I am a career woman in my late twenties. After attending a spiritual retreat a year ago, I have been trying to frequent the sacraments—specifically going to Mass several times during the week and trying to go to Sacramental Confession more often. With this increased exposure to the Church, I have become more aware of the priests and my own reactions to them. Two things stand out in my experience: First, I seem to be drawn more towards those priests who dress properly and I get put off by the sight of jeans and T-shirt under the loosely fitting garb that the celebrant puts on for Mass, and instinctively recoil from going to Confession to a priest who I can see is not dressed properly; Second, I am confused by the different ways priests dress. Is there a prescribed uniform for priests? They used to wear cassocks: do these have a practical purpose or are they merely symbolic? Finally, just how should I deal with priests?
The Proper Attire for Priests
The Code of Canon Law prescribed in c.284: Clerics are to wear suitable ecclesiastical garb in accord with the norms issued by the conference of bishops an in accord with legitimate local custom.
In attention to c.284 of the Universal Law of the Church, the CBCP subsequently legislated that the proper clerical attires in the Philippines are as follows:
1) Cassock or religious habit;
2) Clergyman’s suit;
3) Trousers of dark one-tone color or white, and shirt of one-tone color with a clerical collar. The shirt may also be either polo-barong or barong tagalog, with a distinctive cross.
As can be seen, the cassock (or for the members of the institutes of consecrated life, their proper religious habit) is actually the primary form of priestly or ecclesiastical garb in the Philippines. The so-called clergyman’s suit—which is an ordinary black suit worn with a black or white shirt with a clerical (also called Roman) collar—is the alternative.
Finally—obviously as an adaptation of the more Western clergyman’s suit to the local Philippine situation—two other alternatives are given for the Philippine clergy:
1st: Single-toned dark or white pants and single-toned shirt with clerical collar;
2nd: The same pants but with a polo-barong or barong tagalog with either a clerical collar or a distinctive cross.
In all these cases, as is obvious, the clear pretension of the norm on clerical attire is to make the cleric look different—such that even if the suit or the shirts or polo-barong or barong tagalog may be of the usual cut, they are still made different by the clerical (or Roman collar) or at the very least the presence of a distinctive cross.
Rationale for a Distinctive Clerical Attire.
Why a clerical attire? Firstly, to set the priest apart, since—as St Paul says in his Letter to the Hebrews—the priest “taken from among men is appointed for men in the things pertaining to God” (Heb 5,1). In other words, the priest, while remaining among men and indeed serving them, must be clearly identifiable from them since he stands in persona Christi capitis, that is “in the person of Christ the head” of the Mystical Body which is the Church. From a practical viewpoint, it seems logical and even just that the ordinary faithful be able to identify the priest, not only to emulate but—above all—so that he may call on his ministry. On more than one occasion, I have been approached by a complete stranger in the most unusual places—once stepping out of a National Bookstore, another time in Mega Mall—obviously moved by the presence of a priest in cassock, to ask me to hear his confession.
On the other hand, all this talk about making the priest look more like the laymen, in order for them to be more present in society, leads nowhere. Rather than a priestly presence, what is achieved by such non-wearing of an exclusively priestly garb is a priestly absence. In effect, the priest in ordinary garb disappears in the mass of the laity in similar attire. As the Second Vatican Council pointed out, the external appearance of the cleric should be a sign that can and ought to attract all the members of the Church to an effective and prompt fulfillment of the duties of their Christian vocation. Of course, when circumstances so require, it is always possible for priests to wear secular attire—e.g., times of recreation and sports, or manual and messy work.
Finally, let me mention yet another function of the priestly garb. The priestly attire, especially the cassock, is the priest’s first line of defense for modesty in public—both on his part and on the part of others towards him. A virile looking priest—which is the way a priest should be, in the first place, since he is supposed to be another Christ, and Christ is perfect God and perfect man (and I emphasize man)—will surely encourage proper decorum towards him, especially on the part of women, if he were more visibly a priest, in priestly garb.
The Question of Priestly Presence.
Some people (including priests) say that wearing a cassock puts some kind of distance between priests and ordinary people, that instead of feeling at ease, ordinary people feel uncomfortable.
I’ve been a priest for almost 25 years now, and I’ve always—as in 99% of the time—worn a cassock when I’m with people, and I still have to meet anybody who feels uncomfortable because of what I’m wearing. On the contrary, I have been told time and again—especially by women and girls—that they feel uncomfortable, especially going to confession, with a priest who is dressed like an ordinary worker.
There has to be a certain distance—one owed by reverence because of his priestly character—between the priest and the ordinary faithful. Otherwise, he may be confused as an ordinary lay faithful, rather than a consecrated minister. Being close to the ordinary faithful is not a question of the priest becoming like them, but of his knowing how to understand, love and sacrifice himself for them. What makes the priest close to the faithful is the genuineness of his life, not the hipness of his clothes.
It’s the lack of clear identification of roles that makes people uncomfortable with priests. A self-respecting woman might feel uncomfortable baring her soul to somebody who is not clearly a sacred minister, but who looks, acts and feels like just another man.
To conclude, how should women deal with priests? I think the proper way for women to deal with priests would have three characteristics:
1) Reverence—since he is a sacred minister, Christ amongst us. This precludes any frivolity or familiarity. He is not just another man, but a man of God.
2) Filial affection—since he is her spiritual father. This precludes any thoughtlessness, aloofness, or insensitivity to his needs. He needs prayers, understanding, and also material support.
3) Naturalness—not forgetting that he is a man, with a fallen nature. This precludes silly situations which a woman of her stature wouldn’t tolerate with another man.