Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Dress Code of the Priests

The Time magazine in its anniversary issue of the 13th November 2006 carried among others an article that highlights the danger of global warming and the need to come out with pro-active laws and worldwide consultation to put a stop to climate change. The proponent of this refreshing move is J. McAllister. He cites as one of the main causes of global warming the distorted value that human beings have gradually imbibed in the course of their long relationship with nature. They have formed the attitude of discrimination, taking good care of one and abusing the other. For one, “we”, the author of the article continues, “tend not to look after what isn’t, strictly speaking, ‘ours’, so resources used in common get abused”. Legal scholars, so he says, call this tendency “the tragedy of the commons.” The author is not just speculating for this can readily be observed in the way man mistreats with abandon the environment, particularly, the atmosphere, the air, the water.

A similar negative tendency has also been observed in the Church in the ordained minister’s attitude regarding the clerical dress. Clerical attire is the official garb that is to be used by the clergy in his social life, the ecclesiastical uniform supposed to be worn by them in their public appearances. This is an attire that should distinguish the clergy from the rest of the faithful. The universal law came out with specific regulation obliging those who receive the sacred orders to wear this uniform in public as an integral part of his external decorum. Canon 284 expresses it this way: “Clerics are to wear suitable ecclesiastical dress, in accordance with the norms established by the Bishops’ Conference and legitimate local custom.” In compliance with the mandate of the universal law the Philippine hierarchy issued specific norms regarding the ecclesiastical uniform that could serve at the same time as an executory decree enjoining all the ordained ministers in the Philippines to follow. It states: “The proper clerical attire approved by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines are as follows: 1. cassock or religious habit; 2. clergyman’s suit; 3. trousers of dark one-tone color, with the clerical collar. The shirt may also be either polo-barong or barong tagalong, with a distinctive cross” (Testera, Florencio, Canon Law Digest of the Philippine Catholic Church, Manila, 1987, pp. 13-14).

The reason for the obligation of wearing the clerical dress code, however, is not at all based on the intention of setting up an elitist class in the Church, a sort of a status symbol for the clergy, installing them not only apart from the rest of the faithful in the ecclesiastical community but also as possessing a higher stateliness and dignity. The real purpose of the ecclesiastical garb is to serve as a public testimony, a manifestation to one and all that the one wearing an ecclesiastical dress is a cleric, that he belongs especially to God. It is an outward manifestation of the uniqueness of the priestly ministry.

Unfortunately, history has somehow warped the perception of the ecclesiastical garb. There was a time when the Church has experienced the tragedy of ecclesiastical elitism, the tendency, that is, of the clerics to be granted special treatment in the community, to be exempted from some obligations, and to be favored with more and more privileges than the rest of the members of the ecclesial community. To be a cleric at that time is to possess a privileged position in society; to be a cleric is to be considered as one special. The Second Vatican Council tried to eliminate these clerical privileges. It did so by introducing the concept of the People of God, leveling thereof the dignity, rights and duties of all the faithful in the Church. In this concept all the baptized are considered equal. That should have settled the problem of elitism in the Church until another reactionary movement came to the fore. This time it emphasized on what was common to all. Steeped with Vatican II theology and doctrine, some members of the Church made that generalization which states: everything ecclesiastical is elitist. Applying this conclusion to the ecclesiastical dress code, some clerics shirk from wearing the clerical uniform, stating that to wear the official dress is to pose as one who is an ecclesiastic and, therefore, exclusive, snobby, elitist. Hence, they prefer to go in public in t-shirts or in ordinary clothes. It is not that they are necessarily ashamed of their identity as priests or that they have a weak sense of their clerical identity. Rather, they do not like to get the attention of people, who because of the uniform give them privileged treatment, or else be looked at with suspicious and leery glances. They prefer to be left alone, free and unperturbed.

In spite of all these, the Church is insistent that her ordained ministers wear the ecclesiastical garb. The reason is simple. The ecclesiastical dress is an external sign, a symbol that is replete with meaning. The clergy who wears it is sending a message to the community of believers as well as to the people in general. The message of the Gospels that the clergy is commissioned to transmit is expressed with words and communicated effectively with external signs, easily understandable to the world of today that is so sensitive to the language of images. To quote the words of the late Pope John Paul II, to wit: “Ecclesiastical dress, therefore, is a sign which makes it easier for others to approach the ministry that the priests represent. In the present society, in which the sense of the sacred has become so diminished, people have even more need of those calls to God, which cannot be disregarded without a certain impoverishment of our priestly service” (John Paul II, Letter to the Vicar of Rome, 8 September 1982, in L’Osservatore Romano, October 18-19, 1982).

The clergy is an ordained minister and he must be known as such. It is true that the transformation effected by the Sacrament of Ordination is something spiritual. It configures the one called to participate in the priesthood of Christ the Head of the Church, conferring on him the spiritual power to act in the name and, oftentimes, in the person of Christ. As such the priestly feature and power of the ordained, although ontologically real, is spiritual. It therefore goes beyond physical appearances and cannot be fully expressed by mere external signs and symbols, much less can it be truly and faithfully articulated by a mere dress or garb. The priestly character of the ordained minister can only be expressed by the authentic life of the minister, his sincerity to live up to the demands of the priesthood and his faithfulness to the mission to which he is called to. The ecclesiastical dress is not external sign of his priesthood; it is his spiritual and priestly life.

But the reasoning suffers some flaws. The Church who legislates on the proper dress for her clergy is not purely spiritual. She is a realist, sacramental in its language as it is incarnational in its view of reality. The spirit can be expressed in something physical; God can be experienced in the burning bush; the Word can be seen and can be touched in the flesh; the child can be transformed into a son of God through the pouring of water with the Trinitarian invocation; the ordained can be known by the ecclesiastical dress he wears. Through the centuries the Church has believed in the value of physical signs and external symbols that point to something that is otherwise imperceptible to the human senses. It has continued on to its practice of pouring water to a child to show the power of the Holy Trinity cleansing the creature from its inherited sin and transforming it into a true child of God; of taking on the species of bread and wine into the altar of sacrifice to make of them the sacramental presence of the Body and Blood of Christ for the redemption of man.

The spiritual reality of the priesthood imprinted in the person of the ordained minister has to be expressed and communicated to the community to which he is called to serve. His life, his behavior, his prayer life, his decorum, his language, all of them have to communicate and articulate the reality of the priesthood he had once been configured. To be known as such, so the Church enjoins, the ordained minister has to wear the proper ecclesiastical attire.