A Thundering Squadron of Cassocks

This title barely qualifies as a pun. Cassock, the name for the clerical garment with the 33 buttons, may share an etymological root with cossack, the name for the Ukrainian horse-soldiers who took a famously unsportsmanlike approach to warfare. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, cassock comes from the French casaque, meaning long, coat. Casaque, along with cossack, may come from the Turkic quzzak, meaning “nomad, adventurer.” Nomads and adventurers wore long coats to protect themselves from the biting steppe winds, so it all makes sense. Sort of.

I wish I could explain away my prejudice against the cassock by citing its distant connection to maniacs with forelocks and really sharp swords. But no, when I wrinkle my nose at the sight of a priest or seminarian in full clerical fig, I am acting from a general mistrust of men who overdress for their parts.

The cassock is an impressive-looking garment, no doubt about it. Nobody can wear one without looking at least a little like Darth Vader. Flattering to the shoulders and tactful to the paunch, it can make a tall man look like a giant. By flapping or swirling, cassocks tend to take up space and call attention to themselves. Once I attended a reception for three newly ordained seminarians to which half the priests of my diocese had shown up in cassocks. When two of these fashion plates walked briskly by me, I found myself leaping — not stepping, mind you — out of their way.

This is remarkable for two reasons: 1) I’m a New Yorker; 2) I wasn’t actually in their way. Something about their carriage commanded a theatrical show of deference, and I maintain that their clothes nourished it.

Take it from a guy who has, at various points in this life, stomped in 12-hole Doc Martens and sauntered in Tony Soprano-style kidskin duster coats: such a species as get-out-of-my-way exists, and the cassock, or soutane, belongs to it.

Far from being a secret, this is probably the point of the thing. Nobody’s said so in quite those words; normally, when someone wants to plead for the cassock, he’ll say something like “A priest ought to look like a priest.” Fair enough, but a black Going-My-Way suit fills that bill just fine. Nobody who wears one about town is going to be mistaken for a lawyer or a tennis pro. But saying openly that you want to priests to look like priests and cut imposing figures is a little harder to defend.

This is why the biretta hasn’t made a bigger comeback (though, to be fair, there have been some feints in that direction). Only a Cardinal Ottaviani type — that is, a guy with the face of a Renaissance Doge and Ozymandias’ own sneer of cold command — could look imposing in one. Anyone else would look quaint, or worse, adorable. I haven’t taken any surveys, but I’d bet nobody enters the priesthood hoping to be patted on the head, or the pom-pom

All this raises the question: Why shouldn’t a priest look imposing? I suppose there is no very good reason. When I thought I might have a vocation, my first choice was the Order of Preachers. The Dominicans’ reputation for fancy brainwork certainly attracted me, but no less did the habits, which when worn with the black cappa, make a man look both dashing and inquisitorial. One evening I stepped out of my church to find four Dominicans, standing in line abreast by the curb. They made a blood-chilling sight; I thought someone was due to be stretched on a rack. If they’d been holding torches or tapers, or better, glowering, I might have fainted.

But now that I’ve worked out what side of the altar I’m best suited to, I’m started judging sacerdotal garb by entirely different standards. In short, I want to feel confident that the person to whom I’m entrusting a share of my spiritual health is not so vain a jerk as I am. Fairly or not, the cassock all but convinces me the opposite is true. Last year, our parish got a new pastor who turned out to be a tremendously nice guy. Figuring that out took me months — months! Partly, it was the man’s resemblance to the surly battalion commander in the HBO miniseries Generation Kill that retarded my recognition of his good qualities; partly, it was the cassock he wore.

The two went together perfectly.

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