Saturday, 6 April 2013

Priests Who Don’t Wear Their Clerical Collars

Clerical Collar
Clerical Collar

Yesterday I sent out a tweet quoting the words of Fr. Maurice Emelu from Nigeria.  Fr. Emelu said:  “When you see a priest who doesn't wear his roman collar, you see a man who doubts.”  Fr. Emelu said this in one of a series of talks entitled “The Faith”, which I was watching on EWTN.

I don’t think that any reasonable person would interpret these words of Fr. Emelu to literally mean that any priest who is not always, at all times and in all situations, wearing his clerical collar, is having a crisis of faith.  Even without watching the entire 30-minute talk by Fr. Emelu, it would just be absolutely bizarre for anyone to interpret Fr. Emelu’s words in this way.  In any case, charity would itself dictate that one should assume a more reasonable interpretation of Fr. Emelu’s words.

It would also be bizarre to interpret, as some sadly did, that Fr. Emelu was suggesting that the extent of a priest’s faith, or anyone’s faith for that matter, is indicated by whether he does or does not wear certain external garments or items.  That is most certainly not what Fr. Emelu is saying and it really is just so bizarre that someone interprets Fr. Emelu’s words in this strange way.  Again, if anything, charity would surely dictate that one should assume a more reasonable interpretation of Fr. Emelu’s words.

Yet some did interpret these words of Fr. Emelu in strange ways, evident from some the tweets I received in response to my tweet:

    -  “Faith is what’s in the heart, not what is seen. Narrow to judge 
       by dress.”
    -  “Obsession with the external clouds the ability to see internally.
    -  “They’ll know we are Christians by our love”

In a nutshell, what Fr. Emelu was saying in his talk, when he said: “When you see a priest who doesn't wear his roman collar, you see a man who doubts[1], was that there are many people today who are experiencing doubts about their Catholic Faith.  As a consequence they begin to feel less inclined to acknowledge, especially publically, that they are Catholic.  They therefore slowly and surely begin to hide any signs of their Catholic identity.  They do so in many different ways.  Fr. Emelu gave examples of how people may hide their Catholic identity and included, in these examples, priests who don’t wear their clerical collars and religious who don’t wear their religious habit.

It should be pointed out that Fr. Emelu is not the first person to say that a priest who doesn’t wear his clerical collar may be exhibiting signs of someone who is having a crisis of faith and wanting to hide his Catholic identity.  Here are similar words, this time from a document written by the Congregation of the Clergy and approved by Pope John Paul II in 1994, entitled Directory On The Ministry And Life Of Priests:

a cleric's failure to use this proper ecclesiastical attire could manifest a weak sense of his identity as one consecrated to God.

Need I say again that it really would be completely ridiculous, if one did spot a priest who was not wearing his clerical collar, to automatically draw a conclusion that the priest is experiencing doubts about his Faith, in the same way as it is ridiculous that some have interpreted Fr. Emelu’s words to be meant in precisely this way.

Having said that, I most certainly do wonder about the reasons a priest would have for choosing not to wear his clerical collar or his cassock when he is working.  I did cogitate on this yesterday. 

I can honestly say that despite giving it some thought, even discussing it over a lunch yesterday with someone who I respect as a very wise man, I cannot think of a single good reason that a priest in South Africa, and in most western countries, would have for not always very clearly and publically identifying himself as a priest while he is working.  

Do we see nurses on duty in hospitals dressed in clothing that does not clearly identify them to be nursing staff?  No, we don’t!  Quite frankly it would be really silly if nurses were not clearly identifiable to those in the hospital, particularly patients, while they were on duty.

Do the staff on airline flights dress in non-descript clothing?  Again, no, they don’t!  Even the pilots, who are locked away inside their cabin most of the time and are seldom, if ever, seen by the passengers on the aeroplane, are dressed in a way so that they can be easily identified!

The police, except for those like the detectives who deliberately do not want to be identified as policemen, also wear clearly identifiable clothing so that all know who is a policeman. 

Even waiters and waitresses are more often than not required by the restauranteur to wear at least one item of clothing that will clearly identify them to patrons of the restaurant as the waiter or waitress. 

So what reason on earth could lead a priest, especially in a country like South Africa or a western country where priests are not being executed for being priests, to think that it is appropriate that he not be clearly identified as a Catholic priest when he is working?  Is what he does so trivial that he should not be easily identifiable to all Catholics and in fact to the whole world?

When I see a person whom I know is a Catholic priest who is not dressed in his clerical collar or cassock, I automatically think that it must be his day off.  Why else would he not be dressed for work?

Yet, before I became housebound because of my health, I used to bump into some priests quite often during the week and, I must say, that I did often think to myself that some of them seemed to be having a great many, many more days off every week than the average working person does.  (Assuming they had days off when they were not in their clerical collars or cassocks.)

Maybe someone can help me to understand what good reasons there would be to justify a priest not wearing clerical collars or a cassock in South Africa, other than it being his day off. 

I might add that, despite being unable to think of reasons why a priest should not publically identify as a priest by wearing his clerical collar or cassock while he is working, I could think of numerous good reasons to justify why a priest should wear his clerical collar or cassock when he is working.  Not least of these reason was the Canon Law requirement that: “Clerics are to wear suitable ecclesiastical garb according to the norms issued by the conference of bishops and according to legitimate local customs.[2] 

Why, I wonder, would the clergy disobey Canon Law?  What is the message that they send the Catholic faithful when they so brazenly disobey Church laws?  Are they saying Canon Law does not really count for anything?  Are they saying it is irrelevant and can simply be ignored?

Fortunately I did not need to write up all the reasons I could think of for priests identifying as priests.  Someone else has done so before.  It seems this is not a new debate by any means.  I should know that.  That is the reality of our Church.  Often questions being raised are questions that have been raised and answered many times before and they will continue to be asked and answered many times in the future.  Anyway, here are 23 good reasons for a priest to wear his roman collar, written by two priests:

Reasons for wearing the Roman collar[3]

1) 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.

2) 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.

3) Church Law requires clerics to wear clerical clothing - Canon 284.

4) 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 Roman collar.

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 behaviour 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 realized.

5) 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 neighbourhood residents visiting various apartment houses dressed as a layman.

6) 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 scandalous actions.

7) 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.

8) 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.

9) 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-centred 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.

10) 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.

11) 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.

12) 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.

13) 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.

14) 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.

15) 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.

16) 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.

17) 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.

18) 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.

19) 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.

20) 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.

21) 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 splendour of the sacerdotal state instituted by the God-Man.

22) Most Catholics 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.

23) 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.

I would like end with these words from a document produced by the Congregation of the Clergy in 1994. 

In a secularised 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 recognise 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.

For this reason, the clergy should wear ‘suitable ecclesiastical dress, in accordance with the norms established by the Episcopal Conference and the legitimate local custom’.  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.  The style and colour should be established by the Episcopal Conference, always in agreement with the dispositions of the universal law.

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.[4]

[1] Congregation of the Clergy, Directory On The Ministry And Life Of Priests, Jan 31, 1994, #66
[2] Code of Canon Law, #284
[3] Rev. Charles M. Mangan and Rev. Gerald E. Murray, Why A Priest Should Wear His Roman Collar, June 1995
[4] Congregation of the Clergy, Directory On The Ministry And Life Of Priests, Jan 31, 1994, #66


  1. Well said. When I go to work I put on my suit and tie. We all have "work" clothes and that is a fact of life. Are permanent deacons required to wear collars? Be good if permanent deacons were seen in the work place proudly identifying as Catholic and setting example for other Catholics or is their consecration a part time one?

  2. There's quite a balanced discussion of the issue here:

    (Which also led me to reflect on a related topic here:

  3. These last few words from the Congregation of the Clergy say it all for those clerics - deacons and priests - who still want to debate the need for clerical attire: "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."

  4. James

    In my diocese deacons are forbidden from wearing clerical dress at their secular place of employment. A deacon is a deacon at all times, irrespective of where he is or how he is dressed. Reception of the Sacrament of Holy Orders brings about an ontological change. Therefore, there can be no part time consecration. I am as much a cleric as a priest - just differently!


  5. Hi Brian, is there any reason for the diocese not wanting the permanent deacons to wear clerical collars to secular places of work? My automatic sense is that it is probably to protect the Church from any potential scandal.

    The world loves a good story and I can just imagine how thoroughly excited the media would be if they can point out that xyz company is in trouble and, guess what, a Catholic Deacon happens to be one of their employers.

  6. Thanks for the links, Macrina. I will read them over the weekend.

  7. Is it not a case to be made, that in these times of rampant secularism ,it is ever more important that the visible signs of
    his priesthood are in the world? Wear it!!! proclaim it!!!

  8. In Cape Town, dare I say, have not come across a priest whom I know not wearing clerical dress.

    However, at times have; come across nuns in secular dress.
    Well there can be nothing more ridicules than this, as they tend to stick out like sore thumbs; their mode of secular dress is WW2, in style and age.

    What is encouraging though, is the many lay Catholics who have
    their crucifix around their neck in full view, there have been many occasions when pleasantries have been exchanged, such as: are you Catholic and what parish are you from?

    Perhaps an increasing amount of lay Catholics, are setting a
    good example of faith and witness.

  9. I often hear very good things about the Archdiocese of Cape Town. For example, Archbishop Brislin very quickly stopped the dissident group "We Are All Church South Africa" from using Church premises for their meetings. Now this about the priests wearing their clerical collars.

    Is Archbishop Brislin's example in fact proving what many of us have said for some time now? It is necessary for the bishops to put their foot down and regain control of their dioceses instead of bowing to the pressure of the ever noisy dissident clergy and lay faithful. By doing this bishops truly serve the people instead of just a handful of protagonists.

  10. I have this particular bone of contention with my parish priest. I have never, ever seen him in his clerical collar. Outside of the Mass - which he of course has to celebrate in his vestment - you would never know he's a priest as he's always in sandals, jeans and a t-shirt. He looks like any other regular joe. I find that incredibly sad because he's always preaching about the dangers of secularism, yet he does nothing outwardly to combat it himself, i.e. by way of his appearance. Jesus was never shy to proclaim who he was, neither should any priest be!