The following question actually came to me in the form of a short essay but the summarized points made are as follows: Recently a parishioner was scandalized by encountering one of our priests wearing civilian clothes while shopping in a store. They ask why a priest would ever strive to “blend in” or go incognito in “civvies” around town or in their free time in this current age where signs and prophetic actions are so needed. Is this not a counter-sign or missed opportunity? What are seminaries today teaching in this regard? Also included with this inquiry was an article written by an investigative journalist who ran his own personal experiment by dressing up in various well defined work uniforms in order to record the general response people had to them. According to him, Catholic priestly clerics received the most positive public response and so the journalist made the rather unscientific determination that clerics exemplify a positive sign in our culture today.
The Church has supplied us with some helpful information on this topic. However, I would advise that although, upon first reading, the answer may seem an open and shut case, the actual lived reality is less clear and room must be left for moderation and common sense to reign, in my opinion. That being said, what does the Church have to say on the general matter of clerical dress code? Canon #284 states that, “Clerics are to wear suitable ecclesiastical garb according to the norms issued by the conference of bishops and according to legitimate local custom.” Now what does that mean? Well, the bishops’ view on clerical dress code seems to be best expressed in a document that the Congregation for the Clergy produced in 1994 entitled The Directory for the Ministry and Life of Priests. In it we read, “In a secularized…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…his identity and his belonging to God and the Church.” In 1998, the USCCB (US Conference of Bishops) further defined that, in the US, “outside liturgical functions, a black suit and Roman collar are the usual attire for priests. (The use of the cassock is at the discretion of the cleric).” Here is where many readers will say, “End of discussion. This could not be clearer.” However, in my view and in the view of most priests I know, this directive should be accompanied by a healthy dose of common sense and moderation. We do not exercise in clerics or sleep or bath in clerics and when engaged in dirty manual labor, for instance, we do not wear clerics either. When not in the public eye, most priests wear comfortable “civvies” and sometimes that extends to days off. Does this, strictly speaking, comform to Church documents? Well, nowhere in the documents do we see the word “always” though some might argue that the documents imply such. I am not comfortable applying some kind of test of orthodoxy in measuring the frequency with which priests wear their clerics. Here are a few things I am comfortable observing: 1) When a priest never or rarely wears clerics, this is a troubling sign that the priest may have “a weak sense of his own identity” and I do not think this is good. 2) Mt. Angel Seminary and every other seminary I am familiar with requires the wearing of clerics on campus, among seminarians who are graduate students of theology as mandatory because of the way in which this helps to reinforce priestly identity within the candidate who is busy discerning this call. 3) Yes, I do think, on some level, that a priest not wearing clerics publically may constitute a missed evangelization opportunity. Wearing clerics may also serve to protect the priest from compromising circumstances (like getting hit on) or help to remind their conscience to avoid inappropriate locations and circumstances but one’s wardrobe does not entirely dictate evangelization. In fact, there are many who wear Christian jewelry or who have “Christian” tattoos (e.g. various rock stars and sports stars) who do not appear to be living a Christian life while other unadorned people who are incognito are powerful signs of Christ’s presence because of the lives that they lead. 4) Some mercy must be granted to priests, I think. For instance, most priests work long hours and only get one full day free from work to recover. I can attest that when I have traveled publically (in airports, for example) or run errands around town on my “day off” in clerics I have ended up working. Also contrary to the journalist’s opinion cited, I know of a number of priests who have been spit upon because they were wearing clerics. The reality of the cross is that the spirit of the world hates the Catholic Church and one of the clearest outward signs of that Church is a priest in clerics. Just keep in mind that priests are people too and are “earthen vessels”. Please pray for us and try not to get too easily scandalized.