The Outward Sign of the Ministers of God: Whitterings November 2009


I have put off writing about clerical attire for almost five years and feel, in the light of the sexual scandal of Bishop Lahey, it is now appropriate to throw in my two cents worth. In our modern, secular culture, especially in Quebec, it has become rarer and rarer to find priests wearing clerical collars. I find this disturbing for theological reasons. Before I wade in too deeply I want to clarify that my position is not about clerical collars per se but about a recognisable uniform for the clergy. In France priests do not normally wear collars but have adopted a particular form of dress that is easily identified in their culture. The Orthodox still wear full cassocks as their uniform and do not rely on a clerical collar as much as the western clergy. If there was another easily identifiable clerical uniform besides the clerical collar I would be more than happy with it. However, I am unaware of anything that is as easily identifiable as the collar and so I confine my position to its use.

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Ordination, as a sacrament of the church, is a sign of God’s grace to the world. The clergy are the gift of God for the people of God. They are a sign of God’s love and presence in the world. I was taught that I did not have the right to hide this because of personal preference.

“When you wear a clerical collar is says to people that the Kingdom of God is open for business.”

Theologically, the outward and visible sign of ordination is the laying on of hands. Pragmatically, the collar is the outward and visible sign of the ordained. A uniform has many obvious benefits. The first is that uniforms do not imply a particular class. Someone in a uniform, such as a police officer, can interact with people from all socio-economic and educational backgrounds. A priest who wears secular clothes is immediately identifiable as belonging to one particular group with all of that group’s values visibly implied. In our culture this is usually middle class. This limits the practice of ministry.

I am reminded of the joke about the young nun in New York City who was walking home late to her Convent. It was after Vatican II and she was dressed in normal secular clothes. A strange man began to follow her through the deserted streets. She became more and more frightened until at last, with great relief, she spotted a policeman. She ran up to him and said” Officer, I am Sister Martha from St Agnes’s Convent and there is a man following me, I need help!” The policeman stared at her for a few seconds before responding “And tell me, Sister, how did you know I was a policeman?”

The second is that it makes the clergy easily identifiable in an emergency. When the shooting happened at Dawson College there were clergy present. However, only a couple were wearing collars and were thus immediately identifiable. Although other clergy were still there no one recognised them as such and so they were unable to provide much ministry to those who were afraid and traumatised. For all practical purposes they might as well have not been there.

I remember one evening when walking back to the Rectory after Mass in my habit I was passed by an angry looking biker who glared at me rather pointedly. As I approached the Rectory gates I noticed that he had pulled over on the side of the road and was staring back at me. I hurried my gate but was unable to reach my door before he had roared up the driveway on his motorcycle, jumped off and rapidly approached me. He was a large, tattooed, leather clad rough looking young man. I thought I was in for it and imagined he had had some sort of horrific experience with a priest when younger and now I was the one who was going to pay for it. He almost yelled at me “Are you a real priest!?” When I said that I was, he stared at me and then began to cry uncontrollably to the point of actually falling on his knees. After bringing him in, letting him cry, and trying to comfort him he told me what was going on. He was a heroin addict and had been in prison for several years. When he got out he had gone clean and tried to maintain his relationship with his former girlfriend. Things had not gone well and only an hour before she had finally left him. When he passed me on the road he was on his way to buy heroin with the purpose of overdosing. That is when he saw me on the sidewalk. He, of course, did not see ‘me’ he simply saw a priest and something deep inside of him knew that it meant something. I saw that man several more times over the next two years as he stopped off for a few minutes at the Rectory when he was in the region. I have a note that he left in my door one day that says “Thank God I saw you. You saved my life.” He is right; God saved his life that day by using one of his priests as a sign that there is still hope in the world. If I had not been in my habit or in a clerical collar he might very well have died that night.

The ordained ministry is a lifelong vocation. It is not an identity you can take on and off like changing in and out of your McDonald’s work uniform; ‘I am now on duty and now I am off duty’. We are all aware of the creeping tide of professionalism amongst the clergy: the 9-5 job with office hours; and answering messages that do not give emergency home numbers for off hour pastoral needs. I see the lack of wearing the uniform when not ‘on duty’ as another sign of this alien professionalism.

“You are not your own for you have been bought with a price” 1 Corn.6:19-20

Some seem to think that clerics that wear the uniform take themselves too seriously. I would argue that the opposite is actually the case. The uniform takes the pressure off of your own unique personality and allows you to be seen as belonging to something larger than yourself. This is hardly taking yourself too seriously. Those who rely on their own personal charisma for ministry are the ones in danger of putting too much emphasis on themselves instead of God. After the sacrament of marriage people happily wear their wedding bands to show their sacramental status in the world. The collar is simply the clerics’ wedding band (albeit a neck is a little more prominent than a finger).

There are several other reasons that a clerical collar is useful. It helps remind the actual cleric that they are always on duty and held to a high moral standard. One is less likely to get drunk in a bar while dressed in clericals. The wearing of a clerical collar is also a perpetual vocations advertisement. It reminds people, who otherwise tend to forget, that the church is still here and that ordained ministry is always a possible vocation. Most of all, every time someone sees a cleric in a uniform, they are reminded that the church remains here in the midst of life, whatever connotation that has for them. For many it will simply remind them of God. Is that not a good definition of a priest: one who by their life points beyond themselves to God?

Wearing a collar does forfeit a cleric’s anonymity and this can be uncomfortable. My own experience has been that some of the best conversations in pubs, airplanes, and waiting rooms have come about because of the collar. I can count on two hands the number of times I have been spit at or harassed. These incidents pale in comparison to what seems to still be seen as a positive or at least mysterious association with clerical life. I am not convinced that the public associates us all with deviance as much as many of the clergy fear they do.

I also understand why in today’s culture the clergy are reluctant to be associated with the public’s views of the priesthood. We live in an age of anticlericalism mostly derived from the sexual abuse scandals in the church. In Quebec the association of the clerical collar with the theocratic rule of the Roman Church is equally as palpable. If a priest is a sign of the love of God in the world and of His care and protection then a priest should be the safest person in a community. The priest is the one who should go out of their way to protect the weak and give a voice to the voiceless. So the idea of sexual abuse of a vulnerable child by a priest is one of the most horrific disconnects I can imagine. I understand why these cases have shaken the society’s trust in priests to the very core.

However, we must be honest about what is actually going on. The sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church and the Residential Schools Scandal has been rightfully traumatic and scandalous. Yet the deep emotions associated with this abuse have seriously distorted the image of priests in western culture. The John Jay report, the in-depth report on the sexual abuse allegations in the United States, gives actual numbers and details about the trend. Although the numbers of those abused in the US over a 52 year period were high at 6,700 allegations against 4392 priests, the percentage of the 109,694 priests serving during the time was 4%. All the cases in the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world were just less than 5000 with over 500,000 priests serving. The priests accused were less than 1%. It also became clear that the sexual abuse scandals began to rise in the 1960s, peaked in the 1970s, declined in the 1980s and returned to 1950s levels in the 1990s. It turned out that the sexual predation on children (under 10 years of age) was 22% and older adolescents was 78%. The persistent claim is that most of the victims were 15-17 years of age. Although sexual contact with 15-17 year olds is sexual abuse and predation it is not the same as actual paedophilia as defined by psychology. 70% of all the abusive clergy were educated pre Vatican II. The Roman Catholic Church in Canada has had less than 20 priests accused of sexual abuse against the young. Unfortunately, although the Anglican Church of Australia has provided a comprehensive report on the issue the Anglican Church of Canada has not. I have begun enquiries with the national church to address this lack of statistics.

I pass these statistics along not in any way to minimise the horror of what has occurred but rather to emphasise that the number of priests who have brought the entire ministry into disrepute and subjected it to mistrust is infinitesimally low. Although the media has used the scandal to make all priests suspect it does not do so in other fields. In the US 4392 out of 109,694 Roman priests were found to have molested youth over a 52 year period. In contrast 2570 out of 3 million teachers (almost 1%) were found to have done the same things but only over a 5 year period. Yet there is no huge public outcry against teachers and fear about sending children to school. Merited cases of police brutality in the United States for 2002 were 2000. Considering that there are about 800,000 police officers in the US, the percentage of officers charged is as low as 0.25%. Yet public opinion and media coverage on police brutality in the US is hardly in keeping with the reality.

My point is that I choose to associate the priesthood with the 105,302 priests who were NOT child abusers instead of the 4392 who were. If we allow the criminal and blasphemous actions of these men to completely undermine the high nature of the priesthood so that we are embarrassed and afraid to be seen as priests then we have made a serious mistake. I believe it is even more important that the clergy wear the uniform today so that we can witness by our actions that the church is still at work in the world and that priests are still agents of God’s love and reconciliation in a fallen world. If we desert the field how will people learn that most priests are compassionate representatives of a Gracious God? Surely the witness and good work of the 99% can provide damage control for the 1% that betrayed their calling and those they abused. This is especially true if the main generation that is responsible for this scandal is passing away.

Having said that, I ask your prayers for those of us who have given our whole lives to God in this public way and now find ourselves the object of fear and distrust. We will live through this, but in the meantime it takes courage to be exposed to the public on a daily basis. Although we do not risk our lives, as many of our colleagues throughout the world do, it is still our duty to witness to the honour of the ordained life and the goodness of the Church by courageously continuing to wear the collar around our necks.