The Tradition of Clerical Dress

Photo: OC-Travel
In many ways the priest shares himself with aesthetic elements that frame and support the liturgical arts. This includes inside and outside the physical church property. Part of this extension of his ministry is done through his ordinary dress and appearance.  Classical templates of the priesthood affirm what is sempiternal in the midst of change and they inspire us to greater spiritual heights.

I have said for years clerical dress is the column, colonnade and steps.  In other words, it is the first element in sacred architecture.  The priest has a very important posture that is inseparable from his visible role.  His appearance is a preliminary or preparatory statement, an introduction to the temple.

The priest, even before he enters the church, is the upright column and support.  He is the colonnade in so far as he provides a visible precinct of the temple, a preamble and boundary between inner and outer.  He is the stone staircase because objects stand as people do. By his dress and composure the anointed Levite has a proportion of permanence in his priesthood, showing us that divine worship is removed from the world of decay and transformation while raising us up to loftier thoughts and spiritual aspirations.

The presbyter comes to work prepared and tells us so by his dress.  He leads, inspires and directs the public prayer of the Church.  He is called to the inheritance of the Lord.  He should attempt to manifest interior holiness by the decency of his external dress, and thus be distinguished from all others.  Clerical attire is in keeping with the dignity and eloquence of the office.  A living symbol of life become divine.

In Church history there were times when a priest not wearing his clerical dress entailed the forefiture of all emoluments (payment of salary). The Council of Trent enumerated penalties that bishops should inflict upon those clerics who do not wear a becoming ecclesiastical dress: "A penalty is decreed against clerics, who, being in sacred Orders, or holding benefices, do not wear a dress becoming their Order" (Sess. XIV, Chap. VI, De Reform). In the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the ordinary dress of clerics is mentioned in seventeen places (without saying what it should be).  The Code, following the example of the Council of Trent, leaves this matter to the discretion of the local ordinaries.

There are exceptions.  Naturally, a cleric who is engaged in legitimate recreation, e.g., a game of golf, may wear the proper attire as this does not violate the precepts of clerical dress, provided after the recreation he assumes his clerical garb.  Clerics who are chaplains in the armed forces of a country wear the prescribed dress of officers of their rank.  Priests on vacation still ordinarily wear the dress proper to the clergy.

For Americans, the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore promulgated what the clerical dress was to be for clergy in the USA:
"We wish therefore and prescribe, that all observe the law of the Church, and that at home or in the church they shall always wear the cassock, which is proper to the clergy.  When they go out for duty or relaxation or on a journey, they may use a shorter dress [the business suite with clerical vest and collar], which is to be black in color, and which reaches to the knees, so as to distinguish it from the dress of the laity.  We enjoin upon our priests as a matter of strict precept, both at home and abroad, and whether they are residing in their own diocese or outside of it, they shall wear the Roman collar" (cf. Conc. Balt., III, No. 77).

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