Why Does A Priest Wear A Collar?

Well, the collar, or more accurately, the “Roman Collar” has an interesting history.  Kinda all over the place actually.  Originally, the purpose was to make the priest dress like the common people, the same as everybody else.  Then it became about making the clergy look different from everybody else.  The true answer lies somewhere between the two.

According to Church law, national conferences of Bishops can decide how a priest is supposed to dress.  In the Archdiocese of Edmonton (as I believe the rest of Canada), a priest is to dress in a way that clearly identifies him as a priest.

First thing to understand is that clerical dress is not intended to be a status symbol, at all.  In fact, in about the thirteenth century, clergy were mandated to wear distinct clerical dress so that they would behave themselves – if they went to a brothel or a tavern, everyone would be able to tell they were priests, so they’d be less likely to go (I guess the possibility of disguising themselves never occurred to anyone).  AND the nature of the clerical dress was to be simple and not to elaborate – or expensive.

Unfortunately, I must admit, there are some priests who DO wear their collar as a status symbol, even today.  They want everyone to know that they are priests so that everyone will bend over backwards for them.  They want everyone to see that they are the image of Christ – which is ironically the opposite of the way the ACTUAL Jesus Christ behaved.

And there are some folks who go into the priesthood to wear the collar, so that through their collar they’ll be given an identity.  They don’t know who they are or how to relate to others, so they figure the collar will help define how they fit into the community.  Also not so good.

But enough with the negative.  There’s a positive that goes along with the collar, a pretty important one.  There’s value in seeing a guy and knowing, “That guy’s a priest,” and therefore that guy is available to me in helping me out with this and that and so on.  The priest’s job is to take care of the souls of the people.  So just as it is comforting when in trouble to have a guy in a cop suit walk by, it can be a source of comfort to have a priest, ready for action for YOU, come along.

AND the collar, clerical dress – the priest dresses differently than everybody else – this signifies that in a way, the priest IS different than everyone else.  By that I don’t mean BETTER, I mean DIFFERENT.  Priest’s are the weirdo’s of society – the nerds, the dreamers, the mystics.  Look at EVERY culture, EVERY religion, and we see that their medicine men dress in weird ways to show this difference – it’s a difference that every culture needs to have.

AND the collar signifies something else – as with every uniform, the person wearing it lets go of their own ego, their own self-determination, for the sake of a cause greater than themselves.  The clothes then become a sign of the sacrifice that they make.

There's a great line from "Batman Begins" - Bruce Wayne says "As a man, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed, but as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptable." There's something to this argument. The priest is more than just the man, he's something bigger than that, something that we see in the weird clothes he wears. He becomes of symbol. Pope John Paul II understood this very clearly, understanding the power that his IMAGE could have in the unconsciousness of people all over the world.

But here's a distinction. Uniformity is NOT the point. Conformity = insecurity, every time.

So does Father Mike wear his collar all the time?  Well…

For me the crucial issue is that the way I dress is no longer about ME.  I have to dress the way the people I am serving need me to dress.  If the people I’m serving are a group of young people who are disenchanted with the church, thinking that its full of a bunch of arrogant, power hungry hypocrites who cut themselves off from reality (as a lot of people think), then that group might NEED to see me wearing my Jesus/Pepsi t-shirt, to show them a priest who is, in fact, down to earth (like Jesus, who came down to earth). 

However, if right after that, I'm called to anoint a life long faithful traditional Catholic in the hospital, she might NEED to see me in my full black clerics – so I’d better go change.  Sometimes it’s somewhere between the two – that’s when I wear my denim clerical shirt – it’s really nice too. 

And then, when it comes to situations where everyone knows me and knows that I’m a priest, then sometimes I might relax a bit, because the requirement that everyone identify me as a priest is satisfied.

Bottom line is that it’s not about me, not supposed to be anyway – although I admit, I’m not perfect with this one.  The way I dress, as a priest, has to be about the way God’s people need me to dress.  That’s the purpose of the collar.

But I’ll finish with an interesting story.  Whenever I go into a grade two classroom, I’ll be wearing a full collar, just like a Priest, and I’ll ask the class, “What am I wearing that tells you that I’m a Priest.”  Their first guess is NEVER my collar.  Without exception, every grade 2 class I ask, they immediately identify the small wooden cross I have hanging from my neck – the cross of Christ.  They’ve identified priesthood with being as much like Jesus Christ as I can be.  These are the true clothes that should identify my priesthood, “for by your love for one another, they will know you for my disciples.”  (John 13:35)  Smart kids.