EVERAL SUMMERS AGO, I underwent training at the Naval Chaplains School in Newport, RI. It was a terrific experience (and Newport is not a shabby place to spend the summer). Over that summer, I learned about the traditions of the Navy, did a lot of PT, and became friends with a rabbi & an imam. I am forever grateful for the formation I received during those months.
One thing that many people don’t know about Navy chaplains is that they serve not only the Navy, but also the Marines and the Coast Guard. So we learned about those branches, also, during our training. For a two-week period, we focused exclusively on the Marine component, and we were taken off-site for special field exercises.
We spent most of our time on NAVSTA Newport wearing Navy uniforms—khaki’s mostly, with the occasional need for summer whites. The day we left for the field exercises, however, we all dressed in Marine uniforms. I will never forget looking in the mirror that morning and seeing myself decked in woodland camouflage. My interior response was strong, immediate, and multi-faceted. I felt unworthy, honored, and humbled to wear this particular uniform; the sight produced within me a tangible sense of duty; my mind was consumed with the thought of so many Marines who have died wearing the very same uniform. To be honest, the experience was a bit overwhelming. The question, “Who am I?” repeated itself quietly but firmly in my mind.
HE CASSOCK can be something of a lightning rod. I have yet to forget the occasion when I first wore one, about two months into my first year of seminary life. The feeling was very similar to my experience with the Marine woodlands. I felt unworthy, coupled with a sense of duty and the insistent question of identity.
A great portion of my life has been spent in uniform. Whether it’s been a Catholic school uniform or a baseball uniform or a Scout uniform or a Navy uniform or my current uniform of black, I’ve always enjoyed the feeling of being part of something larger. There are real benefits to wearing a uniform (beyond the freedom of not worrying what to wear).
An article published two weeks ago by Esquire writer-at-large, Tom Chiarella, has some fascinating insights into the effect a cassock can have on the one who wears it and those who see it worn. Though not a priest, Chiarella undertook a mission to wear a cassock around downtown Chicago for a day, observing how it affected him and those he encountered. He continued the experiment by dressing on other days as a security guard, a mechanic, and a doctor. I won’t rehash all of his insights, because the article is worth reading for yourself.
In large part, Chiarella recounts being met with pleasant-to-positive encounters during his day-in-the-life. After four years as a priest, myself, that surprised me a bit. While I am typically met with great warmth in the neighborhood where I live & work, a casual walk through Center City dressed as a priest elicits mostly disinterest. There are, of course, occasional unpleasant encounters that largely stem from the scandals of the last decade, but I would say that the majority of people pay little mind to a passing priest.
That being said, I could not begin to list the many wonderful encounters I have had with strangers who have approached me simply because I was dressed as a priest. Many prayers have been requested, blessings have been offered, and questions have been asked. Without a doubt, wearing priestly attire is good for the priest, since it is a reminder of his vocation and an encouragement to his priestly identity. But it is also good for those around him.
The Esquire article reminded me of William Riccio’s reflection upon the Eucharistic procession held in NYC at the conclusion of Sacra Liturgia back in June. The effect of that procession was a profound spirit of peace felt by participants, police officers, and passers-by alike. The sight of a priest, like the sight of that procession, can have incalculable effects.
Chiarella’s observations, I believe, are valid and important. They are evidence of humanity’s innate desire to connect with God. This desire is written in the hearts of all men, including those who otherwise live in the mire of secularism. If we are serious about the New Evangelization, it is incumbent upon priests to capitalize on simple opportunities to engage modern man. It would seem that wearing priestly garb in public settings is such an opportunity. Doing so often serves as an entre for conversation and prayer—even confession.
HETHER A PRIEST wears a cassock or a black suit, the witness of clerical garb is essential in the modern age. The world needs the witness of priests in ordinary life, not just inside the church building. Our brothers & sisters in the streets and in all of society need to be reminded of the presence of God. We priests should be humbled and honored to be that reminder.