WHY A PRIEST SHOULD WEAR HIS ROMAN COLLAR
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.