In praise of the cassock from an unexpected source

The cassock is the proper garb of the Roman priest.  It is true that conferences to bishops can determine other forms of garb for priests, such as the black suit and Roman or military collar (or in Italy also dark blue and gray), but the cassock remains the proper garb of the priest.

Since the Councils of Baltimore, in the USA, as in England, it was not the custom of Catholic priests to go about the world in the cassock.  They used the cassock at home and while engaged in their ministry, but at other times they were to wear, back in the day, the frock coat and some sort of clerical collar or neckcloth.  So, in the USA priests of a certain age have it pretty much drilled into them that the cassock is not proper “street attire”.

That seems to be changing.  The strictures of the Council of Baltimore don’t seem to apply anymore.  There aren’t a lot of frock coats around nowadays anyway, though I knew a priest who had one…. and wore it.  Younger priests today seem quite willing to use the cassock as street attire.  Times are a changin’

On that note, I read an interesting by our friends at Rorate, which I share with added emphases.

From what used to be, until 1991, the official daily of the Italian Communist Party, L’Unità, founded by Antonio Gramsci in 1924:

The Cassock
The Church has been for quite some time strenuously defending herself from a media-driven movement that has turned on the lights on the phenomenon of the erotic activities and aberrations of the clergy. And it is not only about the horrors of pedophilia, but also red-light feasts, orgies, and clandestine sorties of every kind. Abandoning the cassock and wearing civilian clothes, many priests have gone from the sacred onto the secular in no time. I ask a friend who writes for this paper, Father Filippo Di Giacomo, if it would not be more appropriate, for him and for his jolly colleagues, to renounce walking around in civilian clothes and go back to wearing the long habit of the priest. It would not be embarrassing to wear it, on the contrary, it would be a sign of respect for the Catholic community and would even have the power of eliminating any ambiguity. It is hard to recognize a priest from a fellow in a shirt: we are in the presence of a deception, at least at the semiotic level. My friend Di Giacomo should throw his “lay” habits out of the window and launch an appeal to all priests in the world that it be forbidden to wear anything except for two cassocks: one of wool for winter, and one of cotton for summer. This will certainly not deter the truly possessed from eros, but will keep at bay the profusion of numerous, small daily corruptions. It is said, in general that “l’abito non fa il monaco” [“the habit does not a monk make”], but it is not thus for the Church: the habit must make the monk. Catholicism, as other religions, lives off of symbols, of rites, of chastity, of foundational and unrenounceable values, of faithfulness to doctrine, of rigorous obedience to priestly rules. The cassock, at the simple sight, conveys to us all this: much spirit and little flesh. A priest who replaces his cassock with plains clothes gives up the spirit, as it were.

August 15, 2011 [Vincenzo Cerami]

Perhaps the Council for the New Evangelization could issue a statement about the cassock.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Legisperitus says:

    “Semiotic deception” — that says it all right there!

  2. danphunter1 says:

    I have a Frock Coat and wear it occasionally to Mass. [You are not a priest.]

  3. AnAmericanMother says:

    The communists must still be sore about Don Camillo disguising himself as a party member and infiltrating a tour to Russia.
    Comrade Don Camillo

  4. Andy Milam says:

    It’s something that makes a lot of sense….and something that should be done.

    It’s not often you’ll hear me agree with a commie, but in this instance…


    When it comes to priestly attire…and attitudes.

  5. shane says:

    I could be wrong about this, but isn’t it still technically illegal to wear the Roman cassock in public in England (and also Mexico)?

  6. danphunter1 says:

    No it isn’t anymore.

  7. priests wife says:

    Father- does it say something in canon law about priests wearing something ‘priest-like’ while engaging in secular activities such as sports or grocery shopping? The priests I have known (about 5) who have left the priesthood for various reasons seemed to wear ‘normal’ clothing a lot.

  8. AAJD says:

    I know a Ukrainian Catholic priest who for thirty years has gone everywhere, including the grocery store, in his cassock, riassa, and pectoral cross. He says he occasionally gets stares, very rarely a complaint or snide comment, but overwhelmingly most reactions are positive reactions, including several instances of people who, striking up a conversation, ended up asking to go to Confession right there in the vegetable or cereal aisle!

  9. newtrad says:

    I attend an FSSP parish, so we are accustomed to seeing the cassock worn. What is really refreshing is the fact that I recently attended an event at the local Cathedral in Lincoln, NE and many of the seminarians of the diocese were wearing them too! We love the man-dresses!

  10. Rob Cartusciello says:

    I detect the fingerprints of Peppone all over this article.

  11. APX says:

    @danphunter1 & @Father Z,

    I have a Frock Coat and wear it occasionally to Mass. [You are not a priest.]

    I too have a frock coat. I wear it in the winter when wearing my parka would be too casual, thus I too occasionally wear it to Mass.

    There are different styles of frock coats, both for men and women too, so perhaps the frock coat danphunter1 is referring to, as is the one I have, is of the non-clerical type.

    On the note of priests wearing cassocks, I’d just settle right now on priests wearing clerical clothing. It’s such a rarity in my diocese, that about a month ago I almost rear-ended the car in front of me when I was shocked to see an older priest walking down the sidewalk in his clerical suit. I know the bishop and the new young priests here wear their clerical suits, and my friend who’s still a deacon always seems to be wearing his when I see him in the most random places, but other than that, the priests I see out and about are always in regular clothing. It makes it difficult and awkward to approach them about Catholic things.

    There is something about a cassock that just screams “Catholic” over clerical suits, though.

  12. Biedrik says:

    Just out of curiosity, but what do we have to show that what the Council of Baltimore said doesn’t apply much anymore? A trend among priests does not exactly seem to be what would define such a thing. Now I’d like for cassocks to be the main garb of priests, but if the council is still significant…

  13. AnAmericanMother says:

    Well, if it comes to that, I have a frock coat too . . . for fox hunting. A bit uncomfortable and the skirts are very flappy, but one must suffer to be beautiful. :-D

  14. Elizabeth D says:

    My two pastors are dedicated cassock wearers. The younger one (33yo) puts his on at home and walks to church (down State Street in Madison, WI) wearing it, the older one (50 I think) walks to church in clerical garb and then puts the cassock on at church. I practically never see them in secular garb unless doing yard work or something. The younger one led a pilgrimage to the Holy Land last summer, and boasted that he wore his wool cassock even when it was 105 degrees. Pilgrimages aren’t supposed to be too comfy. On the other hand I am not sure anyone was ever canonized for being a cassock heatstroke martyr. Though, that seems to have been the cause of death for the beautiful Servant of God Fr Augustine Tolton of Chicago, following a long foot journey coming home from a priests’ retreat.

  15. teaguytom says:

    The only reason priests were made to wear frock coats and clerical suits was to not attract attention of the anti-catholics in the anglo world. I could that as possibly being good during the time of the KKK groups, but they are mostly in a minority now. Wearing the cassock would make the priest stand out and represent the Church on the street. My priest wears his cassock on the street, to Church picnics etc. Its not like we still have racist wasps wearing sheets beating Catholic immigrants.

  16. dcs says:

    Just out of curiosity, but what do we have to show that what the Council of Baltimore said doesn’t apply much anymore?

    Let’s see. Matrimonial banns are no longer required to be published. Confirmation sponsors no longer must be of the same sex as the confirmands. Profane melodies are no longer forbidden in church. Dispensations for mixed marriages are much more common than the Councils commanded. Seminarians are no longer required to learn to speak and write Latin. The prohibition of secular priests wearing facial hair no longer is no longer enforced. Priests are not even required to wear the cassock on church grounds (many don’t even bother to put on a cassock to celebrate Mass). Parochial schools are not free (though admittedly the Council only said that this was “desirable”). Gregorian chant is not required to be taught in schools, nor are parishes required to celebrate Sunday Vespers.

    The list goes on and on. I don’t think one can argue that a priest’s attire is strictly regulated by the Plenary Councils when so many of their decrees have been ignored for so long.

  17. Mark R says:

    FWIW, Gramsci wrote that the priest and the nun are workers too.

  18. In 17 years as a priest, the only negative comments I have received about wearing a cassock have come from a couple of bishops and fellow priests. Well, and one angry feminist ex-nun who used to be a NCCB staffer. The people like it, especially when I am travelling.

  19. Biedrik says:

    Thank you dcs, that’s very useful. Well, this seminarian is now happy to know that one day he might be able to wear the cassock everywhere.

  20. robertotankerly says:

    I just did a post over at PopSophia called “Celebrating the Prosaic” about how it’s the seemingly little things which really count. People often underestimate the good in all those little rituals we Catholics used to do. You know, the ones the “Hokey Pokey” make fun of?

    Stuff like Holy Water, the Sign of the Cross, preferring to say “Our Lord” and “Our Lady,” putting crucifixes over doorways, saying grace, priests wearing cassocks in their jurisdiction, kissing your bishop’s ring. Every one of them has the ability to transmit grace, converting ones life from the bottom up. Of course, this makes them sacramentals, and they flow out of a life lived in the Sacraments proper.

    Nevertheless, it is all these little rules and rituals, based on reason and faith working together, which help us to live a life permeated by Christ and his life.

  21. I never take off my wedding ring. Why would a priest not want to be visibly committed to his state in life?

  22. Papabile says:

    This is the way we know the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore no longer applies to the dress of a cleric:

    Decree of Promulgation

    On November 18, 1998, the Latin Rite de iure members of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops approved complementary legislation for canon 284 of the Code of Canon Law for the Latin Rite dioceses of the United States.

    The action was granted recognitio by the Congregation for Bishops in accord with article 82 of the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus and issued by Decree of the Congregation for Bishops signed by His Eminence Lucas Cardinal Moreira Neves, Prefect, and His Excellency Most Reverend Franciscus Monterisi, Secretary, and dated September 29, 1999.

    The National Conference of Catholic Bishops, in accord with the prescriptions of canon 284, hereby decrees that without prejudice to the provisions of canon 288, clerics are to dress in conformity with their sacred calling.

    In liturgical rites, clerics shall wear the vesture prescribed in the proper liturgicad books. Outside liturgical functions, a black suit and Roman collar are the usual attire for priests. The use of the cassock is at the discretion of the cleric.

    In the case of religious clerics, the determinations of their proper institutes or societies are to be observed with regard to wearing the religious habit.

    As President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, I hereby decree that the effective date of this decree for all the Latin Rite dioceses in the United States will be December 1, 1999.

    Given at the offices of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, DC, on November 1, 1999.

    Reverend Joseph A. Fiorenza
    Bishop Of Galveston-Houston
    President, NCCB

    Reverend Monsignor Dennis M. Schnurr
    General Secretary

  23. benedetta says:

    This writer too would appreciate the cappa magna, by same reasoning.

  24. Subdeacon Joseph says:

    While the use of the cassock is up to the individual cleric I know of several bishops who frown on it being worn as normal attire. I actually know of one priest who was severely reprimanded by an archbishop who will go unnamed because the priest wore his cassock all the time. If a bishop is a modernest in regards to clerical attire he should at a minimum leave a priest alone for exercising his own discretion as a cleric.

  25. SonofMonica says:

    Subdeacon Joseph: what kind of crazy, mixed up world are we living in when priests and laity must strive to be Catholic in spite of their bishop? Why are bishops seemingly the least likely to spread the gospel and the most likely to lord power through means of fear? Can we honestly say that any apostles acted like that?

  26. Centristian says:

    While I certainly wouldn’t object to the sight of a secular priest wearing a cassock as street attire, I would, at the same time, find it to be just a bit over the top. The black suit and clerical collar do the trick well enough without causing bewilderment. That having been said, I always appreciate it when I see a priest wearing his cassock in church. That is as it should be. I also prefer to see a priest officiating (say at a Baptism) in cassock, surplice, and stole rather than in alb and stole. Often when I do encounter a priest in cassock in church (which is unfortunately rare), it’s a younger monsignor who no doubt wants to get some use out of the purple-trimmed cassock he had to shell out a king’s ransom for when he received the honor.

    I have to say I really haven’t encountered cause for the complaint that some have that “the clergy never dress like clergy at all anymore.” That has not been my experience. I have only very rarely encountered a priest in any sort of an ecclesiastical environment who was not wearing clergy attire. Catholic priests almost always wear a black tab-collar clergy shirt (usually from RJ Toomey or CM Almy) with black dress pants, whether in the confessional, in the rectory, at the hospital, or at the parish lawn fete.

    Working in the Chancery of my diocese, I do notice that priests working in the Chancery (or visiting the Chancery) opt for a somewhat more formal look: no tab-collars; instead they wear a full Roman collar with a black clerical vest or vestfront over white french cuff shirts (all within the context of a black suit, of course). Same for the bishop and the auxiliary bishops, but with a pectoral cross chain visible.

    Every once in a while I’ll encounter a priest wearing something a little different…perhaps a pale blue tab-collar shirt with khakis…something like that. I think that’s fine, incidentally, for things like lawn fetes or barbeques or excursions or other “lighter” occasions for which sombre black may seem a bit heavy. Stick to black while “on duty,” though. It’s what people expect.

    I’m not one of those who thinks the clergy should be expected to wear clergy attire in any and every circumstance, though. If a priest, for example, is on the golf course, out to dinner with friends, at a family reunion, grocery shopping, gardening, or is otherwise engaged in some completely mundane activity, I personally imagine no need for him to wear any clerical attire at all.

    Wear a cassock in church, though.

  27. dcs says:

    The black suit and clerical collar do the trick well enough without causing bewilderment.

    Except that Protestant ministers sometimes wear them too. It’s a rare Protestant that will wear a cassock out on the street! So the cassock plus the biretta will help alleviate this confusion.

  28. Jack Hughes says:

    “I’m not one of those who thinks the clergy should be expected to wear clergy attire in any and every circumstance, though”-Celestian

    I disagree; the Cassock is a witness to the Priest at the altar Christus, a Religious Sister I know who always wears her habit has told me on multiple occasions how good people (even if they arn’t Catholic) feel when they see her in habit. She also said that his proven to be a conversation starter (perhaps the begining of a conversion?) with people.

  29. danphunter1 says:

    I have been told by several priests that wearing the cassock is actually more comfortable than wearing clerical suits.

  30. Centristian says:

    “Except that Protestant ministers sometimes wear them too. It’s a rare Protestant that will wear a cassock out on the street!”

    It’s just as rare a Catholic priest that will wear one on the street. It’s something I have only seen priests of the SSPX do, to be honest, and not even all of them do it.

    I don’t think the point of clergy attire is to distinguish between denominations, but between clergy and laity. Our priests, bear in mind, are not wearing the same attire as Protestant ministers, rather, those ministers are dressed like Catholic priests. And, of course, priests shouldn’t be expected to change what they traditionally wear in public just because they’re being mimicked.

    One can usually tell the difference between a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister, though, despite the similarities in their attire. An Episcopalian clergyman almost always has the full collar showing, and is often wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches; a Lutheran pastor often has khaki pants on with his clerical shirt; and Catholic priests are instantly recognizable by their unbuttoned collar with the white tab hanging out of one side. :^)

  31. danphunter1 says:

    “…seen priests of the SSPX do, to be honest, and not even all of them do it.”

    Most FSSP priests and IBP priests wear their cassock all the time.
    We had an IBP priest stay with our family for a week and Fr wore a good “nicer” cassock when he was out and about, and a more faded older one around our home.

  32. Papabile says:

    The cassock is becoming much more common in my diocese of Arlington. I’ve now run into three Priests at the grpocery store or out and about in the last year in cassock.

    The issue of the color of clericals really is relevant though. The black is to remind one of death to this world and preparation for the next. It is assistive to both the Priest himself, and the congregants who are reminded that we all die and we should be focused on the next world.

  33. benedetta says:

    Centristian, that seems about right. Although also I think the original writer was in Italy, and so I think he was reflecting on, cassock versus street clothing when in public, not, clerical suit and collar versus cassock. Though I expect it can be trying for our priests and religious in clerical and collar or habit generally these days.

  34. dcs says:

    I don’t think the point of clergy attire is to distinguish between denominations

    That’s one point of it.

    but between clergy and laity.

    Protestant ministers are laity, so priests should wear something that is (a) traditional and (b) distinct from what Protestant ministers wear on the street.

    Our priests, bear in mind, are not wearing the same attire as Protestant ministers

    Sure they are. If I dress like a football player in imitation of a football player, then that player is wearing the same attire as I am.

    And, of course, priests shouldn’t be expected to change what they traditionally wear in public just because they’re being mimicked.

    I believe this is begging the question. I don’t think that the black business suit can be described as traditional priestly attire. And I think one can speculate that the Plenary Council decided to adopt this sort of attire so that Catholic priests would not stand out quite so much outside of their parishes. That was a different era, though.

  35. HoyaGirl says:

    Our current parochial administrator has been at our parish for over a year. I have never seen him in anything but a cassock. I think it’s the epitome of reverence for his vocation, and it never fails to make me smile, to pray for him, and to thank God for our dedicated priests.

  36. Springkeeper says:

    A cassock is an awesome looking outfit (although as a recent convert, I do think of the Matrix sometimes, but I digress). It is an outfit that not only lets the world know that here is walking a Priest of the Most High God and but also that he is proud to be one. What a refreshing change of pace. Baptist ministers are extremely proud of what they do, why shouldn’t the priests of Christ’s Church be less so?

    Living down south I have seen for myself the animus that priests can face from some of the bigots down here. One furious man had to be physically restrained to keep him from going after a priest dressed in clerical garb (not even a cassock).

  37. benedetta says:

    When traveling in the southern U.S. or in other parts of the world observing religious in habit also traveling through I have only seen people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike be quite respectful and gracious. One also hears frequently that priests when traveling are routinely asked for the sacrament of confession or just to talk things through. So even if once in a great while a priest may have to deal with some misunderstanding or bitterness (as Archbishop Dolan recounted on his blog happened once — once, only one time, in many years of priesthood and travel) the fact that the vast majority find priests and religious in habit approachable is the best reason for them to continue. Though it’s also true that in totalitarian regimes that have prohibited religious worship or in the case of priests imprisoned or threatened for performing priestly responsibilities that may be a persecution but is not finally able to wipe out people’s faith and nor can ever do anything to change or alter priestly character.

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