Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On wearing clerical attire.

Before I turn to the real subject of this post, here's a brief preview of coming attractions: For a while, I've been preparing a response to a tag from Macrina Walker on a 'fifteen authors' meme that has been making certain rounds. Actually compiling a list of fifteen authors took me very little time (in full compliance with the rules, I managed to do it in under fifteen minutes), but preparing a post that goes beyond a list of names and actually explains the role that each has had in my life has proven much more of a challenge when teaching and preparing to teach dominate most of my waking hours. I hope that the break from work provided by this week's Thanksgiving holiday will give me the time to complete the 'fifteen authors' post and to work on some others that have been in the hopper for a while.

Now, the matter at hand: over the weekend, America's In All Things blog included a post by Jesuit Father Francis X. Clooney, currently Parkman Professor of Divinity at Harvard, offering some personal reflections on the question of how priests should dress in public. As he notes at the start of the post, Father Clooney was prompted to write on this topic in response to some readers' reactions to an earlier blog post which included a video link to a lecture that he gave recently at Harvard; to Father Clooney's surprise, reader comments on the earlier post focused not on the substance of his lecture but rather on his attire, or, more specifically, the fact that he wasn't wearing a clerical collar when he gave the talk. For Father Clooney, these comments raise the following question: "Should priests always wear clerics?"

In his reply, Father Clooney notes that great Jesuit missionaries like St. Francis Xavier, Roberto de Nobili, and Matteo Ricci all adapted their attire to suit the cultures in which they worked, concluding that "how we dress is instrumental to our purpose, and should be assessed in terms of its usefulness and appropriateness to the occasion, the mission." For a Jesuit at Harvard, Father Clooney suggests, this may mean dressing as most academics dress, even if doing so requires one to eschew more explicitly "priestly" garb. At the same time, Father Clooney is quick to point out that he always wears a Roman collar when he goes to the parish where he says Mass on weekends and that he sometimes does so at Harvard as well. He also insists (most explicitly in the comment thread on his earlier post) that at Harvard "everyone knows I am a Jesuit and a Catholic priest" even though he doesn't wear the collar on a daily basis.

Overall, Father Clooney's remarks on this issue strike me as fairly reasonable. I'm a bit skeptical of his claim that "everyone" at Harvard knows exactly who he is; I'm sure that this is the case with his Div School colleagues and others with whom he has regular contact, but I have a hard time believing that this is more universally true - Harvard, after all, is a big place, and I doubt that everyone on campus recognizes Father Clooney on sight and knows his bio. Nonetheless, there is something classically Jesuit about Father Clooney's argument on inculturation in an academic milieu - as he points out with his references to Xavier and Ricci, it's the sort of thing that Ours have always done - though in practice Jesuits are bound to disagree about how principles like these should be applied in concrete circumstances. As perhaps bears mentioning, Father Clooney offers his views not as a reflection of official Jesuit policy or as a prescription for all priests, seminarians, and religious, but merely as an explanation of his personal practice.

Though I'm not a priest, as a Jesuit regent and university lecturer I wear clerical attire on a regular basis. The Jesuits with whom I live and work take varying approaches to the issue of attire: some never wear clerics, some wear them for part or most of the time, and some wear them all the time (indeed, one priest in my community goes a step further and regularly dons a traditional Jesuit cassock when going out to do pastoral work). Though we rarely discuss such matters in community, I'm sure that each Jesuit could offer his own well-articulated rationale to explain why he dresses as he does. Given the diversity of the global Society of Jesus, it would be unwise to try to generalize too much about Jesuits' attitudes and practices in this area. At the very least, I should emphasize that anyone who presumes that Jesuits never wear clerics is quite mistaken - even if the Jesuits that you know don't wear clerics, you shouldn't take their example as representative of the universal Society. To quote an old and wise saying, "If you've met one Jesuit, you've met one Jesuit."

In my case, I always took it for granted that as a regent I would wear clerics in the classroom. Given that I teach at a Jesuit university and that it is precisely as a member of the Society that I came here, I think that it's important that I dress in a manner that visibly manifests my identity as a Jesuit; the easiest way for me to do this at a place like Saint Joseph's University is to wear clerics. Though this sometimes forces me to explain my status in Jesuit formation, noting (as I always do to my students on the first day of class) that I'm not yet a priest even though I often dress like one, I've come to value initially awkward 'don't-call-me-father' moments as opportunities to help my colleagues and students broaden their understanding of the Jesuit charism that animates the place where they work and study. I could articulate other good reasons for wearing clerical attire in my ministry at Saint Joseph's, but the ones I've given so far should suffice for now.

Given that this precise question came up in some of the responses to Father Clooney's post, I should add that I don't believe that priests, religious and seminarians should be expected to wear identifiable religious clothing every time they appear in public. You're not likely to see me in clerics at the bank or the post office, or (to cite one of Father Clooney's examples) at the airport. Though my sense of decorum is such that I generally dress up a bit when I attend classical concerts (something I do as often as my time and budget will allow), in that particular context I take 'dressing up' to mean wearing a jacket and tie - but never a Roman collar. I've also been in apostolic situations where I found it best not to wear clerics. As a novice and as a scholastic I have worked in two refugee resettlement programs, both of which operated under Catholic auspices and had vowed religious on staff; though all of my coworkers and some of the clients I served were aware of my religious identity, for various reasons I decided that I could more effectively carry out the mission that I had been given if I wore secular clothes. Thus, I recognize that the question of what Jesuits ought to wear in ministry is a complex and multifaceted one.

I could certainly write a lot more on this topic, but the above will have to do for now. Later today, I'll be driving up to Massachusetts to join my family for Thanksgiving. My prayers and best wishes are with all readers who are traveling or preparing to welcome guests and visitors in the coming days. May those who celebrate Thanksgiving Day this week find peace and joy on this holiday, and may God grant all of us a greater sense of gratitude for His work in our lives. AMDG.


At 11/23/2010 8:23 AM, Blogger Robin said...

Hmmm, I wonder, should I respond to this one? I sure you will hear from many Catholics far more knowledgeable on the subject than I -- and far more opinionated! But then, why not toss in my Protestant response?

First, on the question of identity, I'm quite sure that not everyone on the Harvard campus knows that Father Clooney is a Jesuit and a priest. My guess is that most people outside his own school don't even know what a Jesuit is. But I doubt that clerical attire would resolve that issue.

Secondly, and this is merely personal anecdotal experience, while clerical attire is expected in religious celebrations, I sometimes find it to be something of a barrier in other contexts, academic and personal. (Qualifiers intended.) That, I realize, is entirely a Protestant sensibility, and probably one of which you are already aware. I certainly don't mean to imply that it is an anti-Catholic response, although coming from some individuals it might be. But on the whole it's simply that, for those of us who have had the term "priesthood of all believers" drilled into us with a different bent than Catholics have, the collar creates a sense of distinction to which in some contexts we just don't know quite how to respond.

For me, personally, it means that I notice it and then forget about it. But your post causes me to wonder. I have been graced with truly wonderful and gifted Jesuit spiritual directors; would I be as comfortable sitting down with them if they wore collars consistently? Would I have even approached them in the first place? My guess is that my answers to those questions might be quite different from the answers of many Catholics.

I don't mean to imply that a man should not be proud of his priestly identity and willing to display it publicly.I'm merely saying, in a long-winded kind of way, that the pastoral consequences of doing so may not always be those intended.

At 11/23/2010 9:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your post raises a question which I have long itched to ask: if you are not be addressed as Father, how are you to be addressed?

I suspect that "dude," my best attempt at the moment, would not cut the mustard.


At 11/23/2010 10:17 AM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thank you for the reply, which I very much appreciate - I think you're right that context makes all the difference on this issue, and to me that suggests that we need to be flexible. In situations where clerical attire is a support to ministry, I wear it; when I think it might be a barrier, I don't wear it.

Teaching at a Jesuit university, I find it helpful to wear clerics on the job because I believe that doing so offers a helpful visual reminder of the heritage and mission of the institution. If I were working at a non-Jesuit university, I'd have to think about this issue in a different way and would likely make different decisions about how I should dress at work.

When I was working with refugees, I chose not to wear clerics partly because it may have caused confusion about my role (it may have made people think that I was a chaplain or spiritual counselor, when I was really doing case management) and because it could have created a barrier (most of the clients I served were not Catholic).

Of course, the issue at stake here isn't an exclusively Catholic one - I know that it's one that clergy in many traditions have to think about. For example, one of my professors in college was an Orthodox priest; he always wore a jacket and tie while teaching, but his students still knew that he was a priest. Nevertheless, I was a bit surprised the first time I saw him wearing his cassock and pectoral cross - even though I knew that this was who he was, I simply wasn't used to seeing him in clerical attire.

In sharing the above, I also think of times when my own attire has surprised others. I've had individuals tell me that they were surprised to see me in clerics in certain contexts, while others have expressed surprise in seeing me not wear them when they thought that I should. So it seems to me that personal sensibilities vary quite a bit in this area, even among Catholics.

Thanks again for writing - I'm glad you shared your thoughts on the subject, and your having doing so helps me to think more about the issue.

At 11/23/2010 11:47 AM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Good question. As a Jesuit scholastic, "Mr." is my religious title - in many other religious orders I would be called "Brother," but that isn't customary in the Society (we do have Jesuit brothers, but they're men who do not intend to become priests, while scholastics are seminarians preparing for priesthood).

My students generally call me "Professor," which conforms with the norms of academic culture at the university where I teach.

Of course, my friends usually call me "Joe." Some use "Joseph," which I'm also fine with. I can tolerate "dude," though on reflection it probably would not be my preference.

At 11/23/2010 12:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Koczera,

At the abbey where I went to HS, there was a minor cultural revolution during the pontificate of Pope John XXIII, when the brothers were no longer expected to address their ordained confrères as "Sie," and no longer forbidden to speak with them about issues unrelated to work. (You may know that in the day of Pius XII, workers in the Vatican's gardens were expected to hide quickly if they saw that His Holiness was coming to take a walk.)

My teachers were men good and true, but to this day I can't bring myself to address them with "Du," let alone "Dude." However, sharing shots of Schnupftabak (snuff) with those who used it was at least just as good.


At 11/23/2010 2:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that this is one of the saner things that I've read on such matters on the internet! You are so right about context - there are so many - often subtle - things that we're conditioned by, and that feed into this discussion, and I often find myself having quite contradictory responses.


At 11/23/2010 4:52 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thank you for the fine and evocative comment - yes, I'd heard that anecdote about the papal gardeners, and I appreciate what you say about your experiences at the abbey.

Sometimes I regret the fact that modern English lacks a formal linguistic distinction equivalent to the Sie/Du in German - it deprives English-speakers of a nuance which points to much more significant truths regarding human relations.

In Austria, I was careful to address the Jesuits I lived with as 'Sie,' only using the 'Du' if they had addressed me that way first and made it clear that I could respond in kind. Of course, there were some who could always and only be 'Sie' - for example, I don't think anyone (even the rector) would dream of addressing the oldest man in the house, a spry and dignified 96-year-old priest, as 'Du'!

My sense is that this issue has different resonances in different parts of the Society. For example, my experience in Latin America was that Jesuits invariably addressed one another with the familiar form, regardless of differences in age or authority. By contrast, I've stayed in Jesuit houses in Quebec where men who had lived with one another for half a century invariably addressed one another as 'Vous,' presumably out of a sense of comme il faut and not as an indication of a lack of intimacy.

I think I understand your point about your former teachers, which resonates with some of my own experience. For example, I never felt comfortable calling Fr. Tom King by his first name, even after I had entered the Jesuits and after we had gotten to know one another fairly well - I could manage "TK" on occasion, but for the most part he was still "Fr. King" to me. Some relationships always keep that formal dimension, even if there is a great degree of familiarity between the parties.

This moves us away from the post a bit, but thanks much for giving me the opportunity to reflect a bit more on a topic which I've also thought a bit about.

At 11/23/2010 5:00 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thank you for the comment - yes, there is a lot more that could be said, and if I hadn't sought to limit myself to the bare minimum in this post I could have gone on a lot longer. I'm sure that you could also say a great deal on the basis of your own experience and reflection. I'm grateful, then, that what I wrote at least seems sane!

Hopefully I'll have the 'fifteen authors' post up in the next few days - thank you for your patience, and thanks again for writing!

At 11/23/2010 10:26 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Or some students say "Can I call you Joe?"..

What is the protocol on blue shirts with Roman collars?? I saw a guy with a white shirt with a clerical collar. I guess they come in every color? Pinstripe? Flannel??

At 11/23/2010 11:56 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


As to the first question, I can only think of one student who would have the temerity to ask. The answer, of course, is no - I don't think students should call professors by their first names (I also address students by their surnames in the classroom, which allows for a certain reciprocity).

As to the blue shirt question, I know of no rules that prohibit wearing them. The only rules that apply here are those of personal preference and, perhaps, good taste.

At 11/27/2010 4:15 PM, Blogger Elijahmaria said...

You remind me of a first meeting with a Franciscan octogenarian. I had already illicitly walked on the grass in the gardens near the Franciscan house, and was aiming, barefoot and relentless, toward a pond where I could hear a variety of tiny plops and splashes. In short order I turned to find a white haired man, also barefoot, in a T-shirt and brown pants rolled up, coming after me. He explained that he was trained as a biologist and together we explored the treasures of the pond that afternoon, until he saw his Superior in the distance and we both got off the grass as rapidly as possible.

I also remember as a child, cleaning the chapel in our local convent, and seeing my then seventh grade teacher come down the stairs to the kitchen without her veil and wimple with her short brown hair about and inch long all over. I was fascinated and wanted to ask so many questions but rather I ran as fast as I could out of the door and home...never to speak of it again...till now.

Silly in a way, I suppose but real and intimate and in some way warm and terrifying, as all real intimacy should be.

In Christ,


At 11/27/2010 8:44 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thank you for sharing your experiences - for my part, you've led to reflect on some of my own memories, not just of the surprise of seeing normally habited people in lay clothes (and, vice versa, seeing people I was used to seeing in lay clothes don habits) but also of first visits to previously mysterious places, e.g. my first time behind the iconostasis or, for that matter, my first time inside a Jesuit residence. One's first encounter with the reality behind the literal or figurative veil can indeed be "warm and terrifying," as you so aptly put it.

At 11/27/2010 9:53 PM, Blogger Joseph Fromm said...

Having known 5 Jesuit priests well, for the most part they always wore clericals when it mattered. My Jesuit told me a story about Jesuits getting spit in the face at the height of the abuse scandals, he implied to me that sliding the plastic collar into his shirt had become a daily mediation for him.
A Jesuit brother was assigned to the same community. Is there a clerical standard for Jesuit brothers?


Joe Fromm

At 11/28/2010 11:37 AM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

Joe F.,

Jesuit brothers also take varying approaches to the attire question - I've known some who never wore distinctive clothing, a couple who sometimes wore the Jesuit cassock, and some who routinely wore the same kind of clerical shirt that priests in the United States often wear.

As a related matter, I should point out that brothers have a distinctive clerical collar which differs from that worn by priests. I've known some brothers who made their own collars because they had trouble finding ready-made 'brother's collars' at religious goods stores.

At 11/28/2010 4:05 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Without venturing into other aspects of this interesting topic, I just wanted to post to the Wikipedia link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clerical_collar (by now I believe you know my passion for the Wikipedia movement). The article offers a bit of interesting historical trivia (not overwhelming though), while perhaps the main thing of interest I took away from it is the contention that the use of the term "Roman collar" is not limited to Roman Catholic clerical collars. However, I would be highly intrigued to see evidence that the term is widely used outside Catholicism--perhaps it is...I'm open to being surprised.

At 11/28/2010 4:44 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

Thanks for that, David. I have never looked into the history or scope of usage of the term "Roman collar," though I suppose that it could be an interesting topic of research. FWIW, I've always disliked the term "dog collar" when used in reference to clerical collars - both because it always struck me as pejorative and because I don't find any physical resemblance between clerical collars of any type and any kind of collar I've ever seen on an actual canine.

At 11/30/2010 4:10 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for posting my link, Joe. I completely concur that "dog collar" doesn't sound very apt or appealing either with respect to the wearer or the perceiver. I'd never previously known of the term, actually, but it does indeed seem to be common, particularly among the non-American English speaking countries, as Wikipedia notes. Two sample links using the term (of which the first is actually quite a propos of this thread!): http://www.theinterface.org.uk/?q=node/140 ; http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1158533/Wife-murderer-dog-collar-The-predator-lured-women-bed-like-Jack-Nicholson-Witches-Eastwick.html. Thing are finally beginning to get busy (and probably won't stop, hehe) at work, so I might be less active here but will still read whenever I can.

At 7/18/2012 1:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

English does have intimate forms of address: "Thee", "Thou", and so on. These are still occasionally used in poetry, even in the odd Leonard Cohen song, to great effect.

I use them in the Google translator; it's the only way to establish equivalency in other languages.

At 7/18/2012 3:40 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Yes, I'm aware of 'thee, 'thou' and so on - it is their loss from the modern vernacular that I lament in the above comment about modern English having lost something like the Sie/Du distinction. I'm glad to hear that Google Translate recognizes them!


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