I suppose that long before I was ordained a priest I considered the idea of wearing the Roman collar of a priest as more honourable and perhaps a bit prestigious. People would look at me wearing my “clerics” and either admire me as a priest or admire the office of the priesthood. Like anything else in life, it was not quite what I had bargained for. Having been a priest for 20 years now I look back on my early and silly self-centered pride in wearing the collar with a very different outlook at what it really means to be a priest. I never would have guessed that to wear a Roman collar would also make you a target, an invitation, a symbol, a threat and a witness.
When I was first ordained I was quite conscious of wearing the collar when in public because of the various looks I would get. Sometimes people would make jokes, laugh, look the other way, smile or actually speak to me because I was in clerics. Over the years that sense of seeing myself wearing the collar wore off to the point where most often I forget that I’m even wearing it. It’s not until someone looks at me straight on and I think they know me when suddenly I realize they’re looking at my collar and the fact that I’m a priest – it’s instant recognition. In fact, recently I saw one of our parishioners at Staples. I was there to drop off an order and he was there to pick one up. I wasn’t wearing my clerics. When he looked at me I said “Hello”. He nodded his head and went back to what he was attending to at the counter. It was only when I stepped forward to place my order that he approached me and said, “Sorry, Father. I didn’t recognize you”.
Personally, I am proud to wear the garb of the Catholic priesthood. I think it is most of all a witness in the world that there are some people who visibly declare their lives for the Kingdom of God just as a police officers’ uniform states protection and the upholding of the law. If one is looking for a police officer on a busy crowded street they are looking for a uniform. And while people are not looking up and down streets to find a priest it is a recognizable sign of one who works for God in the Church and I can’t tell you the number of times it has opened the door for conversation and even conversion.
Now one might say that I may often be seen walking my dogs, etc., without being dressed as a priest. As a pastor of a busy and growing parish I am also the exclusive caretaker of the rectory where I house-clean, walk dogs, put out the garbage and recycling, do the laundry, and sundry other things. Black clothing and suit pants do not mix well with these duties not to mention dog hair on black pants (although by the looks of the top of my head it could just as easily be my own hair). My routine is such that if I have several scheduled priestly duties on a given day I wear my clerics. If most of what I am doing is office or rectory related for that day then I wear what my mother used to call my ‘play clothes’. You will find that most priests who wear clerics all day and every day also have housekeepers and cooks and custodians. So, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.
While the sight of a Roman collar can induce respect in some there are also those who hate it for what it stands for. I think of the time during Holy Week 2012 when I was walking on Yonge Street in Toronto on my way to the clergy luncheon following the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral. As I walked accompanied by a deacon I had just met, I passed a young woman all dressed in black. As she passed she suddenly spat on me, clearly a deliberate act by someone who hated or despised what the priest stood for. By the time I realized what had happened she was some distance behind me and she never looked back. Nothing, of course, compared to the insults and spitting heaped on Christ among the other tremendous mockeries, humiliation and physical sufferings he endured.
Everything we do as Catholics gives visible witness to what we believe inside. The way we dress when we come to God’s house each Sunday, whether we bless ourselves and say Grace before a meal in our homes or in public, or what we do with our Sundays is a visible witness to our faith in Christ Jesus along side what we say, do, watch and listen to. For me, the Roman collar is a tangible sign that points, not so much to myself as both a sinner and servant of the Lord but most especially to the reality of Christ in the world. (Fr. Charles)