Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Identity: Priestly and Religious Attire

I have written many times before about those key elements of Catholic identity that used to just "scream" Catholicism... Fish on Fridays, Reverent Silence, the Real Presence, etc. One that has been burning in the back of my mind for quite some time is the topic of today's post: Priestly & Religious Attire.

This has recently bubbled to the top of my mind because of a two recent events... 1) I saw an example that screamed out to me and 2) a very long airport delay that has provided me with that precious commodity of time.

After many, many months of business travel, I was finally able to steal a weekend back home in Boston and went to my beloved immigrant parish in which I grew up and have so often shared with you as a model of maintaining much of it's Catholic identity. As I finished kneeling before the tabernacle before Mass, a number of old and dear friends noticed me and gave a nod or wave.

Then two young men came up the aisle in their jeans, turtle-neck sweaters, and back-packs, waltzed pass the tabernacle and into the sacristy. I said to myself, "Well, Father must have gotten some new servers since I had left, but they need a bit of a lesson on reverence and dress."
Father then came out of the Sacristy, in his Franciscan habit and came over to say hello to me. I thought this was a bit odd, since Mass was very near starting, but then it happened...

To my horror, the two young men reappeared from the Sacristy, one in a rose chasuble, the other in a rose Deacon's stole! The priest had his turtle neck sweater sticking out of the neck of the alb. After Mass, back in the "civilian" clothes, back-packs on... and out to "mission" to the masses!

But exactly what mission? I find it no small coincidence that shortly after this happened, our Holy Father addressed the priests of Rome and told them that they need to be visibile in the world. If they are seen leaving the church, and walking into the caffe, the priest and deacon that I described above bear no witness to their sacred office.

And I do not mean to only speak of priests, but other religious too, who have "kicked the habit" and moved into their stylish business suits with a lapel cross. We have children today that have never seen a nun in habit which gives the horrible impression that they "no longer exist". Who would ever desire to be a nun when they have never "seen" one.

One can say..."clothes not make the man" ... but I differ strongly with that line of argument. When I dressed as a kid in my "Sunday best" I knew I could not do the "normal" things that would get them dirty... it was different. When dressed for a wedding or business meeting... there is an air of difference in those attending. Even now there is a "corporate" uniform that I must wear.

Taking this discussion outside of the religious context... what is more reassuring (unless you are speeding!) than the site of policeman in uniform? The uniform that they wear immediately broadcasts their vocation and role in society. The only time that they do not wear it is when "under-cover" to try to hide their identity. The witness of priestly and religious attire does make a difference. The lack of its display gives an air of contempt and shame for the sacred office for which they should be happy and proud to have been called.

It is amazing to me just how inter-related so many of our stuggles withing the Church are directly related to each other and to the loss of our Catholic identity. A priest or religious not wearing religious attire has a direct impact on vocations.... the same as allowing the loss of male-only altar servers.... and the loss of sacred reverence as we have discussed in an early post.

So, I hope and pray this is all a passing "fad" of those priest and religious raised in the turbulent 60's when distain for authority and "uniformity" was in clear ascendance. I pray for all priest... I pray for more priests... I pray for many more holy priests.

St. John Vianney, Patron of all Priests, pray for our holy priests!