I had already celebrated a Mass that morning, so when I assisted at a funeral in a neighbouring parish, I did so in choro. This means I wore my black suede loafers, cassock and fascia. The fascia is a silk belt with fringe.
On my way, a passerby stopped me on the sidewalk to mention how nice it was to encounter a priest out-and-about on a lovely fall morning. We paused and talked under the shade of an elm tree.
Once inside, I donned a surplice, a white linen garment with gobs and gobs of lace. This is how a priest dresses for a Mass he is not celebrating. The amount of lace is up to his discretion, but in my opinion the more the better. After the Mass, the family expressed appreciation for how well-dressed I was.
I didn’t preach the homily and didn’t lead any prayers. My job was to kneel and pray. I accomplished this to the best of my ability, but by dressing my absolute best while doing so, I gave the deceased all my love and respect.
Why would a priest be concerned about clothing? Why would he don a straw saturno on a sunny day to walk around his parish? Why would he put on his best clerical attire to meet you, his parishioner, for a cup of coffee? Because he loves and respects you.
Wherever a priest goes, he is an icon of Christ. When I go to the market for fresh vegetables, I do so in cassock. When I stop at the butcher, I do so in cassock. This is how people know me. I’ve prayed for a man’s sick grandmother in front of a bakery display case. I’ve dispensed blessings in the wine aisle of the market. I’ve had so many encounters in coffee shops that it would boggle the mind. A priest wearing his cassock is attired for battle. He is here for you. Most importantly, you can see this if our paths happen to cross.
These outer signs of priestly holiness cover a multitude of personal shortcomings. I am not a perfect man. In a fundamental way, I’m not up to the task of shepherding souls that has been laid upon my shoulders. This is precisely why I wear my priestly garments. When parishioners are dying in their beds, seeking counsel or simply chatting with me over a hedgerow, they don’t seek my personal (non-existent) saving grace. They desire the sacramental grace of the priesthood, the power of Holy Orders, to encounter Christ through a man who has become an efficacious sign that God will never abandon them.
I admit the temptation to dress down occasionally crosses my mind. These temptations to dress below par strike even the most sartorially accomplished among us. For instance, Bertie Wooster has a moment of weakness in The Code of the Woosters, bemoaning to his butler, “There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?’ ” Jeeves is nonplussed, saying, “The mood will pass, sir.” When I’m tempted to wander out of the rectory in anything less than my best – to take a night off, as it were – I fall back on a hard and fast commitment to exercise the priesthood rain or shine. Jeeves is right. The mood passes.
It’s a startling truth that even the minutiae of a priest’s everyday clothing is of eternal import. There’s a paradox at play, because clothing itself doesn’t make a priest, and it’s quite true that sacramental graces touch the soul and so are invisible to the naked eye. It’s also true, though, as Lord Byron exclaimed of Beau Brummell’s flawless tailoring, “It seemed as if the body thought.” In other words, the dignity we grant the human body also accrues to the soul, and how we dress expresses our innermost identity.
Does clothing matter? Yes and no. It matters very much but not in the way many of us think. Using a wardrobe as an expression of clericalism or expression of vanity, well, this is nothing more than tossing on an animal skin as we stumble out of paradise. But as a visible symbol of the soul within, an icon of Christ our great high priest? This matters very much.
While I take pleasure in visiting my tailor and dressing well, I remind myself that, as a man, I am accomplishing nothing more than arranging funeral garments, those that remain behind in the empty tomb, carefully folded and white as snow, perfumed like the feet of Our Lord.
Priestly attire is not a brag based on my personal holiness, it’s a revelation of a sacramental gift, a sign of the greater reality awaiting each and every one of us when we finally receive our wedding garment for the heavenly banquet.
Fr Michael Rennier is associate editor of Dappled Things, a quarterly of ideas, art and faith (dappledthings.org)