Why A Priest Should Wear His Roman Collar

Author: Mangan & Murray


by Charles M. Mangan and Gerald E. Murray

The Directory for the Ministry and Life of Priests, prepared by the Congregation for the Clergy and approved by Pope John Paul II on January 31, 1994, says:

In a secularized and tendentiously materialistic society, where even the external signs of sacred and supernatural realities tend to be disappearing, the necessity is particularly felt that the priest-man of God, dispenser of His mysteries-should be recognizable in the sight of the community, even through the clothing he wears, as an unmistakable sign of his dedication and of his identity as a recipient of a public ministry. The priest should be recognizable above all through his behavior, but also through his dressing in a way that renders immediately perceptible to all the faithful, even to all men, his identity and his belonging to God and to the Church.

For this reason, the cleric should wear "suitable clerical clothing, according to the norms issued by the Episcopal Conference and according to legitimate local customs." (Canon 284) This means that such clothing, when it is not the cassock, should be distinct from the manner in which laymen dress, and in conformity with the dignity and sacredness of the ministry.

Apart from entirely exceptional circumstances, the non-use of clerical clothing on the part of the cleric can manifest a weak sense of his own identity as a pastor completely dedicated to the service of the Church (# 66).

Given this timely reminder from the Holy See about the importance of clerical attire for the priest, we thought it might be useful to examine some of the underlying reasons for this discipline. We also want to examine some of the common arguments used to justify the non-wearing of the Roman collar.

It is our contention that the rather widespread practice of priests neglecting to wear their collar when they should is both a sign and a cause of malaise in the Church. Such casualness about being publicly identified as a priest of the Catholic Church may signify a desire to distance himself from his priestly vocation. The collar becomes "work clothes," which are put away when one is not "on duty." The functionalistic notion of the priesthood revealed by this attitude is in contradiction to the ontological configuration to Christ the High Priest conferred by priestly ordination.

Lay people depend on their priests for spiritual support and strength. They feel that something is not right when their priests try to blend into the crowd and, as it were, disappear.

The purpose of this article is to encourage our fellow priests to wear their collars (and, by analogy, religious to wear their habits). It goes without saying that there are reasonable and legitimate exceptions to this rule, such as during sports and recreation, during one's vacation (in general), while at home with family or in one's private quarters in the rectory. And, of course, the obligation to wear clerical clothing ceases during times of violent persecution. During such a crisis, the guidance of the bishops should be followed.

It is incorrect to say that a priest who refuses to wear his collar is a bad priest. We are afraid that some of our brother priests have simply slipped into a bad habit. They may have convinced themselves that they are serving the greater good of the Church by putting aside clerical clothing. We would like to call such priests to reconsider their decision to dress as laymen, and to re-examine their motives.

Part 1: Reasons for wearing the Roman collar

1) The Roman collar is a sign of priestly consecration to the Lord. As a wedding ring distinguishes husband and wife and symbolizes the union they enjoy, so the Roman collar identifies bishops and priests (and often deacons and seminarians) and manifests their proximity to the Divine Master by virtue of their free consent to the ordained ministry to which they have been (or may be) called.

2) By wearing clerical clothing and not possessing excess clothes, the priest demonstrates adherence to the Lord's example of material poverty. The priest does not choose his clothes-the Church has, thanks to her accumulated wisdom over the past two millennia. Humble acceptance of the Church's desire that the priest wear the Roman collar illustrates a healthy submission to authority and conformity to the will of Christ as expressed through his Church.

3) Church Law requires clerics to wear clerical clothing. We have cited above number 66 of the Directory for priests, which itself quotes canon 284.

4) The wearing of the Roman collar is the repeated, ardent desire of Pope John Paul 11. The Holy Father's wish in this regard cannot be summarily dismissed; he speaks with a special charism. He frequently reminds priests of the value of wearing the Roman collar.

In a September 8, 1982 letter to Ugo Cardinal Poletti, his Vicar for the Diocese of Rome, instructing him to promulgate norms concerning the use of the Roman collar and religious habit, the Pontiff observed that clerical dress is valuable "not only because it contributes to the propriety of the priest in his external behavior or in the exercise of his ministry, but above all because it gives evidence within the ecclesiastical community of the public witness that each priest is held to give of his own identity and special belonging to God."

In a homily on November 8, 1982 the Pope addressed a group of transitional deacons whom he was about to ordain to the priesthood. He said that if they tried to be just like everyone else in their "style of life" and "manner of dress," then their mission as priests of Jesus Christ would not be fully realized.

5) The Roman collar prevents "mixed messages"; other people will recognize the priest's intentions when he finds himself in what might appear to be compromising circumstances. Let's suppose that a priest is required to make pastoral visits to different apartment houses in an area where drug dealing or prostitution is prevalent. The Roman collar sends a clear message to everyone that the priest has come to minister to the sick and needy in Christ's name. Idle speculation might be triggered by a priest known to neighborhood residents visiting various apartment houses dressed as a layman.

6) The Roman collar inspires others to avoid immodesty in dress, words and actions and reminds them of the need for public decorum. A cheerful but diligent and serious priest can compel others to take stock of the manner in which they conduct themselves. The Roman collar serves as a necessary challenge to an age drowning in impurity, exhibited by suggestive dress, blasphemous speech and scandalous actions.

7) The Roman collar is a protection for one's vocation when dealing with young, attractive women. A priest out of his collar (and, naturally, not wearing a wedding ring) can appear to be an attractive target for the affections of an unmarried woman looking for a husband, or for a married woman tempted to infidelity.

8) The Roman collar offers a kind of "safeguard "for oneself. The Roman collar provides a reminder to the priest himself of his mission and identity: to witness to Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest, as one of his brother-priests.

9) A priest in a Roman collar is an inspiration to others who think: "Here is a modern disciple of Jesus." The Roman collar speaks of the possibility of making a sincere, lasting commitment to God. Believers of diverse ages, nationalities and temperaments will note the virtuous, other-centered life of the man who gladly and proudly wears the garb of a Catholic priest, and perhaps will realize that they too can consecrate themselves anew, or for the first time, to the loving Good Shepherd.

10) The Roman collar is a source of beneficial intrigue to non-Catholics. Most non- Catholics do not have experience with ministers who wear clerical garb. Therefore, Catholic priests by virtue of their dress can cause them to reflect- even if only a cursory fashion-on the Church and what she entails.

11) A priest dressed as the Church wants is a reminder of God and of the sacred. The prevailing secular morass is not kind to images which connote the Almighty, the Church, etc. When one wears the Roman collar, the hearts and minds of others are refreshingly raised to the "Higher Being" who is usually relegated to a tiny footnote in the agenda of contemporary culture.

12) The Roman collar is also a reminder to the priest that he is "never not a priest. "With so much confusion prevalent today, the Roman collar can help the priest avoid internal doubt as to who he is. Two wardrobes can easily lead-and often does-to two lifestyles, or even two personalities.

13) A priest in a Roman collar is a walking vocation message. The sight of a cheerful, happy priest confidently walking down the street can be a magnet drawing young men to consider the possibility that God is calling them to the priesthood. God does the calling; the priest is simply a visible sign God will use to draw men unto himself.

14) The Roman collar makes the priest available for the Sacraments, especially Confession and the Anointing of the Sick, and for crisis situations. Because the Roman collar gives instant recognition, priests who wear it make themselves more apt to be approached, particularly when seriously needed. The authors can testify to being asked for the Sacraments and summoned for assistance in airports, crowded cities and isolated villages because they were immediately recognized as Catholic priests.

15) The Roman collar is a sign that the priest is striving to become holy by living out his vocation always. It is a sacrifice to make oneself constantly available to souls by being publicly identifiable as a priest, but a sacrifice pleasing to Our Divine Lord. We are reminded of how the people came to him, and how he never turned them away. There are so many people who will benefit by our sacrifice of striving to be holy priests without interruption.

16) The Roman collar serves as a reminder to "alienated" Catholics not to forget their irregular situation and their responsibilities to the Lord. The priest is a witness-for good or ill-to Christ and his Holy Church. When a "fallen-away" sees a priest, he is encouraged to recall that the Church continues to exist. A cheerful priest provides a salutary reminder of the Church.

17) The wearing of clerical clothing is a sacrifice at times, especially in hot weather. The best mortifications are the ones we do not look for. Putting up with the discomforts of heat and humidity can be a wonderful reparation for our own sins, and a means of obtaining graces for our parishioners.

18) The Roman collar serves as a "sign of contradiction" to a world lost in sin and rebellion against the Creator. The Roman collar makes a powerful statement: the priest as an has accepted the Redeemer's mandate to take the Gospel into the public square, regardless of personal cost.

19) The Roman collar helps priests to avoid the on duty/off duty mentality of priestly service. The numbers 24 and 7 should be our special numbers: we are priests 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We are priests, not men who engage in the "priest profession." On or off duty, we should be available to whomever God may send our way. The "lost sheep" do not make appointments.

20) The "officers" in Christ's army should be identifiable as such. Traditionally, we have remarked that those who receive the Sacrament of Confirmation become "soldiers" of Christ, adult Catholics ready and willing to defend his name and his Church. Those who are ordained as deacons, priests and bishops must also be prepared-whatever the stakes - to shepherd the flock of the Lord. Those priests who wear the Roman collar show forth their role unmistakably as leaders in the Church.

21) The saints have never approved of a lackadaisical approach concerning priestly vesture. For example, Saint Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787), Patron Saint of Moral Theologians and Confessors, in his esteemed treatise The Dignity and Duties of the Priest, urges the wearing of the appropriate clerical dress, asserting that the Roman collar helps both priest and faithful to recall the sublime splendor of the sacerdotal state instituted by the God-Man.

22) Most Catholics expect their priests to dress accordingly. Priests have long provided a great measure of comfort and security to their people. As youths, Catholics are taught that the priest is God's representative-someone they can trust. Hence, the People of God want to know who these representatives are and what they stand for. The cherished custom of wearing distinguishable dress has been for centuries sanctioned by the Church; it is not an arbitrary imposition. Catholics expect their priests to dress as priests and to behave in harmony with Church teaching and practice. As we have painfully observed over the last few years, the faithful are especially bothered and harmed when priests defy the legitimate authority of the Church, and teach and act in inappropriate and even sinful ways.

23) Your life is not your own; you belong to God in a special way, you are sent out to serve him with your life. When we wake each morning, we should turn our thoughts to our loving God, and ask for the grace to serve him well that day. We remind ourselves of our status as His chosen servants by putting on the attire that proclaims for all to see that God is still working in this world through the ministry of poor and sinful men.

Part 2: Arguments advanced against the wearing of clerical clothing

There is a host of reasons advanced for the position that priests should not be required to wear the Roman collar. What follows is a sampling of these opinions, along with our comments.

1) "I need time for myself." Priests, of course, need time for themselves, especially for prayer. Yet, a priest is a priest- always. Apart from the times noted in the introduction (recreation, vacation, etc.), there is no need to dress as a layman. The priest should take his personal time as a priest and nothing else.

2) "I want to relax." We make a big mistake when we equate wearing the collar with not being relaxed, and relaxing with being out of the collar. The naturalness of the priest should include wearing the collar without constantly averting to it. We should go about our daily duties, which include relaxing, without feeling uncomfortable about our priestly garb. It should become second nature to us.

3) "My ministerial and personal lives are separate." To have a "split personality" is never healthy. No priest can temporarily put his priesthood on the shelf. To hide one's priesthood may often be symptomatic of a desire to engage in something sinful, or-at the very least-disedifying.

4) "I need diversion." If you mean the type of diversion that you would be ashamed to be seen enjoying while in a collar, then forget the diversion, not the collar.

5) "Those who always wear their collars are insecure and seek to hide behind their uniforms." The Roman collar is hardly a work uniform which is removed at the end of one's day. Rather, the tried and-true wisdom of the Church has determined that such garb best represents who the priest is. The collar is the established manner in which ordained ministers live out their ecclesial vocations both in the private and public spheres. True, some may think themselves better because of what they wear. But the collar and habit should not be dismissed out-of-hand on that basis. Priests and religious are weak and tempted. Wearing the appropriate clothing can strengthen those who totter on the brink of grave sin. On the other hand, those who do not want to appear in public as they really are seem to be suffering from a type of insecurity.

6) "I do not want to stand out in a crowd." This is part of the glory and at times the sacrifice of being God's chosen servant: priests stand out not because of their own accomplishments or merits, but because they represent Jesus Christ. Priests are different, but not thereby strange.

7) "The Roman collar erects a barrier between me and my people." Some priests have publicly stated such. (For example, a priest-tribunal official and another priest involved in ecumenical work both asserted the necessity of not wearing the Roman collar for fear that they would insult non-Catholics and those hostile to Church teaching.) Could it be that some think that what the collar signifies-Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church, the priesthood-are obstacles? Priests must relate to others as priests, never in spite of being priests.

8) "I can't be one of the guys when I am 'dressed up."' To which we answer, "Good, because a priest is never just one of the guys." Furthermore, wearing the collar is not "dressing up." Rather, a priest wearing lay clothing (apart from legitimate exceptions) is himself constantly dressing up as someone he is not.

9) "I don't want to offend non-Catholics or be provocative in our pluralistic society." Some took offense at Jesus as he walked the streets of Palestine. Are we trying to be "nicer" than he? Are we perhaps afraid to suffer for the sake of his name?

10) "Clerical clothing is for a clerical Church-I believe in the radical equality of all believers." There is no such thing as a clerical Church which will pass away. There is just one Church, and the priesthood is a constitutive part of the Church which cannot be abolished. The equality of all believers does not contradict the diversity of vocations and states of life in the Church. For priests to self-exempt themselves from one of the duties of priestly life-the wearing of the Roman collar-is a form of clericalism which denies the faithful their right to know who their priests are in order to call upon them for priestly ministrations whenever necessary.

11) "My work with young people is hampered by the collar. "Many priests attest that their ministry to youth is enhanced, not hindered, by the wearing of the collar. Young men and women cannot help but detect the priest's love for and dedication to the Lord and the Church. Since there is no reason for the priest to demonstrate that "I'm just like you" (because he is not) the priest can be content to wear his collar when around young people, knowing that he has nothing to prove or hide. He need only show the love and compassion of the Savior.

12) "Clothes do not make the man- the people of God can see my priesthood by the way I live, not by the way I dress." This statement as it stands is true. But the legitimate, Church-sanctioned vesture of the priest does not somehow mask who he is; instead, it highlights that he is indeed a priest who is required by the Church to dress accordingly as he seeks to imitate the First Priest.

13) "External symbols are not my thing-I am who I am, not what other people want me to be." Exactly. As priests, we should be priests and happily, humbly give that clear message to others. When collars were quickly taken off a few decades ago, the common argument proclaimed was: "What's really important is what's inside me . . . I don't need an article of clothing to define my priesthood." Our lives should unabashedly display these characteristics; otherwise, we might be simply seeking our own interests and not Christ's. We use symbols all the time, and need not be embarrassed by them. To obediently and humbly wear the collar expresses one's submission to the authority of God and his Holy Church.

14) "Priests who always wear the Roman collar are rigid, arch-conservative, inflexible, elitist, vain and selfish attention-seekers. I am not one of them." The assertion is made that priests who dress as priests possess an unhealthy desire to be continually needed and recognized; they only wear the collar for adulation and to "lord it over" the laity; they are looking for "clergy discounts" and "freebies" at stores and restaurants. That is an unfair assessment of men who are trying to live as the Church mandates. The collar should mean a simplicity of life and a corresponding humility before Almighty God. For a priest to say, "I'm not like those poor guys who wear this Tridentine-imposed relic of clericalism," is perhaps a means of easing his conscience when it rebukes him for not doing what the Church demands of her ministers.

Final Thoughts

Inarguably, much of Western society revels in a far-reaching decadence aimed at obliterating any sign of the transcendent.

To counter such a reality, priests-emboldened by the Holy Spirit with a strong faith and a genuine missionary spirit- must seek to cooperate with the Creator in re-invigorating the world with a sense of awe for and responsibility to God.

The Roman collar, far from being a nasty reminder of the Church's requirement of clerical dress for her priests, is a sorely-needed reference to the ever-present Paraclete who beckons all men and women to recognize the selfless love and eternal grandeur of the Most Blessed Trinity.

Priests who don the collar may be met with a barrage of objections. "We are the Church . . . we are all priests . . . there's no room for class distinctions in the Church of the twenty-first century...." Even some brother priests may look askance at one of their own, convinced that he is suffering from what could be fatal imprudence. "Wearing the collar will only make you a target and eventually a victim . . . you'll be sorry."

But priests who wear the Roman collar, in addition to obeying the law of the Church and the heartfelt plea of the Holy Father, display the desire to manifest the presence of the Savior to a world gone mad. No matter the abuse which may be heaped upon a collar-wearing priest, he knows full well that the reward is significant: to be able to lead others to Christ despite one's own personal failings.

To priests who always wear the Roman collar we say: keep it up! To those who do not we say: take stock of the value which this seemingly insignificant piece of vesture possesses. Be aware that the priestly work you now do will not suffer but will be enhanced when you dress according to the venerable custom of the Church.


Reverend Gerald E. Murray is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College and was ordained in 1984 after completing studies at St. Joseph's Seminary in Dunwoodie, N. Y. Currently he is studying canon law at the Gregorian University in Rome.

Reverend Charles M. Mangan is a pastor of two rural parishes and is vice-chancellor of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, S.D. He attended Mt. St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., and was ordained in 1989. He received the J.C.L. from the Gregorian University in Rome.

This article appeared in the June 1995 issue of "The Homiletic & Pastoral Review," 86 Riverside Dr., New York, N.Y. 10024, 212-799-2600, $24.00 per year.