The White Cassock

A “current trend” in clergy fashion is to wear a white cassock during summertime. Some wonder if this is permitted. The answer is probably something like, “technically, no, but it doesn’t really matter”…

Technically, no — because, back in the day when there was a concern for getting permissions and following rules, permission to use white cassocks was given to tropical zones (like South America), not to places like North America. I remember seeing some priests in Argentina with white cassocks. Instead of having black trim (piping) on them, the cassock itself was a sort of off-white-approaching-beige color, perhaps to distinguish it more fully from the pope’s cassock, which is ivory-colored.

But it doesn’t really matter — these permissions, or the concern about them, have little practical import anymore. If a bishop were to write a letter to the Holy See asking for permission to let his priests wear white cassocks instead of black, I’m sure they’d have to let the letter sit for a while in whatever office till they could regain composure and draft a reply with a straight face. And perhaps, in an elegant/understatedly snarky Italianate style, they might even congratulate the bishop that his priests wore cassocks!

Here’s the thing: I live in Alabama. When it’s 95 degrees and humid (as it was this afternoon, as I write this), it’s… miserable. No matter what I wear. I have my doubts as to whether the comfort gained from wearing white instead of black in such conditions is all that noticeable. Maybe it helps.

In any case, as I mentioned, more and more priests are “embracing” this “look”. I think what they are embracing, in fact, is the look of looking like priests. When a priest wears a cassock there is no question what he’s about. I’ll never forget when I was in Rome and wore the cassock: people always stopped to take photos. It was awkward. I think it ticked a box for tourists. Here there were all kinds of priests walking around town in clerical collars — but rather few in cassocks, the traditional garment for a Roman Catholic priest. That’s how priests have often been depicted in movies, after all!

Some people protest that in the United States, the cassock has never really been traditional outside of liturgical offices. That is true. The Council of Baltimore, in fact, legislated that in public a priest was to wear a clergy suit. In any case, those rules no longer bind and current universal law makes it clear that a cassock remains normative. In a society that is increasingly drifting away from God, the witness of the cassock seems to be useful. The priests I know who wear their cassocks regularly wear it for that reason: to bear witness more effectively to the priesthood and make themselves available to others.

This is one of those topics that most people will have already decided upon in advance. I’m not trying to convince anyone — much less myself. I already know where I stand. And I know something else: wearing the cassock can also be penitential. It is hot in the summer and it does attract attention — sometimes negative attention. That negative attention can range from very awkward comments (like the woman who said to her young daughter, “look, he has a dress on also!” – ugh) to anti-Catholic type remarks. I have heard recently of one bishop who has started wearing his cassock all the time, precisely to do penance for the clergy sex abuse scandals.

This is a bit of a rambling post and I don’t have a particular point to make other than to acknowledge this trend and to say that it is basically fine. It’s a legitimate variation and, I have to say, not a bad one.

Since posts like this seem to have a “trolling effect” on some, I’ll finish the job and close with this wonderful quotation from G.K. Chesterton:

It is quite certain that the skirt means female dignity, not female submission; it can be proved by the simplest of all tests. No ruler would deliberately dress up in the recognized fetters of a slave; no judge would would appear covered with broad arrows. But when men wish to be safely impressive, as judges, priests or kings, they do wear skirts, the long, trailing robes of female dignity. The whole world is under petticoat government; for even men wear petticoats when they wish to govern.

* * *

This entry was posted in Scheduled and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.