Just how important is clerical dress?
IT MUST have been sometime in the winter that I took a bus out to the Dominican Priory in Tallaght to meet two of the Roman ' Visitators'. It was part of the Roman examination into the Irish church. We were told it was an attempt to get some sort of understanding of what had gone wrong.
The two people who interviewed me were polite. I felt they listened to me and I certainly was impressed with them. One was a priest from the US and the other person was a religious sister from Ireland. I had less than ten minutes with them. On leaving the room I commented that I was sure nothing I said would be taken seriously. They assured me it would and that they had taken note of everything I said.
So far I have not seen or heard a word of the report except what I have read in the newspapers. I would think that if I take part in an investigation, then the least I might expect would be that I'd see the finished report. And then on the Friday of the International Eucharistic Congress I read in the Irish Times that Cardinal Dolan is concerned about the 'sloppy' dress of priests and seminarians in the Irish College in Rome. Really, what an amazing comment. Imagine if there were an examination of Irish universities and the report commented on the dress of teachers and students. We would all laugh.
I'd like to laugh at what I read but I'm much more inclined to cry and let me try to explain why. In all my years as a Dominican I have found the clerical dress business, interesting, to say the least. I certainly am much happier to see a priest dressed in a 'sloppy' way than like a mannequin, perfectly groomed. Please don't get me wrong. I have no problem with a person wearing clerical garb, especially older men, who grew up in that world. Yes, a priest can wear his collar and be the finest of men and an inspiring spiritual leader. But that is because of the man that he is, not the collar he is wearing. Clothing is neither here nor there.
And why anyway, the Roman collar? Why should a priest dress in such a way to separate himself at once from other people? Why prance around looking so different from other people. What has it got to do with the mercy and love of God, the dissemination of the Word of God? Is it clever trick for people to set themselves apart, especially people who are scared of their own personal identities?
I went to the Eucharistic Congress on the Thursday. I went primarily to hear the English Dominican, Fr Timothy Radcliffe. That same day I saw so many men prancing about in habits as if screaming out -' here I am, am I not wonderful, I'm different, I have a great message to convey'. I did not know whether to cry or laugh. And mind you, clerical accessories can be very expensive brands.
That same day I met Bishop Willie Walsh, walking about, dressed like a 'normal man'. He was so gentle, unassuming, funny too. Apart from Fr Radcliffe's words on being present to the sick, Willie Walsh was the one who left me with some sanity, some purpose in being a priest in times which seem to be getting very worrying.
And then I'm reminded of living in Rome in the mid 1970s and observing the clothing of young men who were members of the Legionaries of Christ. They were dressed so perfectly and all in similar style suits. They all carried similar briefcases. They looked so 'clerical'. Quite silly too. I imagine Cardinal Dolan would consider them a great example of how to dress.
And just at that time the congregation was led by Fr Marcial Maciel. He founded the congregation. He and his congregation were much praised by the Vatican. Maybe their clothes impressed the people in the Vatican. Since then the Reverend Maciel, who had the ear of popes, cardinals, the entire panoply of the Vatican bureaucracy, has been discovered for what he was. And in the meantime I'd like to see the full Vatican report on the Irish Catholic Church.