I stopped off the other day at the local supermarket to get a salad for lunch. Because I had my picture taken this morning (one of those ‘head shots’ for the church wall, website, dartboard, etc.) I was wearing a collar. At the check out a young woman turned, after taking the money of the previous customer, to check out my salad. She looked at me, did a double take, and said: “I’ve never met one of you in real life before.”

Now, I think I know what she meant. Part of me wanted to ask, “one of what?” You know, a space alien? What did she mean, never met ‘one of you’ before? It was the black shirt and neckband collar that was the distinctive clothing that she noticed. Clericals, as they are called, have been around for a long time but not forever. The most explicit testimony is that afforded by a letter of Pope Celestine in 428 to certain bishops of Gaul, in which he rebukes them for wearing attire which made them conspicuous, and lays down the rule that “we [the bishops and clergy] should be distinguished from the common people [plebe] by our learning, not by our clothes; by our conduct, not by our dress; by cleanness of mind, not by the care we spend upon our person” (Mansi, “Concilia”, IV, 465). The ‘collar’ itself was developed in the 19th century and was a product of prior use of the cassock and a white shirt underneath, for daily wear…hence the black collar and the white ‘notch.’ Cassocks were not intended to be fancy clothes, quite the opposite. And in fact clerical shirts are not intended to be ‘special’ but ‘bland.’ I do not believe that Armani makes clericals, yet.

There is no doubt that the collar identifies you as a clergyperson. I wear one when visiting the hospital, nursing home, bringing the Eucharist to the home bound, and of course in worship/sacramental responsibilities. I view it as my ‘uniform’ just as the nurses or postal workers wear and are easily identified. I suppose I also wear it for myself so I remember my labor, my purpose. Today, at the hospital, the ‘new’ trauma chaplain saw the collar and launched into a recruitment spiel for ‘associate chaplains.’

This identification can go both ways, of course. I used to ride a motorcycle. My wife asked me to stop off at the store for some item. There I was, leather jacket, hanging onto my helmet. The cashier was giving me looks. Finally I asked, “is something wrong?” She replied, “ain’t you a preacher?” Apparently I had been in the store in my clerics often enough that she identified me as “a preacher” and my civilian clothes seemed to give her a case of cognitive dissonance. The reality is, however, that I do not have a collar on my PJ’s.

At my new congregation, the previous pastor(s) pictures are replete with clericals. Yet I know that the immediate predecessor has not worn one for years. I don’t know why. It has become part of my sense of ‘role’ as a pastor. So I wear one often, but not every day. I think that that the reason why some people do not wear ‘the uniform’ is because that there is a certain amount of anti-Catholicism present in their neighborhood. That, I also think, was the root of the check-out girl’s comment to me. I wear it as a reminder. It isn’t a reminder for others, it is a uniform that identifies me and what I do. It reminds me of why I am there; for sacramental purposes, to provide testimony on behalf of our congregation, and not to only speak about the box scores or the weather or grandchildren.

My faith needs practices.  I need reminders, structure. So that’s why I pray the daily office and why I often wear clericals, its  for me. It isn’t the kind of reminder that one itinerant preacher got from his mother, saying to the effect, “let’s get this party started buddy.” (John 2:1-11)   If nothing else,  this collar and the encounters I experience while wearing it,  serves as  a reminder to me that the act of ministry keeps going on in the least likely of places.  I hope how I serve the gospel in those places will leave a lasting impression, not my shirt.