What’s that white thing called?

Last night I called to visit a family near home.  The oldest daughter, aged seven, asked “What’s that white thing called?” she was pointing to my collar that was sticking out of my open necked black shirt.  “It’s called a collar”, I told her.  “Why do you have it?” she asked.  A fair question.  I tried to explain that it was a sort of uniform like a guard or nurse might wear.  I forgot that she too wears a uniform to her local school.  Anyway, I don’t think she was too worried.  It wasn’t an in-depth sort of “Miriam Meets” interview!  Just a child’s curiosity and she quickly moved on to something more engaging – her daddy’s guitar:)

Today I didn’t wear the collar at all.  I was going to a meeting and decided not to bother.  The world didn’t stop spinning!  A short while ago I called in to the local Community Centre to bless St Bridget’s Crosses that were being made.  I didn’t bother to change but just put on a stole and used Holy Water to bless “the work”.  Nobody seemed to notice what I was wearing, at least if they did, they said nothing to me.

Generally speaking I wear the collar in the parish and, for that matter, most of the time but I hope I’m not daft enough to think it makes me a priest.  No shade of black (or grey!!) can, in itself, achieve that.  Neither can any length of white plastic, in itself, do that.  Being a priest has to be about so much more than physical appearance or dress codes.

In the afternoon I received an email from a priest friend with a link to an article about recent trends in Liturgical and Clerical dress.  It was an article that wondered why there is such a push backwards regarding some of the decisions being made at present.

Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald from a scene in "Going My Way" (1944)
Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald from a scene in “Going My Way” (1944)

I can’t help but notice that there’s an increase in awareness of clerical dress among some of my brothers in priesthood – most of them younger and more recently ordained than I.  Full black suits, Roman Collars and soutanes (cassocks) are becoming increasingly visible at gatherings.  You could almost wind the clock back sixty years.  Were photos to be taken at some present day clerical gatherings and placed side by side with photos from that time, you’d be hard pressed to “spot the difference”. I really am not sure why this is happening.  I’m not totally convinced it”s totally convincing!!

I think I wrote about this before in the context of one of my classmates saying he was verbally attacked in a city restaurant for no other reason than he was clerically dressed.  He described it as an awful experience that left him literally shaken and shaking.  I remember when he told me this, I was thankful that I could not recall a similar experience.  Two days later, when in a shop in one of our bigger towns, the young shop assistant gestured towards my collar and said “I didn’t see that until now”.  I thought my moment had come and I tried to smile as I said “I know, it’s a dangerous piece of equipment to have these days”. “Not at all”, she replied, “it all depends what you do with it”.  I was amazed by the clarity of her thought and the accuracy of her observation.  Yes, it all depends what’s done with it.  She was not finished – “We never needed you more”.  She was a young woman, maybe in her late twenties, who had nothing to gain from saying this.  It wasn’t her shop and I wasn’t a regular customer.  She could have let me go but I think she wanted to reassure me before I went.  I appreciated that very much.

Yes, the collar, clerical dress and liturgical dress have their role and are certainly a sign of presence. I also believe that, on occasions, it is wholly appropriate to be wholly appropriate in the dress worn.  Not to do this could justifiably be seen as a mark of disrespect and less than should be expected.  My fear though, if I have a fear, lies somewhere in all of this being turned into an end in itself.  I see no direct link between sanctity and dress.  Jesus, after all, lost his garments at Calvary’s base but did not lose his dignity, Divinity or purpose.  I don’t think a priest’s goodness or commitment is measurable in depth of black or height of the collar worn.  I am not convinced that the soutane is the answer we need nor that winding back clocks is the way to go forward.

I’m happy to wear the collar – though I know many priests, very good priests, aren’t for a variety of reasons.  I am proud to wear it and, insofar as it has a message, I’m happy to be that message but I’d hate to think that I’d want the collar to “demand” respect.  Of course I like to be respected as I hope I respect others but I’d not want this two way journey to be judged or shaped by whether my shirt is open or closed, whether I’m wearing a suit or not or whether I can fit into my soutane anymore.  (For what it’s worth – I can’t!!) I am hoping to lose a few pounds this year so who knows 🙂


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