Monday, May 04, 2009

Religious Habit

A few weeks ago, a friend and I went out to dinner. She wore a nice dress, a string of pearls, a pair of sensible shoes (somewhere between 'nun-sensible' and stiletto heels), and a jacket. I opted to wear a pair of khaki pants, a sport jacket, and a tie (yes, I also wore a shirt). 

Over the course of our meal, my friend asked me if I was supposed to wear clerical attire when I went out in public. To her mind, it would make sense to wear "clerics" for several reasons:

  • Black is always slimming.
  • Given the relative dearth of young members of the clergy, it's a good reminder that there are young men entering into ministry.
  • For people like me who struggle with fashion, it's very easy to match black with black with black. There's little room for error.
  • In certain situations, it might score you an upgrade on an airplane or a free meal.
Much of what she said was, of course, in jest. But this is a live issue for many people: should religious wear distinctive garb? If not, why not? If so, why and when?

I'm of a mind that I wear my clerical attire when I am acting in a Jesuit capacity: teaching, giving a public lecture or presentation, representing the Society at a civic or religious function. When I run to the drugstore to refill my allergy medicine, when I go out to get a pizza, and when I go out to socialize with my friends (restaurants, clubs, parties) I choose dress-casual. 

I reckon I'm of the mind that there is a time and a place for both styles of dress. I know young Jesuits who probably have clerical pajamas: they seem never to leave the house without a Roman collar and a suit on. I know others who think that the collar is a sign of clericalism that should be consigned to the dead-fashion heap, next to bell-bottoms and Crocs. 

But I'd be happy to hear from people what they think. I know students have said that they appreciate both styles of dress: they are reminded both of our counter-cultural lives and of the fact that Jesuits do not cease to be human and still can put on 'play clothes.' Next year, I have every intention of wearing clerical attire to work every day, because:

  • It'll make it easier to roll out of bed and get ready for class - I won't have to make daily fashion decisions. It'll be either black or black. Or black. 
  • Poly-blend fibers are always en vogue
  • Who wouldn't want to wear a constrictive collar while trying to herd freshmen or navigate one's way through masses of students in the hallway?
  • With any luck, it will strike fear in the hearts of students. 
Seriously, though, as a teacher next year I think it an integral part of my mission to teach to be a witness to students whenever I'm in their company - whether this be football games, plays, musicals, or other extracurricular activities. Nevertheless, I don't see much difficulty with opting to wear "civvies" or, in Ryan-speak, regular-people clothes when I'm doing informal activities (like going out for ice cream or spending time with friends).

Anyway, this is one of those posts that is far less charged than recent discussions of Notre Dame and President Obama. So please feel free to weigh in with your thoughts!


Anonymous said...

Hi Ryan,
I've always found clerical attire to be a fascinating outward sign of profession in the same way I see a police or military uniform, a doctors coat, or a fireman's hat. I think they serve a purpose not only to differentiate our important roles in society but also to be a visual symbol of identity that can be easily lost when someone isn't in close contact with the group. Also, it creates in our young people a sense of wonder that these people are set apart for something wonderful, a feeling that hopefully grows and matures over time and keeps a small sense in them that it is a worthy vocation to consider when grown up.

Of course, with all the wonderful things the clerical attire brings, it should never burden to an individual, their relationship with the Lord, the community as a whole, or a hindrance in the faithful relationships that should form in our lives. In that regard, I appreciate the Society's decision on the wearing of religious garments and I appreciate that you are comfortable living your faith even when you aren't wearing it.

Still, on a completely different note, there is also something "cool" about the clothes. I'm currently working toward the candidacy program of the Society, myself, and I hope I can keep myself in perspective with that collar one day. Of course now I'm going to have to go pray about whether thinking it's cool is a good or bad thing... Oh the philosophy!

Thanks! James.

Joe said...

Almost all the Jesuits (priests, novices and in-betweens...we'll set aside brothers for the moment) who were my teachers wore clerics.

One of them, the youngest at the time (he might have been 32 or so then) wore a cassock. In 1977. Stop and think about that.

He was our Theology teacher and while we called him Darth Vader, he terrified us. He didn't DO anything terrifying, he just wore a cassock and that was enough for us. He once startled a kid two rows over by asking him to define "Hyperdulia" and I am not so sure he didn't wet himself.

Is there anyone I can write to in the hopes that you get at least the option of 100% cotton clerics?

A man for others,


P.S. Not that my opinion should be law -- yet -- but I think a good rule of thumb is "if in doubt, wear the clerics."

Jason said...

Joe, if you can figure a way to make affordable, quality, comfortable cotton clerical attire, I'm sure you'd have takers, and heck, maybe clerics would wear them more often.

The current offerings are expensive and crummy. If you want a decently good shirt, you pay through the nose.

Joe said...


My grandfather was a tailor and I'm the victim of business school education.

I promise to cogitate on the matter.

Feel free to point me to links to where I can see what the competition would be.

To ME a hair shirt and that wire thing the Opus Dei ostensibly wear sounds like Savile Row's finest in comparison to anything with polyester.

I offer up my shuddering.


Kate said...

I mostly agree, Tomasino, but any member of a profession also deserves to be "off duty" on occasion. My friends in the clergy typically wear civilian gear when we get together for drinks or dinner or a movie. Certainly I understand the fundamental difference between professions and vocations; but I don't begrudge clergy, who sacrifice greatly in service of the Church, a few hours of anonymity now and then.

Joe said...

I agree pretty much w. Kate, incidentally...but Jesuits, please, no more plaid shirts.

Jason said...

Joe, you can look at catholic supply dot com. Pretty much everything there is mediocre quality poly blend.

Joe said...



I know one is supposed to be on fire for the Lord, but I doubt that means you should wear anything that flammable.


Anonymous said...

I think there is absolutely a time and place for both. Religious activities certainly merit clericals. This would include volunteer opportunities as well. Interestingly, our last Spring Diocesan meeting was attended by clerics mostly in shorts :-)

I too, know people who take themselves so seriously that clerical pajamas would be in order. Anytime I meet someone who has to be in clericals to feel important, I'm reminded of a saying that goes, "If you're not enough without it, you'll never be enough with it."

Something I try to keep in mind is that the clerical collar is, in effect, a slave's collar. Our religious vows make us voluntary, privileged bondservants to Christ. Anyone who properly thinks through the sacrifices that will have to be made in a religious life WILL think twice before signing up.

Having said all that, religious are living sacramentals in the midst of a lost and hurting world. It is both our privilege and responsibility to provide help to those around us who are in need. And until we start equipping portable generators that give off clerical colored auras, some form of religious identification will be necessary as a signpost of sorts.

And black is very slimming indeed!


msc said...

Wearing your clerics is a much needed sign of your call, your availability and your commitment to your vows.

Our world is full of negative advertising and what we need is more positive advertising, i.e. your clerics.

I wouldn't wear them when you are vacationing.