VATICAN CITY- The habit makes the monk, at least in the Vatican. Last month, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, sent a circular to all the offices of the Roman Curia, reminding priests that they should report to work in proper attire. That means in a collar and clergyman’s suit or a black cassock on a daily basis, and for formal occasions, especially in the presence of the Pope, the monsignors should don their vestments with red or purple buttons and sashes.
This reference to the canonical norms represents a clear signal for Vatican priests. In effect, the priests who do not wear their collar are quite rare inside the corridors of the Holy See. It’s probable that the request to abide by the guidelines, to be impeccable, is meant to stand as an example to those on the outside; that is to the bishops and priests who constantly visit Rome.
The Code of Canonic Rights states that “the clerics should wear a decorated ecclesiastic habit” according the norms emanating from the various Episcopal conferences. The Italian Episcopal Conference established that “the clergy in public should wear cassock robes or a clergyman’s suit”, that is a grey or black suit with the white collar. The English name (‘clergyman’) comes from the Anglosaxon Protestants; however, the Catholic clergy who were travelling first wore it, as a break from the cassock.
The Vatican Congregation of the Clergy, in 1994, explained the reasoning, partly sociological, behind the priest’s attire. “In a secularized society with materialistic tendencies” and “particularly feeling the necessity that the priest, a man of God, dispenser of his mysteries, should be recognizable by the eyes of the community.”
Picture: Albrecht via Wikipedia
Bertone’s note asks the monsignors to “dress up,” that is to wear the suit with colored buttons and sash, in the “proceedings in which they present themselves to the Holy Father,” like those at official occasions. The bishops who are received in audiences by the Pope will now have to be much more attentive to their wardrobe.
The wearing of civilian clothes for clergy is permissible, for particular situations, like in the case of Turkey in the 1940s or in Mexico in more recent times, with the bishops able to go out of the house dressed smartly. The tradition has taken foot in Europe: we shouldn’t forget the images of the young German theologian Joseph Ratzinger (who would go on to become Pope Benedict XVI) in a dark jacket and tie during his years as a theological advisor to the Second Vatican Council in the late 1960s. And in the years just after the Council, the cassock wound up stowed away somewhere in the attic, as priests tried to distinguish themselves less and less.
But in more recent years, especially among young priests, there is a notable return to traditional priestly garments. And now the Secretary of the State has put it in black and white what is very much a “clerical” trend in the lives of the clergy.