cassock

Drexel Hill PA. Most people don’t know what a cassock is anymore. There was a time when the sight of a cassock instantly brought to mind the image of priesthood. It was one of a whole host of recognizable symbols of community life—symbols like the doctor’s white coat or the sheriff’s uniform and gold star badge—that connected the local and particular with the universal. Now most of those symbols are gone, and gone with them is the sense of community cohesiveness that they used to communicate.

Earlier this week, in the midst of a heat wave, knowing that the air conditioner in my car was on the fritz, I debated whether or not I was going to wear a cassock to meet with the family of a man at whose funeral I’d be presiding, a man I’d never met while he was alive. I am a Christian priest, of the Anglican tradition. I get calls to officiate at this type of funeral at least once a month. I usually say yes, if I can. I believe that everyone deserves to be prayed for in death, and sometimes a funeral is just the right occasion for planting some seeds that might later grow into faith.

I was happy to go and officiate at this funeral, even though it was stinking hot outside. But I didn’t have to show up to meet the family beforehand in my cassock. These were not my parishioners. I could have shown up in anything that looked somewhat vaguely religious and they wouldn’t have noticed. So I reasoned with myself, why put on the cassock? Why bother?

The cassock was once the standard article of dress for Christian priests. Long after the Great Schism divided the east from the west, the cassock remained a symbol of priesthood that was acknowledged by Catholic and Orthodox alike. Cassocks have been worn by priests for so long that their origin is somewhat mysterious (despite the certainty that Wikipedia seems to have in the matter). They probably developed out of the common tunic that was worn by almost everyone in the Roman Empire. By as early as the seventh century, though, the cassock was a distinct enough garment that people identified it with clergy. The cassock was a symbol of the priesthood in the way that a white coat is a symbol of medicine or a tie is a symbol of formality and professionalism.

But all of that is over now, at least in the west. At age thirty, I’m the product of a post sixties, post sexual revolution, post Vatican II world. There’s no room for the cassock in the world in which I’ve grown up. I’ve never seen a Roman Catholic priest wear one, outside of the movies. In my own tradition, cassocks are reserved for liturgical functions, and even then they’re becoming rare, traded in for the more functional cassock-alb. To wear a cassock when not officiating at liturgy is to paint one’s self as a stuffy traditionalist who is pining after the nineteenth century, a clueless old fuddy duddy who is still trapped by the oppressive social norms of yesteryear.

Nevertheless, when I was first ordained four years ago I did try to wear my cassock more often than many of my colleagues. The results were somewhat abysmal. While a few of my oldest parishioners told me that they appreciated what I was doing, most were simply confused by it. Once while making hospital visits in my cassock, a young man asked me if I was wearing a Halloween costume. Several times I was laughed at and asked why I was wearing a dress. I soon gave up.

The cassock is an anachronism. It’s no longer a universal symbol of the priesthood. And that saddens me deeply.

Some people may think my lament over the decline of the cassock is silly. After all, the cassock is as impractical as it is unfashionable. And I must confess that the loosening of strictures around what clergy must wear is not all bad. There are times when a cassock doesn’t make sense. I’m glad, for instance, that I don’t have to show up to my kid’s soccer games dressed like I might need to say Mass at half time.

But what I lament isn’t so much the loss of the cassock itself as the loss of the whole cache of cultural symbols of which it was once a part. The cassock once communicated the universal reality of priesthood to the local communities in which priests served. Every town once had a doctor, a butcher, a sheriff, as well as a priest. The child who grew up in each town was able to see the doctor’s stethoscope and identify it with the healing arts not just in some abstract sense but in the way that good old Doctor Smith administered them. The symbols that denoted these universal practices were intimately connected with the people who practiced them. The cassock was a symbol not just of priesthood. It was a symbol of Father Jones who baptized my children and was at my father’s bedside as he lay dying. And seeing these different symbols, such as the cassock and the white coat and the sheriff’s gold star badge, gave the child a sense that he wasn’t just growing up in a cluster of random people but in a community, a living organism in which each person played an important and unique role in the lives of others.

Ironically, it’s the very quest for uniqueness, for freedom of expression and freedom from unnecessary constraint, that has lead to the tyranny of homogeneity that we experience today. I have no idea whether there’s a butcher or a doctor living in my town. Everyone wears the same thing. We all express ourselves the same way, in the same button down shirts and slacks bought off the rack at Sears. The fact that we happen to live in proximity to each other is simply coincidence. There’s no purpose to it.

The universal symbols are gone, replaced by the universality of brand names and box stores. In the process, that which is unique to each local expression of community has become obscured. I’ve lived in different parts of three different states. Every time I move to a new place, I’m asked by the locals, “How do you like living here?” I’m never quite sure how to answer that question, and for the longest time I didn’t know why. And then one day it dawned on me, I couldn’t answer the question because I couldn’t figure out what the difference was between one place and the next. I ate at the same chain restaurants and bought my clothing at the same strip malls everywhere I went. The fact that it was eight degrees colder in New Haven in the winter time than it had been in the suburbs of Baltimore was hardly enough to give me a real sense that there was something that separated the two.

We need symbols, not just brands. We need symbols that speak to our hearts and that communicate deep truths about who we are and how we live. We need to know that there are differences between us that go beyond whether or not we happen to prefer PCs over Macs or Cheerios over Corn Flakes. We need to learn again that there is such a thing as calling and vocation, that each of us can be called upon to serve our communities in a special way, not simply by consuming but by producing the goods that hold our communities together, whether or not those goods are tangible.

I didn’t have to wear my cassock to meet that family, nor even to conduct the funeral. I could have just thrown something on while I was saying the prayers and discarded it just as quickly afterwards. I’d have been more comfortable that way. But I wore my cassock, as hot and uncomfortable as it was, because it means something, and because I hope that those who see it might experience some small recognition deep in their hearts.

Perhaps it doesn’t make a bit of difference. Perhaps I am just a silly old fuddy duddy trapped in a young man’s body. But on the rare chance that the seeds of community can be planted by me occasionally making a fool of myself then I’m happy to do so, even on the hottest day in July.

Father Jonathan Mitchican is a father, a husband, and a priest. He lives in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania and pastors the Church of the Holy Comforter.

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar T. Chan July 22, 2010 at 1:05 am

Catholic priests who are members of traditionalist groups wear the cassock. Members of some non-traditionalist groups also wear the cassock as well. I’ve seen one non-traditionalist diocesan priest wear it fairly recently, but he is rather eccentric in his preferences.

avatar Roger S. July 22, 2010 at 7:01 am

“Ironically, it’s the very quest for uniqueness, for freedom of expression and freedom from unnecessary constraint, that has lead to the tyranny of homogeneity that we experience today.”

Very good point as is your point of living in differnt places where everthing is really the same. Keep wearing that cassock and thanks for the very nice essay.

avatar Fr. Jonathan July 22, 2010 at 7:56 am

T. Chan, there are definitely Roman Catholic priests who do wear their cassocks, especially in other countries. But I grew up in the Roman Church and I never saw it. And I live now in a highly Catholic area in a fairly traditional archdiocese and I never see it. For those who do wear their cassocks, as with Anglican priests who do the same, I suspect it’s making a statement, devotees of the New Liturgical Movement, etc.

Roger, thanks, I will! Actually, just got a call that my new lightweight summer cassock has come in, so perhaps the choice to wear it on a hot day won’t be so bad in the future!

grace and peace,

Fr. Jonathan Mitchican

avatar Kevin L Hall July 22, 2010 at 7:58 am

Father Mitchican,

Thank you for this essay. It is a reminder to us who have a limited knowledge of that which we have have forgotten, that we are not the only ones with such dreadful and hopeful knowledge. We need more of this bringing forth of Symbols, while remembering that though they may be neglected and forgotten, the Truth that exists in such Symbols can never be thrown off. The Imagination that was used to create the Symbols stemmed from Truth. Therefore I am hopeful that the use of such Symbols will do much to spur Imagination again.

avatar T. Chan July 22, 2010 at 9:53 am

Fr. Jonathan, yes, one usually never sees a diocesan priest wear a cassock. It also used to be the case that traditionalist priests would be discouraged from wearing it when on the street — from what I heard regarding one diocese, it was a misunderstanding of what the 3rd Council of Baltimore required (as opposed to permitted). I have heard that some seminarians at St. Charles Borromeo do wear the cassock in-house (and also seminarians at the seminary for St. Louis), but I do not know how many keep this habit once they are ordained.

avatar Steve K. July 22, 2010 at 10:46 am

Great essay, thanks Father.

I attend a chapel tended by the FSSP. Our priests wear the cassocks in public as well as “on duty,” but of course the FSSP is a traditionalist order, thank God. Oh the havoc wreaked upon the Church by the “spirit” of Vatican II.

avatar AML July 22, 2010 at 4:23 pm

Yes, dating back to the great Baltimore Council, Catholic priests in America have tended to not wear cassocks in public. If they did, they thought they would be subject to anti-Catholic ridicule. I do know many younger priests who have taken to wearing the cassock. Also, religious orders like the Eastern Province Dominicans in particular, are returning to wearing their habits publicly.

avatar Adam Parsons July 22, 2010 at 10:08 pm

Orthodox priests generally wear the cassock when on church grounds, even if not performing strictly liturgical functions. The first time I saw my priest without a cassock was rather shocking to me – and even then, he was wearing all black.

On another note, your allowance that some relaxation of clergy dress has been salutary seems, to me, to undercut your larger argument. If Father Jones can take off the mark of his vocation, then doesn’t he remove his vocation as well? Doesn’t the vocation become a role he plays, rather than a mark upon his person, a space he inhabits? I wonder especially: isn’t the priest’s place in the village somehow distinct from the butcher’s or the doctor’s?

As a side note, for a fantastic depiction of priests taking on such a role in villages, see The Boundless Garden, a collection of short stories by the incomparable Greek writer Alexandros Papadiamandis.

avatar Alex. July 23, 2010 at 9:39 am

T. Chan,
Quite a few of them (Philadelphia seminarians) do or would wear them after ordination, but many of them are made associates at parishes pastored by the older generation of priests, who won’t allow it. They do have to be careful.

avatar Fr. Jonathan July 23, 2010 at 8:07 pm

Adam Parsons,

You raise some good points, not the least of which being that Orthodox priests seem to be much more faithful about wearing their cassocks than those of us in the west.

You ask whether the point I was making is lost if I accept some loosening of the rules of clerical dress. I don’t think so because my point was that symbols like the cassock help people to understand universal truths and the need for diversity of roles in a community. I cannot speak to how that works for a doctor or a butcher since I’ve never been either, but for me as a priest what I understand that to mean is that I have to embody the symbol. I need to wear what is appropriate to both what I’m doing and who I am. I wear a collar much of the time even when I’m just meeting someone for lunch or traveling, both of which sometimes present me with the inconvenience of having to deal with people’s stares or people starting strange conversations with me (all of which is part of what I signed up for when I was ordained). But pushing that too far would mean that I’d be wearing my cassock to the beach or to play basketball. At that point, it would become a comic symbol rather than a traditional symbol. There is a point at which the symbol ceases to be helpful and starts to simply be in the way. And actually, it was a couple of Orthodox priests I’ve known over the years who taught me that.

Priesthood is absolutely more than a function. I am a priest all the time, not just when I’m at the altar. I think that’s precisely why it’s important to make the distinction that the symbol is not the same thing as the matter itself. I am a priest whether I wear the cassock or not and whether anyone knows it or not. Even in my bathing suit I am called to live out that truth. I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that being a doctor has a similar character to it, in that at the moment when a doctor is needed it doesn’t matter whether you are on or off duty, wearing your white coat or not, you do what it is you’ve been called and formed to do.

But this is also why the symbols matter so much the rest of the time. They remind us of our individual callings but they also help us in daily life to remember the callings of others and the way that all of these vocations fit together to form healthy community life. That only works if we make a conscience effort to keep those symbols alive. I fear that it’s already too late in our culture. The cassock and many symbols like it have already lost their meaning. But perhaps it’s possible to bring some of these traditions back if we rediscover just why tradition matters in the first place. That’s my hope.

grace and peace,

Fr. Jonathan

avatar T. Chan July 23, 2010 at 8:26 pm

Alex, I suspected that the old guard might damper the enthusiasm of younger priests for the cassock.

avatar Adam Parsons July 24, 2010 at 1:58 am

Fr. Jonathan,

My thanks for a detailed and compelling explanation. I’m especially taken by your point concerning the possibility of traditional symbols becoming comic; I think this is one that I’ll have to chew on for a while, and which has significance well beyond the cassock.

avatar Francis July 24, 2010 at 12:17 pm

In February of this year I participated in a pilgrimage to Ecuador where I had the opportunity to visit magnificent churches, convents and monasteries. The chaplain for our pilgrimage was a priest who wore a cassock. I was never so impressed in my life. Why? Everywhere he went people asked for his blessing as well as asked him to hear their confessions. Fortunately, he spoke spanish. There were other priests whom we met and saw there dressed in secular clothing. I did not see the same treatment given to them.

avatar Dwight Lindley July 24, 2010 at 3:14 pm

A few more exceptions from my own experience, and these not from among the “traditionalist” crowd, as that term is usually used:

I’m in Pittsburgh for the summer, and have gone to daily mass at the (R.C.) Cathedral these last two months. Of the five or six priests who say mass there, two to three wear a cassock more than half the time. Yes, they’re young, but I think the bishop here encourages the cassock, so I’d be surprised if there weren’t a number of others in the diocese.

The Oratorians that do campus ministry for U-Pitt and Carnegie-Mellon generally wear cassocks at all times in-house, and sometimes outside. The same is true of Oratorians I’ve met at Oxford & Birmingham, in the UK.

Opus Dei priests also always wear cassocks in-house.

In fact, almost all the R.C. priests I know under 35 either wear a cassock some of the time, or would like to. Granted, that adds up to only about 15-20 guys. Still, this portends well, no?

avatar Fr. Jonathan July 24, 2010 at 7:21 pm

Indeed, it seems that there is some consensus forming in our conversation around the idea younger priests (under 35) are much more interested in wearing their cassocks than their older counterparts but that they’re sometimes prevented from doing so by superiors, culture, etc. If so, this bodes well for the Church in the next fifteen to twenty years.

avatar Mark Browning July 26, 2010 at 9:07 pm

Although I understand the idea that our society is increasingly homogeneous, I’m not quite clear on how priests ceasing to wear a medieval garb has the slightest relevance to that homogeneity. Maybe it’s my Baptist background talking, but I’ve never quite understood the whole cassock thing. (On the other hand, as an academic, I think my doctoral regalia to be pretty cool, so maybe I’m just cherry picking my examples.)
I have no problem, in my town, recognizing the symbols of the police and the public works employees is easy. The truckers who enrich our tax coffers and clog our roads are fairly easy to pick out. The doctors don’t scurry about in white lab coats, a stethoscope slung around the neck, but I hardly think that they did this when cassocks roamed the earth. Do you believe that butchers, when such people were more common than today, traveled the town in blood-splattered aprons when off work?
It seems to me that the true sadness here is that symbols are actually MORE visible than previously thanks to corporate influence. Look around and you’ll see the noble Walmart blue vest, the renowned McDonald’s uniform, and a veritable army of polo shirts emblazoned with the logos of various auto companies, insurers, banks, and other pillars of the community.

avatar Dwight Lindley July 27, 2010 at 6:57 am

Mr. Browning,

Not quite clear on your point: is society more homogeneous or not? And do the symbols you notice signify anything about that homogeneity?

While Fr. Mitchican did mention the lack of social symbols in general, I took his main point to be the lack of a symbol for the sacramental set-apart-ness of priests. This is, after all, why priests were black suits and white collars, and have worn something different than everyone else since at least the four or five hundreds, A.D.

I think the difference for a Protestant would be that the minister is not seen to be sacramentally set apart, as an instrument of God different in kind from everyone else. If there is only the priesthood of all believers, and no sacramental priesthood, this makes sense.

–Dwight

avatar Jill July 27, 2010 at 11:44 am

Father Mitchican,

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic.

Orthodox Christian priests in Alaska wear cossacks out among the general public. Our priests are then easily identifiable and more available to those who may need ministering out in the world. My husband who grew up in the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska; will often approach a priest or monk in public and ask for a blessing or prayer. A practice that seems to be fading.

Seeing our priests among us, attired in their cossacks; is a source of comfort for me. They stand out as beacons in this busy, distracted world; as well they should.

Jill in Alaska

avatar Mike W July 27, 2010 at 6:57 pm

For most of human history, “dress” (or skins and fur) has been a way for others to determine class. So it wasn’t just cassock wearing priests who stood out, but the social standing of virtually anyone could be determined by just a quick glance. For those used to seeing their priests in cassocks, I’m sure that “look” is comforting. For me and I suspect many others, it is just an oddity, not that much different than the identifying dress worn by members of any particular subculture.

avatar Fr. Jonathan July 28, 2010 at 11:49 am

Mr. Browning,

You underline my point with what you say about McDonalds and WalMart. When we divest ourselves of symbols that point to universal truths, we will find ourselves awash in symbols that instead point to universal trivialities. The cassock was universal in what it pointed to, the reality of the priesthood, even as it was particular in that it came to be associated with the priest of the local parish, not just in terms of his ministry to the faithful but in also in terms of his place in the community. The Golden Arches are also universal, but what they point to is merely cheap, bad food, and there is no particularity to it at all since one McDonalds employee could be any other. In my town there is a particular convenience store / deli chain in which one orders sandwiches via a computer screen even though the people making the sandwiches are standing right in front of you. But the screen, it would seem, adds an extra layer of distance between the “consumer” and the person creating what is to be consumed.

Perhaps I focused too much on symbols of attire and not enough on other, larger symbols. But my point was that we have no sense of either the true universality or the true particularity of community living anymore. The disappearance of symbols like the cassock is a sign of that. It’s not that I don’t think that I could find a doctor or a police officer if I went to the right places. It’s that I have no sense of either the doctor or the police officer as distinct and necessary members of my community, part of the necessary life of that rare and dying breed known as the town. I can receive the generic service of “doctor” and “police” when I need them, but I have no sense of them as neighbors. I believe the same thing has happened to clergy, and in this respect I think we can include Protestant clergy as well. Am I the priest of this town or am I the local service provider for hatching, matching, and dispatching?

grace and peace,

Fr. Jonathan

avatar Gary Lindemann July 28, 2010 at 12:40 pm

I read this whole dialog and what jumped out at me was the comment about being a fuddy duddy. I think we need more fuddy duddys.

I am “a died in the wool” fuddy duddy. That may be to my down fall. It is not clear whether my parents raised me that way but I am a true tradionalist. I do not even like the new praise music. It appaules me.

A uniform whether it be a nurse, police, butcher, doctor, or pastor has value and a true indication of deserved respect. Maybe it is my conscience but I have a built in automatic response to give my humble respect whether they deserve it or not.

Humbly submitted,

Gary Lindemann
Conyers, Ga.

avatar Benjamin P. Glaser July 28, 2010 at 1:47 pm

Amen from a fellow “fuddy duddy”.

avatar ahem July 30, 2010 at 11:07 pm

My priest, (Orthodox) virtually always wears his cassock. It conveys the sacred quality of his calling, and I would never want to see him relinquish the habit; in fact, it would break my heart if he did so. (That’s one reason I became Orthodox as opposed to Roman Catholic when I became a Christian; I wanted a Christianity that took itself seriously and did not allow itself to be diluted or gelded by fashions in thought.)

Civilian wear is inappropriate for a priest; a priest works for God and has nothing to hide and no reason to be ashamed or embarrassed. If he is concerned with what others think, then he is not strong enough in his faith.

Christians are looking for leaders in the church–not buddies–and the cassock conveys the image of leadership. Dressing incognito is a side-effect of marxist culture and demeans the office of the clergy–as it is intended to do.

In addition, wearing a cassock demonstrates that there is a sacred quality to the priesthood and reminds us that life itself is sacred. The cassock conveys belief, confidence, authority: it is a sign that Christ is passing by us, a remembrance.

Straighten your backbone and start wearing your cassock.

avatar Therese Z July 31, 2010 at 11:59 am

Few of our priests wear their cassock, although one usually wears his when he is “on the property,” in the school or the church or offices. He wears a clerical collar elsewhere. I think that’s a decent division.

I explain to my decidedly non-religious friends and family that it’s not a “dress,” it’s a long coat. That straightens it out surprisingly well in their heads.

avatar reader joseph August 10, 2010 at 3:17 pm

you can add my observations to my fellow orthodox. in my diocese (South, OCA) although a few northern transplant priests wear the collar, it is customary for the cassock to be worn at all times when in public, exceptions for mowing the grass, or taking one’s children to the priest.

my favorite story from a priest is how he was driving down the interstate one day, and noticed a car pull alongside him at the same speed. he looked over and saw the driver gesturing for a blessing. the priest did so, and the other car then sped off into the distance.

another priest has mentioned how wearing the cassock sparks conversations in grocery stores, at gas stations, etc. it’s a good evangelistic tool that is underutilized in other traditions, i think.

i agree with the above poster that you should just wear yours. it may do more to save someone’s soul than any sermon you may ever preach.

avatar Marion Miner August 19, 2010 at 4:49 pm

As others have noted, the cassock is becoming more popular among young Catholic priests. The young men going into the seminary these days generally don’t identify themselves with the strain that filled the seminaries in the sixties and seventies, when Vatican II (which was in itself a very beneficial thing) was grossly misinterpreted and/or misapplied by many, both in the United States and elswhere. I’ve been hearing the term “JP II” priests used to describe these men.

I live in the Diocese of Arlington (VA), and priests wearing the cassock are not few and far between – especially the younger clergy.

As far as your arguments for the importance of meaningful symbolism, I wholeheartedly agree.

avatar Imogen-faith Malin Mokou December 19, 2011 at 6:06 am

thank you very much for an informative discussion around this garment of humility. I am a black South African and grew up in a rural poor slum area and as a result seeing the brothers and Priest of the local Roman Catholic church in their cassocks gave us hope. They symbolised love and charity, hard work but at the same time a sense of quiet dignity.

The mission as we called the parish had a feeding scheme to feed children from poor families, they taught at the local school, they ran a clinic and gave extramural activities for children after school. This community of Priests became the center of the life of the community. You cannot go to the village and nobody talks about the Roman Catholic church and its clergy they are a symbol of life in the neighbourhood.

During Lent you could see them in their cassocks either under a tree or walking with a Rosary in hand or reading a book, to me it gave such hope that God is living among us and hears our prayers.

It is such a pity that most people look at the Cassock as being a medivial garment that should be locked up in a museum. I think sometimes by wearing civilian clothes the clergy forget their calling and you will find them smoking or with a glass of alcohol because they are incognito. Let us wear this garment, and bring it back as a sign of vocation to our lives and those of the community where we live. So I agree with you the cassock is a symbol that needs to be resuscitated and celebrated.

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