Roman Collar as Yoke and Witness

There is a story–or a bit of blarney, I’m not sure which–about why Catholic priests wear the distinctive Roman Collar, all black with just a tab of white showing at the front, rather than the full white collar. I heard it a while ago, and don’t remember details, but in this telling it seems that during wartime many priests were easy targets because their all-white collars were easy to see, particularly at night, and so the collar was changed to what we see today, and the rectangle of white amid the black has become a symbol of light, piercing the darkness.

It all sounds very Irish to me, but it may be true, so I am putting a few feelers out amongst my friends to get the whole skinny on the collar.

In the meantime, I hope you will go read what this young seminarian has to say about wearing the collar while he is in formation:

The time of seminary formation is time spent trying to develop the heart of the Good Shepherd. Wearing the collar helped me do that. It helped me tell the people of St. Josephs that I was theirs, that I existed to serve them. Wearing the collar I represented someone much greater than myself. It is not I who serve, but Christ, whose yoke I wear.

The collar pointed to this reality.

This piece is part of the Habit of Witness Series, and I confess that until I read it, I had never thought of the Roman Collar as being the “yoke of Christ.” But it’s a lovely thought and one that is completely in keeping with what Sr. Mary Catharine of Jesus writes about here, in describing the meaning of the monastic habit, of which the scapular is the “yoke.” One could extrapolate that a bit to easily consider that the Roman Collar is, in a manner of speaking, a priest’s “habit” – the outward sign of his consecration.

I like this piece by “Seminarian Michael” and hope you will too. I actually stumbled into a mass where he was making his farewell to the parish he writes about, and it was clear that he had formed a true and heart-felt bond with the community. He was full of gratitude for their support and all they had taught him, and I thought, “if he keeps going like that, full of fervor, tempered by humility, he’s gonna be a great priest!”

At one point during a coffee break at last September’s Church Up Close seminar the subject of vocations came up, and someone noted the slow-but-steady (and world-wide) increase in seminarians since the “long Lent” of 2002 and the first disclosures of our too-poorly-addressed, too-poorly-handled scandals. One priest said–with a profound and almost palpable sense of humility–”it is miraculous! No one can say these young men are coming in unaware of the negatives they face, and the distrust, or that they will be burdened and tarnished by this. They are aware! And yet they hear the call and they come. It is a true mystery, and a mark of grace.”

Yes, the generation of priests being formed amid all of this scandal and controversy–and the ever-powerful lure of the secular life, and the ebbing away of those poorly formed in the faith–means that they are being challenged and humbled right from the start of their journeys. But perhaps this crucible they’re in will make them strong enough and resilient enough to bring reinforcements to what has been weakened. I pray for them–for seminarians and priests, and all people consecrated to God–every day.

We Christians like to talk about being a “sign of contradiction” to a self-interested, distracted and agnostic age, but as we try to live our lives in faith, we do get to walk into a Target and buy a pair of jeans without having anyone challenge us on it. It’s quite a different thing, I think, to outwardly identify yourself as being part–some would say a radical part–of that contradiction. Those who do walk into a Target and risk becoming a target, as well; they could use a few extra whispered up prayers on their behalf.

Another Seminarian Story: this one concerning a young man whose life may have been saved through the intercessory prayers of Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan

“During my coma, there are only two things I remember,” he said. “The only two things I remember are two visions of Cardinal Van Thuan … He appeared to me twice.”

Joseph said he not only saw, but actually met and spoke with Cardinal Van Thuan, during two vivid incidents he described as a “separation of soul and body.” Although he said he couldn’t reveal the details of the ecounters, he did say that he suspected that they occurred while his doctors were observing his loss of brain activity and decline in vital signs.

“Soon after the second visit” with the cardinal, he said, “I woke up from the coma.” He had “no idea what had happened,” or why he had “all these tubes and wires” coming out of his body, particularly the tube in his neck that kept him from speaking.

Doctors thought it would be months or years before he could speak, walk, or study. But within days he was talking and breathing normally, racing his nurses around the rehabilitation room. He also received an entirely unexpected phone call from Cardinal Van Thuan’s sister in Canada, who ended up giving him one of her brother’s rosaries.

Joseph returned to the seminary at the beginning of the following semester– a far cry from the two years his doctors had advised him to wait.

Deacon Greg’s Homily: about Cardinal Van Thuan’s long imprisonment and his unwavering faith

“Because of the Roman Collar”

Deacon Greg, Again: on Why a priest should wear the collar.

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  • dave roth

    I am greatly saddened that priests and religious do not wear their identifying garments; b/4 I entered the church, I was looking for a priest to unburden myself to, but had difficulty finding one. At the time, I didn’t realize that some of our Franciscans were priests. A typically ignorant protestant.

  • Ellen

    Our parish priest is the vocation director for our diocese. We have more young men studying for the priesthood than ever before – and they are dedicated.

    I am also very blessed to live near the Generalate of the Fathers of Mercy, who most assuredly do wear the collar and cassock too.

  • Kathy Schiffer

    I recently made a new “friend” via Facebook– he was, as it turned out, a Catholic priest. He didn’t write “Father” before his name; he didn’t wear a Roman collar. I only found out after closely reading his bio that he is pastor of a church. I was so disappointed– What was he hiding? And why did he willingly give up the opportunity to be a positive image of Christ in the world? He seemed to have an “occupation” rather than a “vocation.”

    If there are any priests out there reading my comment, couldja think about it? You should be so proud to wear that collar!

  • Linda Leonard

    Kathy, I am obviously not a priest, but in knowing several, I can assure you that no ordained priest has time for conversing on Facebook. I would stay far away from this man. You are correct, so trust your instinct.

  • JBalconi

    I think it’s a matter of honesty, myself. If you’re married, do you wear a ring? Do let people know? Or do you just go about your day like a single person?

    Years ago there was a man in one of my classes who would talk to me every time we met. It got so that we would talk while walking to our cars and then be standing in the parking structure for some time. He was interesting and seemed interested in me, so I suggested we meet outside class for coffee. Then he acted shocked and informed me that he was a priest. Of course, he hadn’t mentioned that before, or I wouldn’t have wasted my time (or hopes).

    I told a nun the story during a discussion of this very topic. She informed me that I shouldn’t blame my bad behavior (!?!) on the priest. The wearing of a collar or a habit is between the religious and God. That may be so, but if a man took his wedding ring off and started hanging around a single woman, we’d hardly say it was between him and his wife.

  • Elaine S.

    “If you’re married, do you wear a ring?”

    Not if you work around machinery or tools — that’s why my dad didn’t wear his. My husband also had to stop wearing his wedding ring because he developed some kind of bump or spur on his ring finger and the ring made it worse.

    Likewise there may be legitimate reasons for a priest not to wear his clericals or a Religioius not to wear the habit if it would be exceptionally awkward or dangerous to do so.

    However, in BOTH cases the person should still make it clear who they are. My dad never pretended to be a single man or hid the fact that he was married, and neither does my husband.

  • Christopher Barr


    You might enjoy the following by George Herbert, a 17th Century Anglican priest.

    The Collar.

    I Struck the board, and cry’d, No more.
    I will abroad.
    What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
    My lines and life are free; free as the rode,
    Loose as the winde, as large as store.
    Shall I be still in suit?
    Have I no harvest but a thorn
    To let me bloud, and not restore
    What I have lost with cordiall fruit?
    Sure there was wine
    Before my sighs did drie it: there was corn
    Before my tears did drown it.
    Is the yeare onely lost to me?
    Have I no bayes to crown it?
    No flowers, no garlands gay? all blasted?
    All wasted?
    Not so, my heart: but there is fruit,
    And thou hast hands.
    Recover all thy sigh-blown age
    On double pleasures: leave thy cold dispute
    Of what is fit, and not. Forsake thy cage,
    Thy rope of sands,1
    Which pettie thoughts have made, and made to thee
    Good cable, to enforce and draw,
    And be thy law,
    While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.
    Away; take heed:
    I will abroad.
    Call in thy deaths head there: tie up thy fears.
    He that forbears
    To suit and serve his need,
    Deserves his load.
    But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wilde
    At every word,
    Me thoughts I heard one calling, Childe:
    And I reply’d, My Lord.

  • Philip Sandstrom

    It might be worth noting that the “Roman collar” was not a common form of clergy dress till the beginning of the 20th century. In the United States at least the Roman Catholic clergy outside of their Churches commonly wore sober colored clothes along with the sort of tie that was common when a suit was worn. This was despite the suggestions of the various Councils of Baltimore. In most South European countries the clergy wore the cassock in some form or other. In Northern Europe the sober suit (and tie) was the common mode. In fact the ‘black suit and Roman Collar’ was so new at the time of Vatican II that it was called ‘the American style’.

  • Hank

    While in my nominally Catholic grad school on one occasion I sitting with several faculty form the very scapular department. The of one of their colleagues came up, the only priest in the department who was never seen wearing a collar. They trashed him for this saying this reflected a total lack of conviction about anything on his part. I suspect if you and asked the priest he would of said something like he didn’t wear a collar to increase his credibility and relevance.

    I wonder how many priests unknowingly shot their ministry in the foot that way.

  • fr. Dismas Sayre, OP

    @Kathy: Facebook has a somewhat haphazardly enforced policy that titles such as “Father” or “Fr” (ditto “Sister” or “Reverend”), are not allowed. Many of us have had our titles removed from our profiles. A few get around the policy by resorting to other titles. Facebook allows “Pater” or “Friar,” for example. As to why he was not wearing a collar, I would not automatically say he does not wear a collar in public. Profile pictures are often just a kind of scrapbook.

    @Linda: while I would say that no ordained priest has time to be on Facebook all day, many of us do us it to keep in contact with our families or to reach our parishioners and others, especially those of us involved in Newman ministry. We try to maintain a Gospel presence and witness in the new public fora (even the electronic ones, as the Holy Father asked priests and religious to do recently). Hopefully, we elevate the conversation a bit, and direct it towards higher things.