Patheos' "The Habit of Witness" series features essays written by consecrated Catholic women and men sharing their encounters and experiences while dressed in the habit. In this fourth installment, a seminarian reflects on how wearing a Roman Collar affects his interactions with parishioners during his pastoral-year in formation.
Up until last September, seminarians in formation at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception did not wear the Roman collar. For many years, we students training for the priesthood were schooled in the importance of forming Michael-the-person before forming Michael-the-Priest, and there is value to that notion. A fully-formed priest cannot develop from half-a-man.
At some point, however, the man-and-priest must integrate; my experience is that a seminarian in a collar gets a taste of the priesthood that he cannot get without it, thus the collar itself becomes both a lesson and tool in formation. A yoke, and a hopeful witness both to the world and to the seminarian.
In the past decades seminarians were discouraged away from the collar in order to discourage the temptation to clericalism, or from forming a superficial attraction to the trappings of the priesthood. The seminarians of today, training for the priesthood in a time of church-wide pain and scandal, do not want to wear the collar out of a feeling of superiority or exclusivity; we want to wear the collar out of a desire to be a witness to the world, and a symbol of hope and continuance. Externals matter. Attire matters. The Roman collar matters.
I was grateful for the change in collar-policy because it happened as I was heading out of the seminary and into a parish for my pastoral-year internship. I don’t know who was happier -- the Parish of St. Joseph’s in Ronkonkoma, NY to have a seminarian, or me for being sent there. This particular parish has a history of hosting pastoral-year seminarians. I was their third in five years. The two who preceded me are men whom I admire tremendously. I knew I had big shoes to fill.
I wore the collar every chance I could while in the parish. I truly believed the people expected it of me. The collar helped me tell the people of the parish and the town that men willing to give up the world in order to serve Christ do exist, despite the negative press. The people of God love their priests, and, by extension, they love seminarians.
To be a priest is to be a public person. Being a seminarian in a collar means learning how to be that public man, and that spiritual leader; one can’t possibly lead if one cannot be seen. The collar, for good or ill, made me stick out like a sore thumb at parish gatherings. There is an expectation of how one should comport oneself while wearing the collar, and I was acutely aware of it. My task and challenge during the year was to fulfill that expectation “in season and out”; when it was convenient and when it wasn’t; when I was dressed clerically and when I wasn’t.
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.
I treasure the encounters I was blessed to have while wearing the collar. The most striking to me were those times where I found myself standing before a group of mourners at a funeral home. In those moments it wasn’t Seminarian Michael, but the whole church -- the Body of Christ -- reaching out. The people I stood in front of didn’t care who I was or what I, personally, had to say. The very presence of someone representing the whole, and bringing liturgy and prayer, was of consolation to them.
At my first wake service, I stood there, quite scared that I might say or do something wrong. I was this 24-year-old seminarian with almost no experience of death or grief. But, the people sitting before me didn’t see my inexperience or my nervousness. They saw a minister of the Church. They saw beyond my inadequacies and were consoled by what I could bring. All I had to do was not get in the way of the Holy Spirit.
It is amazing to think of the effect that a little piece of cloth can have on people. I was immediately accepted by the people of the St. Joseph’s. Suddenly, I had gravitas. I was instantly different. I spent all year trying to live up to and strengthen these attributes that the people of God gave to me, so generously and so trustingly, and with their prayers. I hope I did not use the collar to point to me but rather, always and everywhere, to point to Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd.