A priest’s Roman Collar is an instrument of the Lord

The view from the rectory window
By Fr. Ken Van Haverbeke
It is said that everyone loves a man in a uniform.
I remember the first uniform I wore. It wasn’t really a uniform, more of a dress code. Actually reflecting back, I probably looked more like Herb Tarleck, that obnoxious and wildly dressed character in WKRP, a 1970s television sitcom. Mine was the uniform of a grocery store sacker. Yes, there was a time when young men would sack your groceries and even carry them out to the car.
It was while wearing this uniform I experienced the frustration of following a woman, circling the parking lot searching for her car, only for her to realize that we were looking for the wrong car. She had driven her husband’s car, which we eventually found parked next to the front door of the store!
My uniform for such parking lot adventures were blue jeans, a dress shirt, and a very wide tie that I borrowed from my father’s closet. This was the ‘70’s so of course the tie was earth toned and wide striped, in a combination of oranges and browns. This was my first experience of wearing a uniform.
After graduating from college and many uniforms later, I began my seminary formation and put on yet another uniform of sorts: clerical garb or clerics of black and white. Distinct clothing for priests was not adopted in the early centuries of the church. In fact Pope Celestine in 428 wrote to bishops in Gaul rebuking them for wearing clothing which made them conspicuous. He said “we [the bishops and clergy] should be distinguished from the common people by our learning, not by our clothes; by our conduct, not by our dress; by cleanness of mind, not by the care we spend upon our person” (Mansi, “Concilia”, IV, 465).
This however soon changed when Roman citizens would later begin to change their clothing habits in the 6th century when the clergy continued to wear the older style of clothing which was a long tunic and cloak, representing the toga, and the laity began to wear a short tunic with breeches and mantle. Most religious “habits” or garbs were simply an older fashion of the people of that time. For instance if you see a priest with a chasuble you probably would not realize that in the day of Bishop Patrick (Saint Patrick) he and the priests adopted this dress because it was the clothing of the poor. Of course Mother Teresa’s blue and white garb was also the common clothing of the people living in Calcutta.
With none of this in mind, I had a mixed bag of feelings the first time I put on clerics, the black pants, shirt, and white collar after arriving at the seminary. There we were, about six of us young seminarians in our 20s, after having donned our new attire, standing in the large common bathroom, looking at ourselves in the mirrors, laughing, poking fun at each other, feeling very much out of place and yet secretly both pleased and nervous. I did not fully understand then but clerics are a sign of reality and hope, as is a parish priest: the reality of death and the hope of eternal life and death; reality of sin and the hope of God’s love for the sinner; reality of heaven uniting with earth.
Every Ash Wednesday Christians throughout the world put on the black and white of the cleric, ashes. The priest or minister says: Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. The black and white a priest wears reminds us of the reality of death, sin, and that Adam was made from the dust of the earth. The black and white also reminds us of the hope of eternal life, the realization of God’s love for us, and Emmanuel, i.e., God among us!
A priest knows he has truly integrated his priesthood into his Christian life when his black and white clerics become so much a part of him, he doesn’t realize if he is, or is not wearing them. Just as a Christian knows he or she is truly integrated Christian when people look at them and see Christ: they know us by our love.
I remember the first few years of priesthood anticipating my “day off.” A day away from the rectory, away from probing questions of staff or housekeeper, away from the pastor, just AWAY! I would get into my blue jeans and tee shirt; breathe a deep sigh of relief and think, “Now! I can be just me!”
Years later, after many “days off” and even more days “on,” I ceased to see any difference between my outer self from my inner self. I knew I arrived at this point when I would go to the grocery store and parishioners would not recognize me.
“That’s funny” I would think, “why didn’t Mrs. So and So say something to me?” Then at the check-out line she would look up with recognition and say, “Oh Father, I didn’t recognize you out of uniform!” I would look down, suddenly realizing I was not in my black and white clerics.
Or when I would go into a restaurant and everyone would stare at me. I would coyly look down to make certain my pants zipper was appropriately up, and suddenly realize, “Ohhh, I’m wearing clerics…that’s why they are staring!”
Whether I am in clerics or out jogging in my sweat pants and shirt, I am a priest, through and through.
Wearing my black and white clerics can bring me a lot of attention. In order to gain the attention of any grade school crowd, furiously eating their lunch and talking, all I have to do is walk through the cafeteria with clerics, and every little hand is waving, trying to grab the attention of “Father!” For them, my clerics are a sign of love of which they want.
I remember another time in a restaurant sitting in a booth. I could see that the man and woman next to my booth were distracted by my presence. The man kept glancing back at me. Finally he got up the nerve and asked, “Just WHAT are you?” I was taken aback, until again, I realized I was wearing my clerics which was the cause his question. “I am a Catholic priest.” “Oh,” he said, “I figured you were something.”
Yes, I thought, I am something. I am a sign of the reality of sin and death, and I am a visible reminder of Jesus Christ who has brought us the hope of forgiveness and eternal life. Yes, I am a priest.
I understand what Pope Celestine was getting at in 428. There is always a danger when wearing a uniform, badge, or clerics to become self-righteous or vain. Clerics or a uniform doesn’t have to make you conspicuous, drawing attention to self, but when approached with humility accompanied by a life of charity and service, a uniform, such as clerics can simply be an instrument of the Lord, allowing both the wearer and the observer to experience a visible presence of our God in a fragile world.