ASK FATHER: When could priests wear casual attire?

From a reader…


In the United States, I imagine you would agree, it is not uncommon to see priests in very casual attire. Under what circumstances (if any) would the traditional modus operandi allow for dressing down (i.e. not wearing a cassock)? A private gathering of family and friends? The morning grocery run? Never?

It’s complicated.

The fact is that wearing the cassock out and about was not the custom for priests in the USA.  The Council of Baltimore legislated that priests were not to use the cassock as their regular street dress, but rather the frock coat (like today’s suit).  They wore the cassock around the parish grounds, church, campus, etc.  So, right away, there is a slight distancing in US clerical culture from the cassock as daily wear out and about.

However, a generation of priests pretty much shattered decorum and quite a lot of the good aspects of clerical culture.   Thus, today, younger priests are not plugged into the ways of their predecessors.   I, for example, had the advantage when I came into the Church of being around priests who were quite a bit older, ordained in the 1940’s.  In their company I picked up a lot of lore and their ways.  So, even today I tend not to wear the cassock when out and around in the USA and I don’t sport a beard or jewelry, etc.   Yes, sometimes I’ll have the cassock on when doing something, but it is not too often.  Where I am, however, quite a few of the younger priests are wearing the cassock all day.

Non-clerical attire?   Sure.  If I have to wash the car or run an errand or go to the grocery store, I don’t feel compelled to wear clerical clothing.  If I am in an informal group of friends, I’ll not dress in clerics.  Or maybe I will, depending on what I’ve been up to before hand.   I’ve also been using my “clerical BDU” style, of 5.11 pants and clerically modified shirts.  Super practical.

We are getting to a point where priests probably should use the cassock when going around.  It is highly counter-cultural.  The witness could be necessary.  I know that any number of priests will confirm that when you wear the cassock, quite a few people notice and express gratitude and interest.




About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    I have been asked for prayers, given people blessings, and given counsel in the market, restaurants, Walmart and many other public places because of my cassock. For me it has become like my skin. When I was ordained, I was often criticized by older priests for wearing it, not so much today.

  2. SAP says:

    From what I have read, Council of Baltimore only permitted wearing clothes other than cassocks, it didn’t ban cassocks on the streets… According to some, this was permitted because of Protestant attacks on Catholic clergy…

    [It is as I wrote. The Third Council of Baltimore in 1884 prescribed cassock for rectory, church, etc. and the frock coat for outside. The frock coat morphed into the regular suit. As a matter of fact, the prescriptions probably were in force until the 1983 Code’s can. 284, laid down that bishop’s conferences established garb in accord with local custom. I suppose that means today that the frock coat could make a comeback. I know one priest who did, in fact wear the frock coat, may he rest in peace.]

  3. Philmont237 says:

    But it’s so hard to wear a powder blue sweater vest in a cassock!

  4. Josephus Corvus says:

    And there are some instances where one might recommend NOT wearing the cassock for other reasons: See 0:36. I’m actually surprised that the safety supervisor on site let Abbe’ George go up there with his cassock on. Personally, I wouldn’t be up there…period.

    When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, our priest would wear his cassock when he was doing something liturgical or teaching religion at the school. He would wear his black shirt / collar when he was in meetings, administrative work, or going about town. The only time I ever saw him in jeans and a flannel shirt was when he was cutting the lawn or fixing the boiler. (Yes, he actually went out and got the training / license so he could save the parish money by doing the work himself.) Now, we have a priest who wears his casual clothes under his “limited” vestments on weekday Masses.

  5. HvonBlumenthal says:

    Five years ago I offered my barn for use to the SSPX as a chapel here in Luxembourg. To convert the use it was necessary to demolish interior walls and reconstruct.
    Priests arrived in working cassocks, armed with enormous sledgehammers. With the sweat of their brow they did the demolition, and on their hands and knees built a sacristy and the altar steps. The altar itself, as well as the confessional and pulpit were donations, unloaded by toiling priests and a few faithful volunteers (mostly teenagers).
    In a mere 5 weeks the chapel was ready for its first Mass.
    All this was done by priests who never under any circumstances wear anything other than a cassock.

  6. Il Ratzingeriano says:

    The FSSP priests at my parish go about everywhere wearing the cassock (I had assumed that this is the norm for FSSP priests) and it completely delights me. Nothing announces louder that the Catholic Church in all her otherness is still here.

  7. Greg Hlatky says:

    Chicago street scenes, 1934:

    At about 13:00 there’s a scene of clerics in broadcloth suits arriving at Cardinal Mundelein’s residence.

  8. WmHesch says:

    Now to revive the tonsure among secular clergy (in non-Anglophonic countries, it was about the size of a traditional priest’s host). It’s the most ancient mark of a cleric, and most importantly- can’t be taken off at will: neither in persecution, nor in sin.

  9. tho says:

    Recently I saw two nuns in traditional habits at Walmart, it really warmed my heart.

  10. MitisVis says:

    When could priests wear casual attire? Apparently priests, bishops and even cardinals can get comfortable if they attend a PF synod
    I’d just like to mention that I’ve seen pride in our Church, hope and comfort given, attitudes changed, crowds calmed and even courage given under fire just by the sight of a collar or cassock. No words were even spoken.

  11. Kathleen10 says:

    Just reading these comments made me really stop for a moment and try to imagine what it must be like to belong to a church that embraces it’s true identity and isn’t doing all it can to destroy it, which now is really hard to remember and imagine. This is really sad, it must be so wonderful and I can’t imagine anymore what that must be like! We have already battled so long.
    Thank you to all who wear and value the cassock. The full habit and the cassock are just the most powerful witness to Catholicism. Catholicism is so beautiful, how terrible those who should most love it don’t love it at all.

  12. djc says:

    When my wife and I were at Grand Portage State Park in Minnesota this summer we spoke with a van full of young nuns in full habits. It was electric for everyone there. They were so friendly and inspiring. And yes the full habits were ever so dynamic.

  13. Matthew says:

    There is a Greek Orthodox church in my city and I occasionally see their priests out and about in cassocks (or whatever the Greek Orthodox use as a cassock). I sat next to their Bishop on a flight to Tampa and he was in his clericals as well with the appropriate headgear.

    I’m pleased to see them, I’d be pleased to see our priests as well.

  14. Kenneth Wolfe says:

    Imagine Mother Teresa running to the grocery store in civilian wear? There is never a reason for a priest to be in public without a Roman collar.

  15. Laurelmarycecilia says:

    Dunno….I’m as old as dirt…. but, I always wear my wedding ring – it’s a sign of my vocation; during wartime military wear uniforms in public giving the public a sense of security – you know:” we’re here, you’re safe”; police uniforms clearly show a citizen where to run for help

    Vocation. Wartime (cf. Lucifer and his minions). Where to go for help.

    I’d like to see ‘clericals’ always. But again, I’m old…pre-VaticanII

  16. ususantiquior says:

    From the USCCB Website

    *** Start quote ***
    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.

    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.

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

    Reverend Monsignor Dennis M. Schnurr
    General Secretary
    *** End quote ***

    From the 2013 Directory for the Life and Ministry of Priests
    *** Start quote ***
    The Importance and Obligatory Nature of Ecclesiastical Attire

    61. In a secularised and basically materialistic society
    where the external signs of sacred and supernatural realities
    tend to disappear, deeply felt is the need for the priest – man
    of God, dispenser of his mysteries – to be recognisable in the
    eyes of the community by his attire as well, and this as an unequivocal sign of his dedication and identity as holder of a
    public ministry. The priest must be recognisable above all
    through his conduct, but also by his attire, which renders visible to all the faithful, and to each person248, his identity and his
    belonging to God and to the Church.
    Clerical attire is the external sign of an interior reality: “Indeed, the priest no longer belongs to himself but, because
    of the sacramental seal he has received (cf. Catechism of the
    Catholic Church, nn. 1563, 1582), is the ‘property’ of God. The
    priest’s ‘belonging to Another’, must become recognisable to
    all, through a transparent witness. […] In the way of thinking,
    speaking, and judging events of the world, of serving and
    loving, of relating to people, also in his habits, the priest must
    draw prophetic power from his sacramental belonging”249
    . For this reason the priest, like the transitory deacon,
    a) wear either the cassock “or suitable ecclesiastical dress,
    in accordance with the norms established by the Episcopal
    Conference and legitimate local customs”251; when other than
    the cassock, attire must be different from the way laypersons
    dress and consonant with the dignity and sanctity of the minister; the style and the colour are to be determined by the Conference of Bishops;
    b) because of their incoherence with the spirit of this discipline, contrary practices are bereft of the rationality necessary
    for them to become legitimate customs252 and must be absolutely eliminated by the competent authority253
    . Outside of specific exceptional cases, the non use of ecclesiastical attire may manifest a weak sense of one’s identity as a
    pastor dedicated entirely to the service of the Church254
    . Moreover, in its form, colour and dignity the cassock is
    most opportune, because it clearly distinguishes priests from
    laymen and makes people understand the scared nature of their
    ministry, reminding the priest himself that forever and at each
    moment he is a priest ordained to serve, teach, guide, and
    sanctify souls mainly through the celebration of the sacraments
    and the preaching of the Word of God. Wearing ecclesiastical
    attire is also a safeguard for poverty and chastity.
    *** End quote ***

  17. MaHrad says:

    A 29 year old here so not pre-Vatican II. But I enjoy seeing priests in their cassock. To me, maybe because it is so counter cultural, it brings a sense of calm in the form of a reminder that the whole world is not totally insane. If someone is willing to go out in a cassock and bear the strange stares (and potential hostility), it gives me hope and courage that perhaps there are still men willing to fight and stand up for Christ and the Church. Just my two cents.

  18. At Catholic U. of America, where I teach (Politics Dept), I wear my (Orthodox) cassock infrequently (when crossing the campus to serve at Byzantine Vespers), but I make a point of greeting RC clerics in cassocks with “I like the cassock, Father!”

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