Friday, July 15, 2011

Clerical Dress Code

The priests have a particular dress code. It requires them to dress up in clerical attire when they appear in public. It 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. 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 the priestly 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 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, 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 an ordained minister.
Unfortunately, history has somehow warped the perception of the ecclesiastical garb. There was a time when the Church has experienced the tragedy of elitism, the tendency, that is, of the clerics to be considered special and privileged of society because they are granted special treatment by the community, such as, to be exempted from some obligations, or, 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 be special and elite.
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.
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).
Oftentimes we hear of words of excuses from donning the priestly garb. As reasoned out the ecclesiastical dress is not the external sign of the priesthood. It is the spiritual and priestly life of the person concerned. True. However, 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 expression. 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 of Jesus; the ontological transformation wrought by ordination to the minister can be known by the ecclesiastical dress he wears.
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.