Titles and Cassocks and Vestments, oh my!

Fr. Dan Horan, for whom I have tremendous respect, has written a new article for America magazine titled “Lead us not into clericalism.”  It’s well written and I agree with most of it.  Pope Francis himself, as Fr. Dan points out, has condemned clericalism.  I do, too.  There is no place in the Church for a priest or bishop or any cleric for that matter to think of himself as better or above the people that he serves.

Fr. Dan starts his article by pointing to the distinction that certain people have made between him and other young priests:

Next month I turn 30. While that might seem like an old age to me as I approach the milestone, most people are quick to remind me of how young a friar and priest I still am. That statement of fact is often, but not always, accompanied by some well-meaning remark by a parishioner after Mass or an audience member after a talk suggesting that I’m not like other “young priests” they know.

What generally follows that sort of comment is an expression of concern about the perceived unapproachable or pretentious character of so many of the newly ordained. They appear to be more concerned about titles, clerical attire, fancy vestments, distance between themselves and their parishioners, and they focus more on what makes them distinctive than on their vocation to wash the feet of others (Jn 13:14–17), to lead with humility and to show the compassionate face of God to all.

What concerns people, in other words, is clericalism.

I’m a young priest.  And I’d like to respond to the comments that Fr. Dan has heard.

First, I find it important to be called Father Duffy (as an aside: I go by my last name because I have been called “Duffy” since the 4th grade.  The only people that call me “Michael” are my family).  I also think vestments and the liturgy ought to be beautiful.  I don’t think that makes me clerical in the least.  The title “Father” is, I hope, a title of affection, not of authority.  I wear my cassock almost daily in my parish.  It helps to remind me of what I’m called to and it helps the people of the parish know to whom I belong.  That doesn’t create a separation between me and the parishioners of the parish.  I wear my collar when I go to the bank and when I go food shopping.  I have gotten into many conversations this way with people that I wouldn’t have otherwise – simply because I dressed as a priest.  Even Pope Francis, when he was Cardinal Bergoglio, riding the buses and enjoying a matte with the people of the nabe, was wearing his collar. Jesuits will tell you that truth IS humility and Bergoglio, in his collar was saying, “this is who I am, a Catholic priest, very much here and one of you, but a visible reminder that God is always with us all.”

The collar makes me stand out.  And thats the point.  I stand out so that people will know they can approach me, that I am a Catholic Priest.  I don’t wear it to get a good seat in a restaurant, or a free dinner.  Those things don’t happen any more.  The witness value of the collar is inestimable.  All the young priests I know wear the collar proudly.  Again, not for a gain, but precisely to be of service to those we encounter.  I know we are all on a journey, no one over the other.  But we are each called to different vocations, with different responsibilities.  We are all equal—but we are not the same.

I think many young priests are attracted to these things because they speak of the transcendent.  The beautiful vestments point to the beauty of God, not of me.  I blogged about that not too long ago:

I remember getting ready for my first Mass and thinking about what vestment I would wear.  In the end I decided on one that was gold with an appliqué of a crowned “M” in honor of the Blessed Mother.  I do admit, the vestment is ‘loud.’  But it is also stunningly beautiful.  I didn’t wear it to make myself look better, but rather to direct our attention to the beauty of the liturgy and of God Himself.  The chasuble I wore for my first Mass was a gift from my Mother and Step-Father.  I’ll always have it.  And when I do wear it I’m reminded just what Leah wrote of…  That I’m entering into something sacred, something special, something other worldly.

Just because I am concerned about titles and vestiture doesn’t mean that I care about those things more than I care about the people of this parish.  Every time I hear confessions, I am moved at just how holy people are.  I am struck by how much holier they are than me!  It’s an incredibly humbling experience.

In an article about the book On Heaven and Earth, John Allen writes:

The pope evinces little preoccupation for externals: “The problem is not whether you wear a cassock, but rather if you roll up its sleeves when you have to work for the good of others,” he says, quoting another priest he respects.

Finally, Francis rejects clericalism, which he calls a “distortion of religion.”

“When a priest leads a diocese or a parish, he has to listen to his community, to make mature decisions and lead the community accordingly,” he says. “In contrast, when the priest imposes himself, when in some way he says, ‘I am the boss here,’ he falls into clericalism.”

The problem is not with the externals.  Externals matter.  Signs and symbols mean something; they speak to us.  The greater issue is, of course, the internals.  How do we priests see ourselves in relation to the people?  Often, I speak of “my” parish, or “my” people.  I don’t use those words out of a possessive meaning, but rather out of affection.  I am charged by the bishop with the pastoral care of the people of this particular parish.  They don’t belong to me in any way.  I know I’m not the boss.  Even if I become a pastor, I still won’t be the boss.  God is the boss.  The Church and all of us who are a part of it belong to Him.

I agree with the rest of what Fr. Dan writes in his article and with what Pope Francis has been saying.  Make sure to go read Fr. Dan’s article.  It really is good.  But let’s not dismiss the young clergy all together.  We are young.  We have some learning to do.  But our hearts belong to the Lord.

We’ve dedicated our lives to the Church, not for our benefit, but because we want to serve Christ and His Bride, the Church.

  • MissionaryAdGentes

    Thank you for this post Father.I have many close friends that are priests one is a best friend but I still call him Father. I know some young clergy get a bad rap kinda like the white glove lieutenant that goes to war with the seasoned sergeant scenario and this is not fair either. But I have been around real clericalism as well and it does damage to the Church. Usually it is some type of wound or personality disorder that is the underlying cause . Prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is vital in the life of the priest as well as the laity. But i think more so for the priest. Thank you for sharing your heart and being honest about clericalism and your love and care for your parish as well. Thank you for our saying yes to the call to serve.

  • GP

    Just a thought…. Because Pope Francis is not a high fan of clericalism, is he “modeling” this by the way he vests even for Mass no matter where? Is he modeling this to draw attention away from himself as a cleric or as a pope? I’ve always thought that when priests vests for Mass, they are drawing attention to God’s glory and in a way, honoring and praising the awesome beauty of God.

    I agree that priest wearing their clerics in public is in no way to show others may be lesser than they are, but that priests also belong in the secular world and bring the presence of Christ to others.

    • GodsGadfly

      I’ve always found that, the more formally a priest is dressed, both in his cassock and his liturgical vestments, the less of “him” I see/feel and the more I recognize Christ in him. The problem with this whole argument is that those who argue *against* “clericalism”–including, I daresay, Pope Francis himself–are the ones imposing their personalities on their “flocks”; not the ones who try to actually follow the rules.

  • Thomas M

    The cleric doth protest too much, methinks.

  • Cassandra

    I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss your authority (esp. as a future pastor) as if it is something you should apologize for. The authority is real.

    One the key problems in the episcopacy today is that bishops are ashamed of their own authority and so go to great extremes to avoid exercising it when they ought. Failure to use one’s authority when it must be exercised for the good of the Church is not being “pastoral”; it’s dereliction of duty.

  • Nick

    I appreciate what you have to say. I don’t think the cloths in themselves speak of clericalism. However, the charitable attitude projected by the priest is essential. I perceive a growing elitism or superiority complex with some priests in their attitude toward other priests (ex: the traditional dressed priest vs. the standard dressed priest and vice versa). While that might be too simplistic, it might be more in line with the priests who use the extraordinary form of the Mass, and the priests who do not. I know of a priest who has tried to be friendly with a group of priest in our diocese, but feels shunned because he does not perform the extraordinary form of the Mass. He feels like he is being scorned by this group, who tend to be very young, while he is in his early 50s. While I cannot verify if this perception is based on reality, it is nonetheless a perception that causes unneeded if unrealized tension.
    My dad taught me about the beauty of the Latin Mass, and have come to value it as an integral part of our faith and tradition. I hope no one would very intentionally or for that matter unintentionally use it as a weapon of status or worthiness.

  • shawnbm

    I enjoyed the article, Father. I agree with your premise. In my view, the modern culture (in USA at least) needs to see more men and women who are clerics or religious walking about society in clerical garb–for the teaching and pastoral moments that may come of it. The value is inestimable when you are speaking of the souls of men. Finally, I believe every permanent deacon should don clerical garb when not working at their secular jobs–all the better to draw folks in and to increase the number of golden teaching moments.

  • DebraBrunsberg

    I am 57 and was confirmed five years ago. I find that the young priests being ordained today (at least in Minnesota) are joyful, compassionate, educated, and holy priests. Many wear the cassock and I love it. It shouts out that they belong to the Lord Jesus. I do not see the age of the priest, I see the priest as an “alter Christus,” and I am so thankful that they are willing to literally give their lives to bring me the Sacraments. The Lord has given me a deep love for all of His priests and young or old, I will be forever grateful for each one of them.

  • Jim

    I always thought clericalism was the heresy where folks run around doing priest-like stuff thinking erstwhile this makes them more important.

    (I stole that one from Dr. Peter Kreeft, who said in one of his lectures one-day that his definition for clericalism is all the unnecessary legions of auxiliary ministers of communion and the fussy churchy-ness precipitates around them.)

  • The Truth Will Set You Free

    Thank you, Father Duffy and may God richly bless you in your vocation. Whenever I see cassock and collar, I think of Eucharist. This thought is truly consoling.
    Once a good and holy priest came to our town from a neighbouring and quite “liberal” diocese to have a talk. He was invited because he is good and holy priest. However, the pressures of his brother priests from his diocese left the mark. I was sitting at the registration table. This beautiful priest came to me and introduced himself as “Jorge”. I said that because of the authority he represents I could never call him that. For me he is Father Jorge. He smiled and got the message. During the presentation he called himself Father Jorge. And his talk was beautiful and we all could see, we need more priests like him.

  • John Fisher

    While studying a Graduate Certificate of Education in a Catholic College I found one of my lecturer was a priest. He dressed like an old scruff. His subject was “mission”. When in a candid discussion I pointed out he didn’t dress like a priest which seemed to express a lack of identity and witness. His response was to tell me people like me were losing with the new Pope. I responded by telling him I had witnessed such a loss of identity and conviction in the last 50 years of which priests like him were both the cause and expression! He gave my essay the lowest mark I have ever received and called me “traditional” as an insult!

  • SuperAwesomeDude

    Really? Out of all the problems and evils afflicting the world and the church, THIS is what Fr. Dan wants to write about? *Some* anonymous parishioners complaining about *some* perceived clericalism among *some* younger priests. Give me a break. This is America Magazine. It’s nothing more than a thinly veiled attack on young conservative priests. Liberals had their chance and they failed miserably. Their reforms, subversion, and corruption nearly destroyed the Church. Thank God their time is coming to an end! The Holy Spirit has sent us a new generation of priests who are faithful to Catholic teaching and identity.

    Keep wearing that cassock, Fr. Duffy. Some priests just don’t like Catholicism. And some parishioners just like to complain about nothing.


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