I have always been edified by priests who dress properly─either with a clergyman barong or at least a barong with a distinctive cross insignia, and even more so with an old-fashioned cassock or sotana. Considering that the tropical climate must surely make such attire a bit uncomfortable, I am awed by the spirit of sacrifice of such men of the cloth who thereby present a credible witness of the presence of Christ and his Church in the midst of our too often secularized communities. On the other hand, I also notice that many more of our Filipino clergy go around dressed casually like everyone else, to the point that quite often it is impossible to identify them as clerics. I consider this a setback for us ordinary faithful for several reasons: (1) we cannot have easy access to them when we are in dire need of them, since we cannot identify them easily; (2) when we do identify them, it is not easy to give them the reverence due them because─as a diocesan priest blurted once─he thought the priest was the driver; (3) it is quite disconcerting to see denims with a really casual T-shirt peeking from under the flowing liturgical garb of a priest during Mass; worse if he is wearing rubber shoes or sandals. What does Church Law say about this matter?
THIS is not the first time that a layman has expressed this sentiment to me; laywomen, on their part, are even more expressive and disconcerted. Of course, the more comic opposite is what happened to me once when I visited the former bishop of Sorsogon, whom I had never met at that time. Upon arrival at the bishop’s residence late in the afternoon, I and my companion─a well-known professional who was going to deliver another lecture with me─were met by a man in his 50s, in T-shirt, casual pants and slippers. My companion, a layman with great respect for the clergy, immediately took the hand of the middle-aged man and kissed it, saying “Good evening bishop” or something to that effect; my clerical sense made me hesitate. At that moment, the good bishop appeared, dressed in clergyman, welcoming us with great affability. It turned out the other fellow was his driver!
The Purpose of the Ecclesiastical Garb
On 1.I.1994, John Paul II approved and authorized the publication of a very important document emanating from the Congregation for the Clergy, signed by its Prefect then, Filipino Cardinal Jose T. Sanchez. Entitled Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests, it came as the juridic expression of the rich teachings of John Paul II’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores dabo vobis of 25.III.1992, which in turn gathered the results of the Synod of Bisops of 1990 dedicated to the topic of the identity, life and ministry of priests. In order to outline the content of that Directory, the suggestions of the entire world episcopate─consulted for that purpose─as well as the considerations of many theologians, canonists and experts on the matter from diverse geographical areas and involved in current pastoral work were taken into account. Thus, that Directory can veritably be considered as a manual on the life and ministry of priests, and is the final word when it comes any question of practical nature as the issue at hand.
The Directory deals with the matter of ecclesiastical garb under the rubric of Obedience, first stating the reason for such garb:
“In a secularized and materialistic society, where the external signs of sacred and supernatural realities tend to disappear, it is particularly important that the community be able to recognize the priest, man of God and dispenser of his mysteries, by his attire as well, which is an unequivocal sign of his dedication and his identity as a public minister. The priest should be identifiable primarily through his conduct, but also by his manner of dressing, which makes visible to all the faithful, indeed to al men, his identity and his belonging to God and the Church” (n.66).
Hence, it is not a question of blending in, as some would propose in a misguided pastoral desire to make the priest more present in secular environments. For as St Josemaría Escriva used to say, such attempts would result not in a priestly presence, but rather in a priestly absence─in the sense that it would make the priest’s presence unrecognizable because of the absence of any outward sign of the priest’s identity.
The Proper Priestly Attire
The Directory continues: “For this reason, the clergy should wear suitable ecclesiastical dress, in accordance with the norms established by the Episcopal Conference and the legitimate local custom. This means that the attire, when it is not the cassock, must be different from the manner in which the laity dress, and conform to the dignity and sacredness of his ministry. The style and color should be established by the Episcopal Conference, always in agreement with the dispositions of the universal law” (n.66).
The Code of Canon Law─the universal law referred to by the Directory─precisely stipulates that “Clerics are to wear suitable ecclesiastical garb in accord with the norms issued by the conference of bishops and in accord with legitimate local custom” (c.284).
For its part, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines─the Episcopal Conference referred to by the Directory─has laid down the following:
“The proper clerical attire…are as follows:
1) Cassock or religious habit;
2) Clergyman suit;
3) Trousers of dark one-tone color or white, and shirt of one-tone color, with the clerical collar. The shirt may also be either polo-barong or barong tagalog, with a distinctive cross.”
An attentive reading of the above dispositions shows that the following are the options for proper priestly attire, in decreasing order of preference:
1st: Cassock or religious habit. In this regard, it is worthwhile remembering that the Philippine clergy enjoys a long-standing privilege from the Holy See to use white cassock, in view of the tropical climate.
2nd: Clergyman suit. Given the tropical climate and local custom, it would seem that this option is suitable for more formal occasions of a non-liturgical nature (e.g., conferences, formal banquets and the like) where airconditioning would make the attire comfortable.
3rd: Dark one-tone colored trousers (or white) and one-tone colored shirt with clerical collar. Otherwise known as the Roman collar, this is a distinctive collar equipped with a white plastic (or stiffened cloth) strip running through the front.
4th: Dark one-tone colored trousers (or white) and polo-barong (or barong tagalog) with a Roman collar.
5th: Dark one-tone colored trousers (or white) and polo-barong (or barong tagalog) with a distinctive cross (in lieu of the Roman collar).
With the foregoing, it is very clear that casual T-shirts and polo shirts (of whatever color), whether with or without collar, do not constitute proper priestly attire. Neither do shorts, of whatever color or style. The impropriety of such attire is even more pronounced during liturgical ceremonies, especially since the common use of the chasuble-alb makes what is worn under it to be more obvious and incongruous. It stands to reason that all these norms do not apply when the priest is in a private recreational activity─e.g., doing sports, going on outdoor excursions, and the like. Nevertheless, common sense and sensitivity might dictate that the priest limits his movements in these latter conditions, being sufficiently discrete as not to be too public when he is not in ecclesiastical garb.
There is nothing mentioned about footwear, leaving it to the common sense and sensitivity of each priest to choose whatever is fitting to the occasion and circumstances.
The Binding Force of the Directory as regards Ecclesiastical Garb
On 22.X.1994, the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts─the competent dicastery of the Holy See charged with the official interpretation of all norms of Canon Law─issued a Clarification regarding the Binding Force of Art.66 of the Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests, i.e., the provisions regarding ecclesiastical garb that we are considering. In that Explanatory Note, the Holy See pointed out that although the aforementioned Directory is imbued with a deep pastoral sense, this “does not detract from the prescriptive force of many of its norms, which do not only have an exhortative value but are juridically binding” (n.1).
“With regard specifically to Art.66 of the Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests─the Note continues─it contains a general norm complimentary to c.284 of the CIC, with the characteristic proper to general executory decrees (cf. c.31). It is therefore a norm which clearly enjoys juridic enforceability, as can be deduced even from the tenor itself of the text and the place where it is included: under the rubric “Obedience” (n.4).
Furthermore, the Note urges, with a categorical declaration, the right observance of the discipline regarding ecclesiastical garb, stating that “for their inconsistency with the spirit of this discipline, contrary practices cannot be considered as legitimate customs and should be removed by the competent authority” (n.5, c).
On the other hand, the Note specifies the subjects of the aforementioned norms of Art.66 of the Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests as “all those who are obliged by the universal norm of c.288, namely the Bishops and priests, but not the permanent deacons (cf. c.288)” (n.7). This is worth underlining, because─as can be easily observed─the aforementioned norms on ecclesiastical garb are being violated not only by priests (rampantly in the Philippines), but unfortunately on occasion even by Bishops.
This is doubly unfortunate because, as the Note adds, “The Diocesan Bishops are the competent authority for demanding obedience to the aforementioned norms and for removing eventual contrary practices as regards ecclesiastical garb (cf. c.392, §2).” For its part, the Note concludes “The Episcopal Conference should help the individual diocesan Bishops in the fulfillment of this duty” (n.7).
Since we are demanding more compliance with the law on the part of our politicians and civil servants, this simple matter of the norms regarding ecclesiastical garb give food for thought for priests and Bishops alike.