“Gosh, Father, you look so warm in that!”
“Black isn’t the best color to be wearing in the heat, eh, Father?”
“Wow, Father, you’re dressed so formal!”
“Why don’t you loosen up that collar a little?”
One of the things I’m really picking up in my first year of priesthood is the importance of wearing my clerical dress, namely, the Roman collar. Sure, all of those statements above are true – it’s hot, it absorbs heat like crazy, it’s sometimes uncomfortable, and it makes people stare. Sometimes, I even wonder whether as children, some peoples’ parents told them to stop staring, smacking them upside the head. And yet, I’m called wear this thing anyway.
Sure, you could consider a legal thing. The 1983 Code of Canon Law states 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.” (canon 284) So yes, I guess I have to wear it according to the law.
But the collar means so much more than that. We find ourselves in a very secularized, very materialistic society, one that longs for signs of the sacred and of something beyond itself. The distinctive black shirt with the white Roman collar stands out as a beacon in this world, and is very recognizeable as a sign of what we stand for. The man who wears that white piece of fabric or plastic around his neck is more than just the guy who lives at the church down the street. He is a man of God, a dispenser of the great mysteries of our faith, and by virtue of his ordination to the priesthood, he is conformed to the image of Christ, consecrated and set apart from others.
This is where it gets tough. In living at the parish, many priests have a pull within themselves between the things that they have to do as presiders – preach, lead the community in worship of Almighty God, stand in the person of Christ (for goodness sakes!) – and the things they have to do as spiritual fathers – get close to the families of the parish, be present in the best and worst times in their lives, etc. In this way, a false humility almost gets the better of us. Many priests don’t want to wear their clerics for fear of being set apart from solidarity with their people, but the reality is, the priest is called to be set apart, in the same way that Christ himself was set apart amongst his disciples – not to be their boss, but to lead them to the Father.
As I reflect on the meaning of the clerics in my own life, I see it as a challenge. When I put on that collar (even when it keeps unbuttoning itself, i.e. I need new ones), I feel Christ calling me to something more. He is calling me to truly be the pastor, the shepherd that my people need me to be. And it is a reminder to me that I’m not here to do my own work, but the work of the one who sent me to this parish, this hospital room, this classroom, this confessional. When people see me walk in with my collar, my prayer is that they don’t see Michael Joseph Grosch, some twerp kid from Ballwin, but Jesus of Nazareth coming to minister to their needs.
The ministerial priesthood is a vocation and a witness, not merely a job, and so the clerical shirt isn’t about what I do, but who I am.
So yes, it’s hot, and sometimes uncomfortable, but don’t worry, I’m fine.