Friday, May 18, 2012

Black is the new Black

The military knows how to do uniforms. Sigh...that used to be us.
Recently, I was told that a priest was chastised by his bishop for wearing a cassock. The cassock is one step up from the black suit and collar I wear. The priest's intent was to show his priestly identity and his commitment to the bishop. The bishop corrected him and insisted that even seminarians move away from the use of black and white and wear more colorful shirts. The bishop was concerned that there would be a negative sign in the cassock that would make it clear the priest was different from the laity therefore he'd be less able to feel the compassion a priest needs to feel and make people sad and eventually bring about the zombie apocalypse.

In the 60's, even the future pope didn't wear clerics on duty. Until he became a cardinal and told priests to wear clerics on duty.
Although there is some move to restore cassocks in seminaries, the seminarians who attend some seminarians, such as the seminary our Bishop mandates, New Orleans' Notre Dame, are required to wear black and white.* Of course, the bishop has the final say of what the priest or seminarian can and cannot wear. Usually, as with most decisions of the post-Vatican II bishops and priests, the rule is "do what you want until I am given reason to stop you".

I went through seminary wearing jeans and a ZZ Top t-shirt. When I was serving as a seminarian-in-residence in Canton's Sacred Heart parish, I was advised by my seminary, Mundelein, to wear "distinctive clothing". I decided to wear a white button down and black pants. Distinct like a waiter in a Chinese restaurant.

As a priest, I wear my black clerical shirt ("clerics") every day. Well, not the same one every day. The same one almost every day but not THAT one. Anyway. I wear my black clerical shirt, black pants and shoes every day for several reasons.

1. The Bishop told me to. When I worked at the Chancery as Youth and Vocation Director(s), I showed up in the 90's clerical garb of polo shirt, jeans and sneakers. The Administrative Director told me that men in the Chancery were to wear ties and dress slacks (haha, slacks) but that doesn't fit my clerical state. A month later a communication came to all priests from the Vicar General explaining in DETAIL what priests must wear and when. I went ahead and followed instructions.
Priestly casual wear. Seriously. They sell this.
2. It establishes priestly identity. In 2002, when the scandal of bishops covering up pedophile priests priest pedophile scandal broke out, the Vicar General of the Diocese nervously told me that I was not to wear clerics to the Chancery because "people would attack" me. I didn't see the problem. I actually thought at that time, it was more important to establish that I was a priest and happy about it. Plus, I wasn't a criminal, so what did I have to hide?

3. It establishes pastoral identity. In Oxford, rarely am I seen in anything other than clerical garb. I felt that at this time in Oxford's Catholic history, a solid identification with a pastor and a church was important. To build a Church, you need evidence of a Catholic community. A pastor is a strong symbol. It is counter-intuitive, perhaps, as our Diocese is diminishing the role of pastor and elevating lay leadership. However, I am confident that the priest as pastor is important. It was and is for Oxford. So everywhere I go in Oxford, I go as the pastor of The Catholic Church of Oxford.
The late Heath Ledger in "The Order". Hollywood priests dress cooler than real priests.
 4. It really feels like my promises. The promises of celibacy, prayer and obedience are sort of woven in the poly-cotton blend.
Celibacy, the non-married state, is made present in the dark, somber color that means that I am willing to die..alone...for the good of the Faith. Like a super-hero costume, it means that I won't bring another person into my crusade against EVIL lest they be harmed. I won't say much more because it will totally spoil the Spider-man movie.

Prayer is evidenced because I am seen as walking wishing well. And that's cool. People stop me from time to time and ask for my prayers when they see that distinctive black shirt and white plastic tab (I do have a collar too but I wear that for FANCY days). I am also slow to rant or act uncharitably, say when someone is texting and driving, when I am in the blacks. I don't want someone to say, "That priest just flipped me off!" Or at least not in Oxford because I am the only priest. In Jackson, I can blame the priests there. Who will flip you off for driving poorly. Or having a Republican sticker on your bumper.
John Paul II dressed so natty, he became a paper doll.
Obedience is also symbolized by the collar (tab). It's just that. A collar. Like a dog collar. I am a voluntary servant of the Bishop. I have given my life to him with nothing in return. Even though a bishop may discourage the wearing of clerics and the use of the term "father", it only serves him to encourage it. Or better, it serves the Church. The eternal Church that is.

Eternal like the wearing of a black clerical shirt. To quote Fr. Scott Thomas, "All you do is Febreze it and you're good for another day."

*I believe I was ill advised on this one. I'll keep the article as is but after some searching, there isn't a thing about the COLOR of the seminarians' clothing at Notre Dame. Good advertisement for Dockers, though.