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.

  • Rjfkm

    I generally like your column, without necessarily always agreeing with it. I think you’re judging by appearances. Some may take arrogant pride in the clerical state, some may not, regardless of what they wear.

    I get annoyed with reactionaries–folks who react given situations etc. with dreadful predictability. Example: The liberal leader of a small group I participate in decried the changes to the text of the liturgy to take place this year, saying they’re turning back the clock and will evenually go all Latin. This individual has an attitude to the official Church almost identical it seems to that the National Catholic Reporter–they’re presumed wrong until proven otherwise.

    Nor am I happy with those who think we’ll all be better once we go back to the Latin mass universally, have priests wearing cassocks, and nuns in wimples, and use Gregorian chant exclusively. Then, they think, all manner of things shall be well.

    Anyway, your final couple of sentence show that hopefully you learned your lesson on the dangers of judging from appearances.

  • Anonymous

    This isn’t bout people who congratulate themselves for tehir state of life. It’s about people who like to dress up and show off. To me, the two needn’t overlap.

  • Holly in Nebraska

    While I think the mix of “dashing and inquisitorial” is almost hot, I have to say that I’ve seen to many badly fitting cassocks. I was watching poor Bishop Dolan on EWTN. It looked like he got his cassock off the Halloween costume rack. Nothing fit. And he looked uncomfortable. I like him, but he really needs to see a tailor. Superficial thought for the day.

    Do you feel the same way about nuns’ habits and veils?

  • Karen in SC

    Florence: Darcy Cheesewright is an uncouth Cossack!
    Bertie: (looking confused) Isn’t that one of those things clergymen wear? (Jeeves and Wooster)

  • Anonymous

    What ho, Karen!

  • Rjfkm

    But you said it was only after a few months you figured out that your pastor was a nice guy. You had some reaction to him it based his accidental similarity in appearance to a fictional TV character and the fact he wore a cassock. I too have reactions to folks based on my mood at the moment, their facial expression, their clothes, etc. When I recover my sanity, I try to be more reasonable.
    BYW, the seminarians in my archdiocese (Newark NJ), I have heard, are required to wear cassocks. Don’t care either way, myself.

    A little off topic, but what’s distinction between this column and “An Israelite Without Guile”?

  • http://www.withouthavingseen.com Ryan Haber

    Except for lifeguard bathing suits and the like, clerical attire was the first “uniform” I ever wore. Friends who went to Catholic or other prep schools wore such things earlier in life, and friends in the military or who are doctors also wear very distinctive uniforms. If it’s true that we are what we eat, it’s at least as true that we act as we dress. I saw that with the children I taught at a Catholic school. A similar principle is at play with the enforcement of the loitering laws in Times Square. I’m not kidding. Again, my grandfather always said, “Mind the pennies and the dollars take care of themselves.”

    There is something very true about making superficial or minor changes to effect deeper ones as well. When in clerics, I definitely was more conscious of my odd role in the Church, and because at my seminary we only wore cassocks in liturgical functions, all the more so when in cassock. This mindfulness of one’s vocation is of course exactly the sort of thing that some people need to forget, or at least internalize and let go; others need to remember it more acutely.

    I’ve noticed that the professions, academia, and the political circles that horde through my city oftentimes have chips on their shoulders and are laden with neuroses. They clearly became lawyers, professors, movers and shakers, or what have you, to get back at the “cool kids”. They dress to the nines, work out every day, and are obviously perfectly insecure, always trying to compensate for something or show how great they are. These people are found in D.C. by the tens of thousands, literally. The priesthood is no different.

    A man who takes himself too seriously and becomes a priest will continue to do so, only he will be able to transfer all the respect he “is owed” to his priesthood – just as others do so with their positions in society. Certain very high ranking political figures come to mind. It is just this sort of man that needs to forget he is a priest, take off the princess crown, and wash some dishes or shovel some muck in the parish yard.

    Another sort exists though. A friend of mine is well educated with multiple degrees, but speaking to him it is immediately obvious that he grew up working his father’s construction lots with immigrants and so forth. This man, a priest, is equally comfortable with the ambassador from Peru as he is with Peruvian migrant workers. He’s a rockstar on the basketball court, always has some harebrained scheme for grooming his hair (sorry man, if you’re reading this), and is very involved with his large extended family. No task is too difficult, depressing, dirty, or delicate for Father. He’s great at making anybody feel comfortable and welcome. He knows how to fit into a cassock, but doesn’t especially gravitate toward them. I suspect Sundays are cassock days, but that’s about it.

    For such a man, cassock no more turns him cossack than a banker’s watch would make him a boer.

    It’s good for us to squeeze into things that are uncomfortable, like wearing or seeing cassocks.

    Although, I have to tell you, it’s REALLY hard to play soccer with the eighth graders in a cassock.

  • jkm

    There is one young very full-of-himself priest in our diocese who insists on wearing the cassock to all public events. As I was checking him in and completing a name tag for a conference for which he had not bothered to stoop to register, I asked his name. “Father Smith,” he replied. “And your first name, Father?” I asked. He looked slightly over my head, took a beat, and replied, “FATHER.” So I completed his name tag Father FATHER Smith, which is now what everybody calls him.

  • Anonymous

    “Father Father” is even better than “Major Major.”