ASK FATHER: Shoulder cape on cassocks for priests

simar cassockFrom a priest:

A priest in the olden days was permitted to wear such a shoulder cape (look at pics of St Don Bosco – [A founder of a religious order]) and it was built together as a simar cassock, as you know. As you also know the simar cassock was abrogated by Pope Paul VI with the reforms. So prelates just used their house cassock and attached a shoulder cape to it, so as to manifest their jurisdiction or authority as a solution to the abrogation of the simar (I got all this info from William James Noonan’s book on customs and dress in the Church) I wear a shoulder cape from time to time, but ALL BLACK not the monsignor-ish types with colors which bespeaks authority. [Purple and red are not signs of authority.  Simple secular priests are pastors and can be administrators of dioceses.]  A priest who saw me once wearing the plain black shoulder cape told me I shouldn’t because shoulder capes NOW are only for those who hold jurisdictional authority of sorts.

I consulted with some of my priest friends and they basically told me that just to “ignore” Paul VI reforms and just wear one if I wish. One even told me that since there is not a strict document “explaining” the “purpose” per se of the shoulder cape by the Vatican then he will keep using it even though he bears no jurisdictional authority.

I would hope I can get a better answer and hopefully a quote of sorts from Vatican or at least to have evidence of its doubt so that i can comfortably continue to wear it from time to time even though I bear no jurisdictional authority or office. Can you help me?

A simar is sometimes used to describe a cassock with a pellegrina (elbow length cape).  However, usually, even with the shoulder cape, they are just called cassocks.

In the legislation about ecclesiastical dress, there is very little to go on for diocesan priests.  The Directory for Ministry and the Life of Priests clearly indicates that the default dress for the priest worldwide is the cassock.  The Directory also says that conferences can approve other dress, in addition to the cassock.  That’s important in places hostile to the Catholic Church.

So, we enter into some ambiguity.  Cassock can mean just the cassock without the pellegrina or with the pellegrina.  There is no agreement on this among various writers and there is nothing definitive in any Church document.

Another element which must be taken into consideration is the shabby way that many priests dress.  I’m not talking just about when they wash their car or go to a ballgame or zip off to the hardware store on an errand.  I mean when they are in their parishes or at official functions.  Look at a group of priests and you will see quite a few variations of dress without any reference to custom or decorum.  Some of them never learned how to dress properly, alas, because they were in formation when all the libs churlishly thought that this stuff was both outdated and beneath them.

I am all for reintroducing decorum among our clerical brethren.

As far as I am concerned, go ahead and wear the cassock with the pellegrina.

Really, in the midst of the chaos we are all now caused to embrace, who cares?   I wouldn’t put on any strips of color that you shouldn’t wear, however.  Stick to black.

Of course there is the old custom that priests ordained by the Roman Pontiff were privileged to have red buttons on their cassocks, just buttons, not piping, etc.  You weren’t ordained by the Pope were you?  You could add a dash of color, even though that might puzzle some people.  (I’d dig mine out of storage, but I wouldn’t be able to get into it: the darn things shrink!)

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    “Cassock can mean just the cassock without the pellegrina or with the pellegrina. There is no agreement on this among various writers and there is nothing definitive in any Church document.” Libertas praesumitur, nonne? But, as for dressing in a pope-ordained-me manner? Meh. Analogy: among us lay folks, it’s fun for a few to mention “the bishop baptized me”, but it shouldn’t be touted in one’s First Communion gear or wedding dress.

  2. Dr. Peters: Right. But… I’m sure you know what you call a priest who was ordained by the Pope… right?

    [Highlight for answer below]


  3. jbazchicago says:

    Please, never, EVER go to Noonan as a reliable source. There are too many errors and he makes too many presumptions. I would recommend using Nainfa (which is scarce, but I think someone photocopied his book and put it on line). He is entirely reliable, and he cites all sources (ecclesiastical documents. [He’s one author. You like him. Great.]

    My understanding from Nainfa is that a simar is distinct from a cassock. A simar was a type of “lounging gown” primarily for warmth which is why a simar has an oversleeve (barely visible) and then shouldercape (which should never be detachable). This is why it was silly for the 1969 Reforms of Ecclesiastical Dress to remove the oversleeve. The simar customarily never has vestments over it. You will see a few pics of Pope Benedict (who did make use of the oversleeve for his entire pontificate) when, as pope he wore his white cassock and NOT the simar, because there was no shouldercape or oversleeve, so it wasn’t an issue of him just detaching it.

    As someone who knows a bit about tailoring, a detachable shoulder cape would never “look right” The “Almy and Co” solution with the extra buttons looks silly and cheap. House of Hansen cleverly has little hooks that aren’t visible all around the neck.

    My opinion as a layman is …. [That’s where we stop ….]

  4. benedictgal says:

    Fr. Z:

    What about the magenta socks for monsignors? Were these suppressed? [Not for the fancier monsignors.]

  5. jbazchicago says:

    Ut Sive Sollicite
    1969 in Latin (or if you must, English)
    (or the working title, “Traditio delenda est” )

    [Doesn’t apply to priests.]

  6. gracie says:

    Our Monsignor used to wear a fuchsia sash. It looked really cool.

  7. papaefidelis says:

    As far as I know, the “forthcoming legislation” promised in section 35 of Ut Sive Sollicite (regarding the dress of Canons, Pastors, and holders of benefices) is still, 46 years later, “forthcoming”. Is my understanding correct? I am hoping that this forthcoming document will grant to pastors the right to wear the rochet and mantelleta. That’d be SWEET!

  8. IPSB says:

    The red buttons for priests ordained by the Roman Pontiff, just out of curiosity, would it apply if one were ordained by the Roman Pontiff before his election? [Nope.]

  9. rdb says:

    I was living in Rome when Pope Benedict was elected and for the first week after his election he wore the cassock without the shoulder cape. It caused quite a stir among my priest friends from England. They told me that English priests were allowed to wear the shoulder cape because of Bl. Pope Pius IX. When the hierarchy was re-established, the bishops supposedly asked the pope what the priests would wear. He said, “You will dress how I dress,” implying a white cassock with the shoulder cape Explaining to him the cold and rainy weather experienced there, the good pope supposedly replied, “Well, you wear what I wear, but in black.” I don’t know how true that story is, but I always remember the English priests experiencing mild panic imagining that Pope Benedict was doing away with the shoulder cape and thereby doing away with it for English priests as well. It was probably just a tailoring delay, but there was great relief among the clergy from England when he started wearing the cape again.

  10. Cantor says:

    What about the magenta socks for monsignors? Were these suppressed?
    [Not for the fancier monsignors.]

    Thank heavens! Gregory Peck would never have been so amusing in grey socks! (The Grey and the Black? Blechh.)

  11. Burke says:

    What do you call a priest ordained by the Pope? Father :-)

  12. Fr_Sotelo says:

    I do not get the fear, panic, and trembling of the traditional clergy over whether their cassock or shoulder cape offends or breaks some arcane, Roman precept. Seriously, is this the year 1911? Meanwhile, the liberal, dissenting clergy will show up to the Chrism Mass in a TommyBahama shirt and sandals, without the slightest worry or trembling over whether they are “going to get in trouble.” [Yep. Pretty much my point.]

    Just put on the stupid shoulder cape and be done with it, man of God. I dress in whatever cassock, lacy surplice, or sacred raiment it pleases me to wear, and if the bishop or another priest doesn’t like it, I tell them to call 911 and have me arrested. LOL.

  13. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Buttons for papal ordained priests – that’s a nice portable, cheap privilege. You can always take the buttons off a cassock that’s gotten too small, and put the buttons on the new cassock (assuming the buttons fit the buttonholes on both), or you can buy new red buttons and sew them on a standard cassock (although that might not be so cheap, depending on the kind of red buttons).

  14. Elizabeth M says:

    Sigh. I just wish priests would not “dress down” so I could recognize him and say a quick prayer for him when I see him. Such foolishness to think that people are intimidated by the cassock and if they are, maybe it’s good to put a little “fear o’ the Lord” in you! It’s just as much for him as it is for us. Soldiers wear uniforms, right?

    As for the pellegrina I think it looks like a really cool super hero type cape. So do my impressionable boys.

  15. PapalCount says:

    It is not my understanding that Blessed Paul VI abolished the simar. Our bishop wears a simar — the cape is not detachable from the cassock. Indeed, it would seem that the simar is worn still by all or most prelates — non detachable cape.

    Referring to another person commenting above….monsignors of all ranks still wear the magenta sash as do bishops. Cardinals of course are scarlet.

    In our diocese at the Cathedral a deacon wears a black cassock with the cape.

  16. jhayes says:

    In the United States, the USCCB has a “Complementary Norm” with recognitio from Rome:

    Complementary Norm: 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 liturgical 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.


  17. SummerMarigold says:

    Red buttons! How interesting. My pastor was ordained by Pope John Paul II and his 25th anniversary is coming up next year. Certainly something to consider as a gift! Maybe it would push him to wear a cassock some? [I’d check with him first. It’s a Roman tradition and a little obscure. It could cause some puzzled expressions.]

  18. Rev. Paul L. Vasquez says:

    Ut Sive Sollicite is an interesting document. It does not explicitly talk about priests (which papaefidelis cites correctly in paragraph 35 (“Canonicorum, Beneficiariorum Parochorumque vestes et titulos”, so canons are also omitted in addition to the pastor (parochus). It is also an instruction, not a law itself, although it is an instruction that was approved by the Holy Father in the presence of the great Cardinal Cicognani. Whether this counts like the modern “in forma specifica” without that explicitly being in the document would take an Ed Peters to figure out. Moreover this instruction was issued before the New Code (long before) so how an instruction was to be interpreted at that time, when no canon existed (like the modern Code’s canon 34), I know not and Ed Peters would again have to weigh in.

    Modern instructions are tied to specific laws. What happened to old Instructions when the new Code came into existence, I also know nothing. It seems unlikely that it ceased to have force when the new Code came into existence, but I have no idea whether they were considered laws in the sense of can. 6, sec. 1, num. 2 or whether this one would be considered contradictory or whether it would have been abrogated by other provision of can 6 or some other canon or interpretive principle.

    If, however, it is still in force as such, we have the general principle of canon 19 that if a custom or express prescript of universal or particular law is lacking (often called a “lacuna”) a case must be resolved by laws issued in similar manner (among other criteria). Thus, in this case, although as Fr. Z said Ut Sive Sollicitude does not apply to priests directly, it is one of the things that must be consulted in figuring out what a priest does with his own attire since there is a lacuna, or even, it must be said, of a pope emeritus trying to figure out what he wears.

    Since it was explained at the time that Benedict was no longer wearing the pellegrina because it signified jurisdiction which he no longer held, I’m going to go with that, i.e. I think the Pope emeritus is speaking of a traditionally held notion of the usage of the pellegrina and what it means.
    Since Ut Sive Sollicitude kept the pellegrina for cardinals and bishops but not for the monsignori (“sine palliolo”), the former Pope’s interpretation seems in keeping with the documents.

  19. edm says:

    I did not know about the custom of priests ordained by the pope having the privilege of the red buttons. What I had been told many years ago was that there was rather different practice. It consists of those priests making use of a WHITE topmost button on their cassocks. Has anyone ever heard of this or seen it in practice? [Now that you mention it, this rings a bell. Variation on a theme, perhaps regional.]

  20. Grabski says:

    The Graham Greene novella Monsignor Quixote revolves around a country priest in Spain who is named a Monsignor after an encounter with a visiting curial bishop. He goes on a road trip with a communist friend to purchase the red socks whichrepresent his new rank. [I remember that! Sir Alec Guinness and … Rumpole.]

  21. gjp says:

    The mention of Sir Alec Guinness on this forum made me think of his conversion to Catholicism, and his role in a film of a priest which put him on the road to conversion. This article sums it up well:

  22. Per Signum Crucis says:

    I like the idea of regional variations: so UK (and US) priests could have alternate red, white and blue buttons; Irish priests could have green buttons…

  23. gjp says:

    And for what its worth, when Alec Guinness dressed like a priest to portray Father Brown, he dressed like this:

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