Friday, August 06, 2010

Wear Your Cassock!

Father Bruce Mitchican is a young priest of the (D&FMS of the) PECUSA, who wears his cassock often and explains why. His blog post is extremely good, and we encourage you to read it all. Here, however, are our favorite bits:

The cassock was once the standard article of dress for Christian priests. Long after the Great Schism divided the east from the west, the cassock remained a symbol of priesthood that was acknowledged by Catholic and Orthodox alike. ... The cassock was a symbol of the priesthood in the way that a white coat is a symbol of medicine or a tie is a symbol of formality and professionalism.

But all of that is over now, at least in the west. At age thirty, I’m the product of a post sixties, post sexual revolution, post Vatican II world. There’s no room for the cassock in the world in which I’ve grown up. I’ve never seen a Roman Catholic priest wear one, outside of the movies. ... To wear a cassock when not officiating at liturgy is to paint one’s self as a stuffy traditionalist who is pining after the nineteenth century, a clueless old fuddy duddy who is still trapped by the oppressive social norms of yesteryear.

In fairness, we have a couple of older colleagues who wear their cassocks as daily attire. They aren't old fuddy-duddies, strictly speaking; they are making a deliberate countercultural statement, and we have always admired them for it. And yet two things are true: (1) they do spend a lot of time in the company of old fuddy-duddies; and (2) admire them though we may, we don't join them. (For the record, we have indeed seen Romish priests wearing theirs, occasionally, and not merely at formal occasions. But we are noticeably older than Mitchican, and have lived in some awfully old-fashioned places.)

Mitchican proposes that cassocks are one of the "universal symbols" which, once upon a time, helped to construct and define a human community. He places it alongside he badge, the lab coat, the butcher's smock. But alas --

The universal symbols are gone, replaced by the universality of brand names and box stores. In the process, that which is unique to each local expression of community has become obscured. ... Every time I move to a new place, I’m asked by the locals, “How do you like living here?” I’m never quite sure how to answer that question, and for the longest time I didn’t know why. And then one day it dawned on me, I couldn’t answer the question because I couldn’t figure out what the difference was between one place and the next. I ate at the same chain restaurants and bought my clothing at the same strip malls everywhere I went. ...

We need symbols, not just brands. We need symbols that speak to our hearts and that communicate deep truths about who we are and how we live. We need to know that there are differences between us that go beyond whether or not we happen to prefer PCs over Macs or Cheerios over Corn Flakes. We need to learn again that there is such a thing as calling and vocation, that each of us can be called upon to serve our communities in a special way, not simply by consuming but by producing the goods that hold our communities together, whether or not those goods are tangible.

We think he's right, although we wear our own cassock quite rarely -- the rare-these-days church service without a Eucharist, or at which we do not preside, and a few days on retreat each spring. In services, we almost always wear a surplice, which is the truly liturgical garment. So, when you boil it down, we really never use the thing the way Mitchican is talking about. We doubt our fragile ego could stand the mockery.

On a similar note, we actually do own a biretta -- the one we tip to our occasional correspondents -- but we have never once worn it in public, or even in private for more than few seconds. We'll explain why, and tell a droll tale, in another post.


Pastor Joelle said...

I don't have a cassock - just too expensive and not much chance to wear one. But I know I would HOT in a cassock. It would probably also BE hot in one.

Father Anonymous said...

You have a point. Two, really, because it's not a summer garment. Wore mine for an outdoor wedding once. In summer. In Arizona. It's a comical memory, mostly about trying to preach a sermon while my mind was focused on the sweat rolling down my back.

As to looks, I got mine very cheap at an Augsburg shop's going-out-of-business sale. It's a Slabbink side-closer, and not a style I would have purchased had their been other choices -- more tunic than robe.

My wife had one too, and hated it, and finally picked up (on sale) a classic Roman-style cassock. Far better quality materials and tailoring, and yes, she looks great in it. I suspect that many women do, largely because a well-made cassock is snug through the midsection and flares before arriving at the hips. What's not to like?