ASK FATHER: Why don’t bishops wear cassocks?

From a reader:

I am wondering why most modern bishops just wear a clerical suit?  Why do they very rarely wear the cassock with the proper color trim?  We almost never see eastern rite or even the orthodox out in public in “clerical suits”.  Could part of the reason that people don’t listen to their Bishops is that the Bishops choose not to wear the dress that is official to them?  The “clerical suit” is worn by almost all protestant ministers and if you were to put them all in a room with a Catholic Bishop wearing a clerical suit I bet the common man who doesn’t know his Bishop would not be able to point out his Bishop.

Do ever see a return to Bishops looking like Bishops when they are out in public?  Would it provide more of an impact if Bishops wore their official dress when addressing assemblies?  If part of the outward symbol of a Bishop is his dress, then why would he choose to not employ it?

First, I am glad you are concerned about decorum.  I have no doubt that you are always exactly properly dressed according to everyone else’s expectations in each and every circumstance.

Next, I limit myself to custom in these United States.

It was, and still is, not the custom for secular, diocesan priests and bishops in these USA to wear the cassock as “street attire”.  Yes, some young pups are wearing the cassock all the time, when they go about town.  Fine.  Perhaps they will establish a new practice.  However, the usual practice in these USA go back to the Councils of Baltimore, which forbade clerics from using the cassock as dress attire, imposing instead secular dress but with a clerical collar.  For a long while the standard was the frock coat, which we don’t see much of anymore.   Today, standard street dress for the diocesan cleric is the black suit.  Of course the cassock is always appropriate for anything liturgical and when the cleric is in his assigned place, such as a school or hospital.

Another point, for bishops at least, is practical.  These days, most (I think) bishops drive themselves about.  I think that is imprudent, but – hey! – they don’t ask me about such things.  Say His Nibs is in a cassock and something happens along the way.  He’s in his cassock, which might not be the best attire at the moment.  I am speculating at this point, but that could have something to do with it.

Lastly, I have to say that clerical decorum has nearly completely broken down.  All you have to do is look at a group of concelebrants.  There are hardly two vested similarly when it comes to alb, cincture.  Let’s not even talk about proper choir dress.  What a disaster that is.  They enter and exit in their white gunny sacks looking like the end of the shift at the Tasty Bakery.  It strikes me that most priests and bishops of a certain age haven’t a clue about how to dress.   Furthermore, they would say, “Oh, I don’t go in for all that stuff!”, as if they are somehow to be thought humble.  I don’t see any virtue in adopting a stance of contempt for your proper dress or vestments or uniform.  Humility submits to decorum.  Putting on the gear, and putting it on correctly, shows respect for the office and role you hold.  It shows respect for the people you encounter.   They don’t want to see their bishops and priests slouching about in shapeless white bags or looking like a hotel clerk.

You, however, are also reacting to photos I posted of a conference I attended.  There were quite a few bishops there.  They were in black suits.  This was at a hotel/resort.  It was a secular setting, not a church.  The prelates used cassocks for liturgies (Mass and office and Benediction).  Religious priests quite properly wore their habits, according to their customs.  Diocesan priests were in black suits.

Were there to have been a truly formal moment, such as a black tie evening event, then the diocesan clerics would have been properly dressed in a house cassock appropriate for their status, with the proper fascia, and a ferraioulo.  Mine would be black, a bishop’s violet or paonazza, a cardinal’s porpora sacra.

So, that’s it in a nutshell.  We are in a transition period.  I think that the customs will change for the better, but it will take time.  In the meantime, in these USA, don’t look down on a priest who wears the black suit and Roman collar when out and about in public.  That’s the custom for the diocesan clerics if this country.

And, yes, it is my hope that cleric decorum improves.  And, yes, I would like to see more bishops in their proper gear more often.  I think we see this as the Biological Solution keeps working us all over.

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34 Responses to ASK FATHER: Why don’t bishops wear cassocks?

  1. Elizabeth D says:

    There was one seminarian who would not follow our parish’s practice of servers etc wearing cassock and surplice, even if there were also two altar boys in cassock and surplice he generally would not vest in that way. He liked to wear an alb with no cincture with khaki pantlegs sticking out the bottom, whether serving Mass, exposing the Blessed Sacrament, leading devotions, etc. It was unattractive, rubbed me the wrong way and made me feel like he didn’t like our parish. He told me one time it was because seminarians are not permitted to wear a cassock outside of a liturgy until they are theologians, but even if he was being very literal about that it didn’t explain why he preferred alb with no cincture for Mass. Later his assignment moved to another local parish where they are less traditional and he indicated to me he liked that parish better. He does wear cassock and surplice (and he looks very smart) if he is a server at Mass with the bishop.

  2. dominic1955 says:

    I really liked wearing my cassock when I was in the seminary, one because it was traditional and very disctinctly religious but also it was more convenient than one might think. You could wear it over practically anything, it made deciding what you were going to wear really quick and it was surprisingly convenient. I could do about anything in it after a very short “breaking in” period. A couple of my cassocks were from a private maker, from suit wool and were about the same price as the ones you would get from Toomey or Almy and the like. I had one Almy from the diocese that was pretty decent too.

    I didn’t like wearing the black suit, not because of the suit itself (which I still wear to this day) but because of the easily attainable clerical shirts and rabbats which were mostly subpar. My preferred suit option was the shirt front or vest, and I would have gotten a tailored one once I got ordained had I stayed in. The square notch on the factory vest I got never really looked right.

    The clerical shirts as made by the larger manufacturers were, in my opinion, generally of inferior quality. In my size, it would look like a bag (especially the short sleeved ones) and if I bit smaller, it would be comically tight. The shirts with the built in “Roman collar” looked decent enough, but once the points on the black part of the shirt started to wear through, it looked ratty.

    I’d say bishops probably don’t wear their special cassocks and simars (which is the proper name for the one with the attached shoulder cape) because they get them from the likes of Gammareli and pay and arm and a leg for them. Thus, they might wear them for special events but would much rather wear an inexpensive black suit coupled with the standard tab shirts or shirt fronts for the day to day uniform. I’d don’t blame them for that, but I’d try a little harder to find a source for my cassock outside of the expensive venues. Then, you could actually get one that you won’t be afraid to wear.

    Second, I’d agree with Fr. Z about the broken state of decorum but its not just amongst clerics. In society in general, too many men seem to feel put upon to even wear a tie. It doesn’t surprise me that clerics feel put upon to wear something as snazzy as a cassock. The false humility anti-“clericalism” of the 1960s still plays a big part too. Fr. Flapjack might wear his tab collar shirt with the tab in the front pocket these days, but he wouldn’t be caught dead in a cassock.

  3. 2H84 says:

    It used to be more common to see Bishops wearing a shirt the same colour as their cassock when wearing street clothes though, and that seems not to happen now- is it still allowed? When John Paul II died, all the Bishops I saw interviewed on UK television had a black suit and a black shirt, apart from Archbishop Kelly in Liverpool who (surprisingly) was in a full rig-out.

    I can see the need for a distinction for street clothes, but trying too hard to look like a priest will make people treat you like one. Our old Bishop was very “call me Father”, but woe betide anyone who ever did it!

  4. “Furthermore, they would say, ‘Oh, I don’t go in for all that stuff!’, as if they are somehow to be thought humble.”

    On the contrary, I take it as a sure sign of arrogance when a cleric–be he pope or bishop or priest–does not yield to the common expectation of vestiture and decorum for his office.

  5. I have never seen our Bishop Loverde of the Arlington Dioecese not in a cassock.
    And on top of that, as a non-celebrant of the FSSP ordination here in the diocese, he reverently received communion kneeling and on the tongue. [I was told later that he always receives that way when not a celebrant at a Mass] At the end of the ordination Mass, he joined in singing the Te Deum.
    Some bishops do the best they can under the circumstances.

  6. mrsmontoya says:

    Thank you as always, Father. I was thinking along the same lines this morning, discussing proper attire for an upcoming job interview and the differences between “Sunday best” and “business best” with my kids.

  7. acardnal says:

    Well said Henry and Tina!

  8. Former Altar Boy says:

    “In the meantime, in these USA, don’t look down on a priest who wears the black suit and Roman collar when out and about in public.”

    Oh that more of them would take pride in their holy vocation and at least do that much! Maybe I should be more charitable but it irritates me when I see a man whom I know to be a priest wearing a open collar shirt and a sport coat in public. What’s the matter, Padre, you ashamed of your chosen profession?

  9. frjim4321 says:

    “I take it as a sure sign of arrogance when a cleric–be he pope or bishop or priest–does not yield to the common expectation of vestiture and decorum for his office.” Henry Edwards

    Actually, I’ve always taken it as a sign of supreme arrogance whenever a person claims entitlement to judge the attire of another.

  10. acardnal says:

    A cleric holds an ecclesiastical office similar to a police officer or someone in the armed forces, for example, holds a government position which serves the public. Clerics should wear clerical garb accordingly. . .especially since their ontology was changed at their ordination – unlike those who hold a secular job.

  11. Supertradmum says:

    No offense, but those who get upset about cassocks do not understand some things. One, in many, even Western, countries, it is illegal for priests and seminarians to wear cassocks in public. Second, the seminaries do not encourage it and positively discourage it, indeed, watching out for “overt traddies”. Young men do not have to expose themselves to being labelled or even blackballed for ordination because of a cassock. Three, I have an excellent memory of pre-Vatican II days and the vast majority of secular priests did not wear cassocks, nor did the bishops in the Midwest. I cannot imagine being on a horse in a cassock in the early days of the missionary priests in Iowa, for example. Some did, btw. My very first ancestor on the maternal side was a missionary priest, Fr. Dostal, who drowned in the Iowa River because he was pulled down by his cassock. He was a missionary priest among the Czechs in northern Iowa.

    I think people romanticize this entire cassock thing to the point of not being either prudent or practical. Thank you for your sound answer, Fr. Z.

    There has been for a long time a distinction between religious orders and secular priestly attire, as well. The FSSPs are a religious order of priests, not diocesan. We should be able to make the distinctions.

  12. Supertradmum says:

    I should have added, the first ancestor in America on that side….

  13. jhayes says:

    Question: in the current “Father Brown” TV series, Mark Williams wears a cassock and saturno. The episodes are set in the 1950s in the Cotswolds. Did priests dress like that at that time in the UK – or ever?

  14. Supertradmum says:

    May I add a recollection that priests at the Venerabile, even visitors, cannot wear cassocks, nor do the sems? Can someone update me on this is this is no longer true? It was because of the still in place law in England about the illegality of Catholic priests and sems wearing cassocks in public.

    If someone refers to Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, remember he was a member of the religious order of the Oratorians, which he started in England, and as such, worn the habit, which is still worn.

  15. dominic1955 says:

    New Liturgical Movement had an excellent article or two on the clerical dress around and before the time of Pope Pius IX. “Abito Piano”, i.e. the cassock, was named after him because he decided that this was going to be clerical attire.

    Before that, the standard, of sorts, looked much like men of the 18th Century would wear (knee britches, long hoes, buckled shoes, long jacked over vest, etc.) but in black with a little cape on the back. The hat was a big tricorno or upturned sided saturno. Even in Rome that was standard, up to and including Cardinals.

    I don’t care that diocesan priests wear suits, it really is traditional properly understood. I really could do without all the sloppiness and the “I wear a polo shirt instead of a collar because I’m humble and not a clericalist” nonsense though.

  16. Moro says:

    I went to Boston College at the height of the Sexual Abuse Crisis in Boston. It was very common for many Jesuits and diocesan priests who are in line for the “biological solution” to not wear clerics of any kind. They just wore street clothes and the only reason I knew they were priests was because I went to daily mass or friends took their classes. Things have improved considerably

  17. darthkorbus says:

    I went to Gonzaga University (a Jesuit university) and almost none of the Jesuits wore anything clerical. I had one priest professor who wore a suit and tie everyday, and the most religious thing I ever say him wear was a polo shirt with the logo of a seminary on it. Another of my priest professors wore the collar everyday, but the color of his shirt changed each day too (pink one day, blue another, yellow yet another day, and so on). Need I add that almost all Jesuits at GU are grey-heads nearing the biological solution?

  18. jflare says:

    “Actually, I’ve always taken it as a sign of supreme arrogance whenever a person claims entitlement to judge the attire of another.”

    Um, for my college show choir, our director most definitely did not see it this way. Nor did my instructors–or peers–in ROTC.

    Regarding the former, we performed at Epcot Center once, after which a cousin whom I hadn’t seen in forever caught up with us at a run. In a fit of thrilled enthusiasm, I pulled off my tie. One of my fellow choir members reminded me that such was not going to be a good thing if our director caught me that way. I recall thinking she was right, and carried the tie carefully the rest of the walk.
    Or, in ROTC, I remember having a not entirely pleasant conversation with a Cadet Corps IG once. I had to explain that my haircut was not intended as a symbol of affiliation with Skinheads, but was the end result of a goofup with cutting my hair the night before.

    In both cases, we had a legitimate need to emphasize the pride and dignity that we held as human beings who were members of a particular group of people. We had a uniform and were naturally expected to wear it correctly.
    …Thank God my choir experience–and the concepts I learned from it–came before ROTC; I’m rebellious enough in general that ROTC could’ve been much more..troubled..if I hadn’t.

    Sad to think that clergy don’t always seem to understand this.

  19. vetusta ecclesia says:

    Many of the great saints who were prelates wore the “rig” appropriate to their station to mark the status, not to embellish the man.

    And what about a cardinal entering the conclave in the appropriate choir dress and then refusing the appropriate choir dress when he left it?!

  20. Fr.Estabrook says:

    A “young pup” here:

    I wore the cassock out to meet some parishioners for dinner at the local irish pub last night. The waitress looked at me from head to toe, “Are you a priest?” she asked. “I am.” As I sat down at the table, she sat down across from me, and said those words delightful to a young priests ears: “Can I ask you a question?” “Of course,” I said. “Why do you believe in God?”
    Cassock 1 Polo Shirt 0

    A young priest friend recently named a pastor had a “very concerned” parishioner tell him that she is leaving the parish because she doesn’t like the direction he is leading it: latin at mass, cassocks, noble vestments.

    We know that some people carry around excessive baggage concerning the cassock. Perhaps, many bishops fear their…”fury”.

    The only people that have given me a hard time for wearing the cassock have been (older) brother priests (many of whom own more polo shirts than Tommy Hilfiger).

  21. Fr. Erik Richtsteig says:

    It is important to note that the law prohibiting the use of the cassock as street attire from the Council of Baltimore is no longer in force. [Of course, but that established a custom that was long in force. It takes a while for these things to change.] It was change by a confirmed USCCB decrees. (The clerical suit remained the standard by the use of the cassock was left to the cleric’s discretion.) I have had to go the rounds with the chancery types over this a couple of times.
    Personally, I find the cassock much more comfortable than a suit. More importantly, it is a better witness. I have never been mistaken for a Protestant minister in it. (I was once mistake for a Greek Orthodox priest.) The suit strikes me as too ‘professional’, just a clerical version of a business suit, while the cassock is more vocational.
    As to the ‘what if something unfortunate happens while driving argument’, the cleric is wearing a shirt and pants underneath, just take off the cassock and change the tire and then put it back on.
    Like Fr. Z, I hope for the day when the cassock becomes the norm, but realize that it will take time.

  22. Fr. Erik Richtsteig says:

    Oh, and a bishop in a clerical suit with his pectoral cross in his shirt pocket looks too much like a Klingon for my tastes.

    [majQa’!]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  23. Imrahil says:

    Around here, you cannot see bishops without the cassock, nor high-ranking diocesan officials acting in official function.

    The cassock has (in practice) even become somewhat of distinctive of precisely those groups. Although some young priests wear the cassock again, diocesan priests otherwise usually wear formal attire (I mean what dress-codes would call informal attire, not white/black tie), mostly excluding the necktie, with a cross as badge. The collar is becoming more common but was not until recently. Religious priests do wear their habit.

    Bishops, though, wear the cassock. But – that’s our custom. Other countries, other customs. Following a custom, even if on hypothesis it were a an unhelpful or inferior one, is nothing to reproach somebody about, unless the custom would be downright sinful.

    So: Fine by me, as long as it doesn’t break the law. And if it does (though it must be said in favor of our priests that jeans and t-shirt is not common), then also: “fine” would be saying too much, but supervising the clerics is not my job as a layman if you get my drift. (And yes, I do know about called fraternal correction, but that’s something to be approached with caution, especially if about non-essentials.)

    That said, the idea that it’s clericalist in any bad sense to dress as clerics is nonsense and not worth much words. Clerics have any right to wear their clerical garb with all the pride with which soldiers wear their uniform, at least. (Speaking of that, it has happened before that soldiers are sometimes for some reasons ordered to leave barracks in civilian clothing only – seems akin to what the Council of Baltimore did.)

  24. wolfeken says:

    Father Richsteig — excellent comments.

    Personally, this layman tries to dress like a grown up almost every day of the year: long sleeve dress shirt and a real necktie or bowtie.

    I wish all priests and bishops — who have a higher calling than I do — would also dress without shortcuts.

    There is nothing more clerically silly, in my opinion, than seeing a priest wear a short sleeve clerical shirt and a “tab” collar, which is the equivalent of a layman wearing a short sleeve dress shirt and a clip-on tie. That is the attire of Homer Simpson.

  25. frjim4321 says:

    “The only people that have given me a hard time for wearing the cassock have been (older) brother priests (many of whom own more polo shirts than Tommy Hilfiger).” Rev. E.

    I would agree that there is a generational aspect to this. I’ve given a lot of thought to this and I think it has something to do with where a person’s sense of identity is derived. Something in the culture, and I haven’t put my finger on it, has made it very difficult for 20- and 30-somethings to find a sense of identity from within, so they tend to find their identity from external sources. Thus the adoption of antiquarian garb.

    Older generations of priests who may have a more secure understanding of their identity as deriving from interior sources may not feel the need of the “crutch” of anachronistic attire.

    I suspect the experience of older priests being critical of younger priests in this area is due not so much from a dislike of a form of attire (which they themselves may have worn back in the day when it was more acceptable) but from the attitude that such younger priests convey. “I am going to do this right; now you will see what a real priest is supposed to be.” I think it’s the arrogance, and not the fashion, that causes the rift.

  26. Priam1184 says:

    I was born in the 1970s so I confess that both the cassock, but especially the biretta, just look foreign to me. The cassock looks more natural I suppose but the biretta just looks very odd to me. Sorry. Can anyone explain the liturgical purpose of the biretta and from which era in the Church’s history it originated?

  27. Uxixu says:

    Fortescue:

    “Pius IX instituted a kind of undress for prelates, called after him ” habitus pianus.” It consists of a black cloth cassock with no train, reddish facings, a violet belt and ferraiolo, violet stock and stockings. This is now used con- stantly at non-liturgical occasions.” Being after the previous paragraphs describing the normal dress of a bishop as a ‘violet’ cassock with a train and a mozzetta in his own diocese (and on pennace days having the mozzetta and mantellettum of black cloth), it’s easy to perhaps incorrectly infer the more common collared suit as being a further stepping down of decorum.

    I do certainly think a bishop could tactfully and perhaps subtlety lead his diocese clergy, if not laity, with his own dress without edict to that effect.

    Nothing pleases me more than seeing clergy in cassock, though. I want to his kiss his sanctified hands and do whatever I can to aid him in his labors and in gratitude for answering his call to vocation. The collar does that, but not as much as the cassock.

  28. Kathleen10 says:

    To see clergy in a cassock is electrifying, especially the black. The biretta too. It speaks volumes without saying a word. There is utterly no comparison to clergy in short sleeves and informal dress. That makes no sense at all, nor does it for a priest to reject the priestly garb, to me anyway. This is all hard to articulate, but, it is not just appearing to reject the outward representation, but leads one to suspect the inward representations may be rejected as well, as that just seems to follow. Just a personal observation but the clergy I have seen wear informal garb have not impressed me at all. One in particular dressed informally and drove a convertible sports car. He was indistinguishable from anyone else in the world and he must have wanted it that way. What do clergy expect of we the laity. We desperately need outward signs of something unique, wonderful, and supernatural. It ALL matters. The more you throw it away the harder you make it for the sheep to struggle along in an unpredictable world.
    Last week I was at a hospital with my very ill sister. I was trying to catch up to a nurse who had information we needed. On my way I encountered a priest in roman collar. I did not know him. I spontaneously asked him for his blessing, which I very much needed at that moment. He gave me the blessing right there in the middle of the hallway. I felt better. If he did not have his collar on I would have rushed right past him and missed that blessing which did me good. Clergy are like police officers, when you need one you first need to be able to identify him.

  29. Mike says:

    It seems unlikely that the visible and unapologetic witness of a steadily increasing number of young priests and religious will suffer much of a dent from hateful sentiments such as those in frjim4321’s comment. Surely whatever bitterness is engendered among those still wallowing in the delusion of “faithful” apostasy will be more than compensated for by the salvation of even one soul who, but for the sight of a servant of Christ in a habit or cassock, would never have awakened from its oblivion.

    May all who visibly bear Word and sacrament be showered with eternal rewards — and may Our Lord send us many more to snatch self-deluded souls like mine from the brink of Hell.

  30. midwestmom says:

    Our parish priest wore shorts, plaid shirt and sandals under his cassock yesterday.

  31. jhayes says:

    The biretta seems to have become a more widely used as an ecclesiastical vestment after the synod of Bergamo, 1311, ordered the clergy to wear the “bireta on their heads after the manner of laymen.”[1]

    From the Wikipedia article on “Biretta”

  32. JuliB says:

    To me it seems like a way to witness when someone who is a priest or bishop looks like a priest or bishop.

    FrJim – I think your comment is a little outdated! What we wear doesn’t give us our identity in order to reinforce it in ourselves but rather to signal to other people – even subconsciously. Personally, I spend a lot of money and use a personal shopper at Nordstrom’s to be perceived in a certain way. I deal with clients 100% of the time and need to strike a balance between dressing with authority and not looking too fashion-conscious or expensive. My personal shopper mentioned that I don’t buy casual wear. I am not trying to evoke any reaction in people when I’m on my own time so care very little about what I wear. (Disclaimer – I try to dress neatly and conservatively when attending Mass although I would prefer to wear a Tee and shorts.)

    Our ‘uniform’ is important and to suggest otherwise indicates that one is unaware of the importance in how others perceive us.

  33. msmsem says:

    Fr. Jim: “Something in the culture, and I haven’t put my finger on it, has made it very difficult for 20- and 30-somethings to find a sense of identity from within, so they tend to find their identity from external sources. Thus the adoption of antiquarian garb.

    Older generations of priests who may have a more secure understanding of their identity as deriving from interior sources may not feel the need of the “crutch” of anachronistic attire.”

    Or… perhaps 20- and 30-somethings allow the sense of vocation to pervade throughout their being so that it “overflows” even to their externals? I concur, it is ideal for priests – particularly older ones – to be secure enough in their priestly identity so as not to need any crutch whatsoever, but I think it may be somewhat of a leap to say that therefore older priests should “graduate” to not needing the externals.

    Put it this way: how would you respond to a married man who spends time with attractive women and hardly speaks to his wife but claims that he has “a more secure understanding of [his married] identity as deriving from interior sources” and thus does “not feel the need of the ‘crutch'” of external signs of affection or significant quality time with his wife? Or is the young, newly-married man who calls or texts his wife “I love you” every hour simply immature and insecure in his vocation? Perhaps it is the same with these “20- and 30-something priests”; they simply love their vocation so much that they embrace it at every opportunity they get.

    Also – when you say “antiquarian” and “anachronistic” do you mean “traditional”? What’s wrong with traditional?

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