of the Church (# 66)."
Given this timely
reminder from the Holy See about the importance of clerical attire for the
priest, we thought it might be useful to examine some of the underlying reasons
for this discipline. We also want to examine some of the common arguments used
to justify the non-wearing of the Roman collar.
It is our contention
that the rather widespread practice of priests neglecting to wear their collar
when they should is both a sign and a cause of malaise in the Church. Such
casualness about being publicly identified as a priest of the Catholic Church
may signify a desire to distance himself from his priestly vocation. The collar
becomes "work clothes," which are put away when one is not "on duty." The
functionalistic notion of the priesthood revealed by this attitude is in
contradiction to the ontological configuration to Christ the High Priest
conferred by priestly ordination.
Lay people depend on
their priests for spiritual support and strength. They feel that something is
not right when their priests try to blend into the crowd and, as it were,
The purpose of this
article is to encourage our fellow priests to wear their collars (and, by
analogy, religious to wear their habits). It goes without saying that there are
reasonable and legitimate exceptions to this rule, such as during sports and
recreation, during one's vacation (in general), while at home with family or in
one's private quarters in the rectory. And, of course, the obligation to wear
clerical clothing ceases during times of violent persecution. During such a
crisis, the guidance of the bishops should be followed.
It is incorrect to say
that a priest who refuses to wear his collar is a bad priest. We are afraid that
some of our brother priests have simply slipped into a bad habit. They may have
convinced themselves that they are serving the greater good of the Church by
putting aside clerical clothing. We would like to call such priests to
reconsider their decision to dress as laymen, and to re-examine their motives.
1: Reasons for
wearing the Roman collar
The Roman collar is
a sign of priestly consecration to the Lord. As a wedding ring distinguishes
husband and wife and symbolizes the union they enjoy, so the Roman collar
identifies bishops and priests (and often deacons and seminarians) and
manifests their proximity to the Divine Master by virtue of their free
consent to the ordained ministry to which they have been (or may be) called.
By wearing clerical
clothing and not possessing excess clothes, the priest demonstrates
adherence to the Lord's example of material poverty. The priest does not
choose his clothes – the Church has, thanks to her accumulated wisdom over
the past two millennia. Humble acceptance of the Church's desire that the
priest wear the Roman collar illustrates a healthy submission to authority
and conformity to the will of Christ as expressed through his Church.
Church Law requires
clerics to wear clerical clothing. We have cited above number 66 of the
Directory for priests, which itself quotes canon 284.
The wearing of the
Roman collar is the repeated, ardent desire of Pope John Paul 11. The Holy
Father's wish in this regard cannot be summarily dismissed; he speaks with a
special charism. He frequently reminds priests of the value of wearing the
In a September 8, 1982 letter to Ugo Cardinal Poletti, his Vicar for the
Diocese of Rome, instructing him to promulgate norms concerning the use of
the Roman collar and religious habit, the Pontiff observed that clerical
dress is valuable "not only because it contributes to the propriety of the
priest in his external behavior or in the exercise of his ministry, but
above all because it gives evidence within the ecclesiastical community of
the public witness that each priest is held to give of his own identity and
special belonging to God."
In a homily on November 8, 1982 the Pope addressed a group of transitional
deacons whom he was about to ordain to the priesthood. He said that if they
tried to be just like everyone else in their "style of life" and "manner of
dress," then their mission as priests of Jesus Christ would not be fully
The Roman collar
prevents "mixed messages"; other people will recognize the priest's
intentions when he finds himself in what might appear to be compromising
circumstances. Let's suppose that a priest is required to make pastoral
visits to different apartment houses in an area where drug dealing or
prostitution is prevalent. The Roman collar sends a clear message to
everyone that the priest has come to minister to the sick and needy in
Christ's name. Idle speculation might be triggered by a priest known to
neighborhood residents visiting various apartment houses dressed as a
The Roman collar
inspires others to avoid immodesty in dress, words and actions and reminds
them of the need for public decorum. A cheerful but diligent and serious
priest can compel others to take stock of the manner in which they conduct
themselves. The Roman collar serves as a necessary challenge to an age
drowning in impurity, exhibited by suggestive dress, blasphemous speech and
The Roman collar is
a protection for one's vocation when dealing with young, attractive women. A
priest out of his collar (and, naturally, not wearing a wedding ring) can
appear to be an attractive target for the affections of an unmarried woman
looking for a husband, or for a married woman tempted to infidelity.
The Roman collar
offers a kind of "safeguard "for oneself. The Roman collar provides a
reminder to the priest himself of his mission and identity: to witness to
Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest, as one of his brother-priests.
A priest in a Roman
collar is an inspiration to others who think: "Here is a modern disciple of
Jesus." The Roman collar speaks of the possibility of making a sincere,
lasting commitment to God. Believers of diverse ages, nationalities and
temperaments will note the virtuous, other-centered life of the man who
gladly and proudly wears the garb of a Catholic priest, and perhaps will
realize that they too can consecrate themselves anew, or for the first time,
to the loving Good Shepherd.
The Roman collar is
a source of beneficial intrigue to non-Catholics. Most non- Catholics do not
have experience with ministers who wear clerical garb. Therefore, Catholic
priests by virtue of their dress can cause them to reflect – even if only a
cursory fashion – on the Church and what she entails.
A priest dressed as
the Church wants is a reminder of God and of the sacred. The prevailing
secular morass is not kind to images which connote the Almighty, the Church,
etc. When one wears the Roman collar, the hearts and minds of others are
refreshingly raised to the "Higher Being" who is usually relegated to a tiny
footnote in the agenda of contemporary culture.
The Roman collar is
also a reminder to the priest that he is "never not a priest." With so much
confusion prevalent today, the Roman collar can help the priest avoid
internal doubt as to who he is. Two wardrobes can easily lead – and often
does – to two lifestyles, or even two personalities.
A priest in a Roman
collar is a walking vocation message. The sight of a cheerful, happy priest
confidently walking down the street can be a magnet drawing young men to
consider the possibility that God is calling them to the priesthood. God
does the calling; the priest is simply a visible sign God will use to draw
men unto himself.
The Roman collar
makes the priest available for the Sacraments, especially Confession and the
Anointing of the Sick, and for crisis situations. Because the Roman collar
gives instant recognition, priests who wear it make themselves more apt to
be approached, particularly when seriously needed. The authors can testify
to being asked for the Sacraments and summoned for assistance in airports,
crowded cities and isolated villages because they were immediately
recognized as Catholic priests.
The Roman collar is
a sign that the priest is striving to become holy by living out his vocation
always. It is a sacrifice to make oneself constantly available to souls by
being publicly identifiable as a priest, but a sacrifice pleasing to Our
Divine Lord. We are reminded of how the people came to him, and how he never
turned them away. There are so many people who will benefit by our sacrifice
of striving to be holy priests without interruption.
The Roman collar
serves as a reminder to "alienated" Catholics not to forget their irregular
situation and their responsibilities to the Lord. The priest is a witness –
for good or ill – to Christ and his Holy Church. When a "fallen-away" sees a
priest, he is encouraged to recall that the Church continues to exist. A
cheerful priest provides a salutary reminder of the Church.
The wearing of
clerical clothing is a sacrifice at times, especially in hot weather. The
best mortifications are the ones we do not look for. Putting up with the
discomforts of heat and humidity can be a wonderful reparation for our own
sins, and a means of obtaining graces for our parishioners.
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.
The "officers" in
Christ's army should be identifiable as such. Traditionally, we have
remarked that those who receive the Sacrament of Confirmation become
"soldiers" of Christ, adult Catholics ready and willing to defend his name
and his Church. Those who are ordained as deacons, priests and bishops must
also be prepared – whatever the stakes – to shepherd the flock of the Lord.
Those priests who wear the Roman collar show forth their role unmistakably
as leaders in the Church.
The saints have
never approved of a lackadaisical approach concerning priestly vesture. For
example, Saint Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787), Patron Saint of Moral
Theologians and Confessors, in his esteemed treatise The Dignity and
Duties of the Priest, urges the wearing of the appropriate clerical
dress, asserting that the Roman collar helps both priest and faithful to
recall the sublime splendor of the sacerdotal state instituted by the
expect their priests to dress accordingly. Priests have long provided a
great measure of comfort and security to their people. As youths, Catholics
are taught that the priest is God's representative – someone they can trust.
Hence, the People of God want to know who these representatives are and what
they stand for. The cherished custom of wearing distinguishable dress has
been for centuries sanctioned by the Church; it is not an arbitrary
imposition. Catholics expect their priests to dress as priests and to behave
in harmony with Church teaching and practice. As we have painfully observed
over the last few years, the faithful are especially bothered and harmed
when priests defy the legitimate authority of the Church, and teach and act
in inappropriate and even sinful ways.
Your life is not
your own; you belong to God in a special way, you are sent out to serve him
with your life. When we wake each morning, we should turn our thoughts to
our loving God, and ask for the grace to serve him well that day. We remind
ourselves of our status as His chosen servants by putting on the attire that
proclaims for all to see that God is still working in this world through the
ministry of poor and sinful men.
Part 2: Arguments
advanced against the wearing of clerical clothing
There is a host of
reasons advanced for the position that priests should not be required to wear
the Roman collar. What follows is a sampling of these opinions, along with our
"I need time for
myself." Priests, of course, need time for themselves, especially for
prayer. Yet, a priest is a priest – always. Apart from the times noted in
the introduction (recreation, vacation, etc.), there is no need to dress as
a layman. The priest should take his personal time as a priest and nothing
"I want to relax."
We make a big mistake when we equate wearing the collar with not being
relaxed, and relaxing with being out of the collar. The naturalness of the
priest should include wearing the collar without constantly averting to it.
We should go about our daily duties, which include relaxing, without feeling
uncomfortable about our priestly garb. It should become second nature to us.
"My ministerial and
personal lives are separate." To have a "split personality" is never
healthy. No priest can temporarily put his priesthood on the shelf. To hide
one's priesthood may often be symptomatic of a desire to engage in something
sinful, or – at the very least – disedifying.
"I need diversion."
If you mean the type of diversion that you would be ashamed to be seen
enjoying while in a collar, then forget the diversion, not the collar.
"Those who always
wear their collars are insecure and seek to hide behind their uniforms." The
Roman collar is hardly a work uniform which is removed at the end of one's
day. Rather, the tried and true wisdom of the Church has determined that
such garb best represents who the priest is. The collar is the established
manner in which ordained ministers live out their ecclesial vocations both
in the private and public spheres. True, some may think themselves better
because of what they wear. But the collar and habit should not be dismissed
out-of-hand on that basis. Priests and religious are weak and tempted.
Wearing the appropriate clothing can strengthen those who totter on the
brink of grave sin. On the other hand, those who do not want to appear in
public as they really are seem to be suffering from a type of insecurity.
"I do not want to
stand out in a crowd." This is part of the glory and at times the sacrifice
of being God's chosen servant: priests stand out not because of their own
accomplishments or merits, but because they represent Jesus Christ. Priests
are different, but not thereby strange.
"The Roman collar
erects a barrier between me and my people." Some priests have publicly
stated such. (For example, a priest-tribunal official and another priest
involved in ecumenical work both asserted the necessity of not wearing the
Roman collar for fear that they would insult non-Catholics and those hostile
to Church teaching.) Could it be that some think that what the collar
signifies – Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church, the priesthood – are
obstacles? Priests must relate to others as priests, never in spite of being
"I can't be one of
the guys when I am 'dressed up."' To which we answer, "Good, because a
priest is never just one of the guys." Furthermore, wearing the collar is
not "dressing up." Rather, a priest wearing lay clothing (apart from
legitimate exceptions) is himself constantly dressing up as someone he is
"I don't want to
offend non-Catholics or be provocative in our pluralistic society." Some
took offense at Jesus as he walked the streets of Palestine. Are we trying
to be "nicer" than he? Are we perhaps afraid to suffer for the sake of his
is for a clerical Church – I believe in the radical equality of all
believers." There is no such thing as a clerical Church which will pass
away. There is just one Church, and the priesthood is a constitutive part of
the Church which cannot be abolished. The equality of all believers does not
contradict the diversity of vocations and states of life in the Church. For
priests to self-exempt themselves from one of the duties of priestly life –
the wearing of the Roman collar – is a form of clericalism which denies the
faithful their right to know who their priests are in order to call upon
them for priestly ministrations whenever necessary.
"My work with young
people is hampered by the collar." Many priests attest that their ministry
to youth is enhanced, not hindered, by the wearing of the collar. Young men
and women cannot help but detect the priest's love for and dedication to the
Lord and the Church. Since there is no reason for the priest to demonstrate
that "I'm just like you" (because he is not) the priest can be content to
wear his collar when around young people, knowing that he has nothing to
prove or hide. He need only show the love and compassion of the Savior.
"Clothes do not make
the man – the people of God can see my priesthood by the way I live, not by
the way I dress." This statement as it stands is true. But the legitimate,
Church-sanctioned vesture of the priest does not somehow mask who he is;
instead, it highlights that he is indeed a priest who is required by the
Church to dress accordingly as he seeks to imitate the First Priest.
are not my thing – I am who I am, not what other people want me to be."
Exactly. As priests, we should be priests and happily, humbly give that
clear message to others. When collars were quickly taken off a few decades
ago, the common argument proclaimed was: "What's really important is what's
inside me . . . I don't need an article of clothing to define my
priesthood." Our lives should unabashedly display these characteristics;
otherwise, we might be simply seeking our own interests and not Christ's. We
use symbols all the time, and need not be embarrassed by them. To obediently
and humbly wear the collar expresses one's submission to the authority of
God and his Holy Church.
"Priests who always
wear the Roman collar are rigid, arch-conservative, inflexible, elitist,
vain and selfish attention-seekers. I am not one of them." The assertion is
made that priests who dress as priests possess an unhealthy desire to be
continually needed and recognized; they only wear the collar for adulation
and to "lord it over" the laity; they are looking for "clergy discounts" and
"freebies" at stores and restaurants. That is an unfair assessment of men
who are trying to live as the Church mandates. The collar should mean a
simplicity of life and a corresponding humility before Almighty God. For a
priest to say, "I'm not like those poor guys who wear this Tridentine-imposed
relic of clericalism," is perhaps a means of easing his conscience when it
rebukes him for not doing what the Church demands of her ministers.
Inarguably, much of
Western society revels in a far-reaching decadence aimed at obliterating any
sign of the transcendent.
To counter such a
reality, priests – emboldened by the Holy Spirit with a strong faith and a
genuine missionary spirit – must seek to cooperate with the Creator in
re-invigorating the world with a sense of awe for and responsibility to God.
The Roman collar, far
from being a nasty reminder of the Church's requirement of clerical dress for
her priests, is a sorely-needed reference to the ever-present Paraclete who
beckons all men and women to recognize the selfless love and eternal grandeur of
the Most Blessed Trinity.
Priests who don the
collar may be met with a barrage of objections. "We are the Church . . . we are
all priests . . . there's no room for class distinctions in the Church of the
twenty-first century...." Even some brother priests may look askance at one of
their own, convinced that he is suffering from what could be fatal imprudence.
"Wearing the collar will only make you a target and eventually a victim . . .
you'll be sorry."
But priests who wear the
Roman collar, in addition to obeying the law of the Church and the heartfelt
plea of the Holy Father, display the desire to manifest the presence of the
Savior to a world gone mad. No matter the abuse which may be heaped upon a
collar-wearing priest, he knows full well that the reward is significant: to be
able to lead others to Christ despite one's own personal failings.
To priests who always
wear the Roman collar we say: keep it up! To those who do not we say: take stock
of the value which this seemingly insignificant piece of vesture possesses. Be
aware that the priestly work you now do will not suffer but will be enhanced
when you dress according to the venerable custom of the Church.
Msgr. Charles M. Mangan
& Father Gerald E. Murray. "Why a priest should wear his Roman collar."
Homiletic & Pastoral Review (June, 1995).
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Msgr. Charles M.
Mangan was appointed by His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, to a position serving
the Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of
Apostolic Life. Ordained in 1989, Msgr. Mangan formerly served the Diocese of
Sioux Falls in several parishes. His is the author of many pamphlets which are
Father Gerald E. Murray
is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. He is a graduate of Dartmouth
College and was ordained in 1984 after completing studies at St. Joseph's
Seminary in Dunwoodie, N. Y. Currently he is studying canon law at the Gregorian
University in Rome.