Returning now to a favorite topic of debate on The Bench: deacons wearing the collar.
I sit on the diaconal council for the Diocese of Brooklyn, and during our most recent meeting last week the subject was once again broached. Some men were wondering about wearing the collar while engaging in some ministries — notably when serving as chaplains at hospitals or prisons, or when presiding at wakes.
Once again, the bishop said no. It’s too confusing, he said, and we’ve been getting along fine without them for 40 years. The policy now in place will continue.
And so it goes in Brooklyn.
Last year, I was a speaker at the diaconate convocation in Atlanta, and as I stepped before the podium, I was surprised to look out and see a sea of priests. Then I realized: in fact, those are deacons wearing the collar. I was bemused to realize that I was one of the few deacons in the room without one.
It remains a confounding conundrum of the diaconate. Unlike the priesthood, in the United States there’s no uniformity in how deacons dress, or even how we’re addressed. (In some places, it’s “Rev. Mr.,” in others “Deacon.”) In some places, deacons receive the faculty to preach at ordination, in others they don’t. In some places, you get a Master’s at the end of the program, in others you don’t. Even the length of formation can vary from diocese to diocese — as can the extent of the wife’s involvement in her husband’s formation.
Wouldn’t a little more consistency be helpful?
UPDATE: I found this in the vault…Bill Ditewig’s treatise on the subject over at my old joint. I’d recommend giving it a once-over.
The USCCB, since the first Guidelines on Formation for deacons were promulgated in 1971 (the “Green Book”) has adopted the position that, nationally, the preference is that deacons should dress in a manner “resembling the people they serve.” Obviously, this means dressing like lay persons (at least one person has joked that since we serve bishops, we should start wearing collars and pectoral crosses!), but it was never promulgated as PARTICULAR LAW. This position has remained throughout the three documents which address the issue (the 1971 Guidelines, the 1984 Guidelines, and the 2004 National Directory), and the US bishops are in agreement: THEY DO NOT WANT A NATIONAL LAW ON THIS ISSUE, because that would tie the local diocesan bishop’s hands. They have reviewed this decision several times; they even considered a proposal to pass a law that each of the 14 episcopal regions could have their own policies — this proposal also went down in flames. The bottom line: the bishops want the ability to deal with this issue in their own dioceses, and don’t want some other supradiocesan authority to dictate it to them.
So, let’s move on to the diocesan bishop. We have 196 dioceses and eparchies in the United States, and the pastoral situation in each is unique, and that affects how bishops deal with this. Many, many dioceses have policies in which deacons wear clerical attire. The policy in Washington, DC (my home diocese) is quite good: “If, in the professional judgment of the deacon, the wearing of clerical attire will enhance his ministry, he may do so.” Under previous archbishops, this meant wearing the same kind of (black) clerical attire as the presbyters. Archbishop Wuerl decided to adapt the practice, and directed what I call the “St. Louis option” (because this is where I first saw this practice): deacons would wear grey clerical shirts, while priests would continue to wear black. This offers a measure of distinctiveness. Not all dioceses worry about the color of the shirts. Still other dioceses absolutely FORBID the wearing of clerical attire by deacons, and this is the right of the bishop. They do this for a variety of reasons, but usually it’s over concerns of confusion. But probably by far the MOST COMMON PRACTICE is that deacons may wear clericals on an “ad hoc” basis with the bishop’s permission. In other words, the deacon calls the bishop and explains what he wants to do and why he feels he needs to wear the collar; more frequently, of course, the bishop himself will communicate those situations in which he wants deacons to wear the collar. Again, in Washington, even WITH our policy, Cardinal Hickey used to REQUIRE that we wear collars whenever we served in hospitals and prisons; it was no longer up to us. The bottom line here: Each bishop wants to have this flexibility. By the way, I can’t give specific numbers on which dioceses follow which policies for the simple fact that these policies can change from bishop to bishop. So, as in Washington, while one policy is followed under one bishop, it may change or be modified by a successor bishop.