by Christopher Howse PRIESTS in Britain may soon be obliged more strictly to wear clerical dress, following a directive imposing priestly dress on the clergy of Rome.
Behind the letter from Pope John Paul to the clergy of his diocese, and the accompanying instruction from Cardinal Ugo Poletti, His Vicar, intended to bring the dog-collar back on to the streets of Rome, lies a fundamental attitude of the Pope's to the priesthood which is expected to lead a tightening up of the worldwide discipline governing the Church's clergy.
According to the Italian press, the Pope had approved a document for publication by the Sacred Congregation for the clergy, requiring the priests of the world's 2,300 dioceses to wear the traditional clerical dress of their countries, but its publication had been held up by reservations by some bishops.
Clearly the matter is one close to the Pope's heart, as he explains in the letter which went out last. week to the priests of Rome. "Because this sign expresses our snot being of the world', in the prayer composed for Holy Thursday this year, alluding to clerical dress, I addressed this invocation to. the Lordi `Do not let us gneve your spirit . . . with what is seen as a desire to hide one's priesthood before men and to avoid every external sign of it.' The seemingly trivial regulation in fact reveals the concept of priestly identity which the Pope holds dear. "Many times in meetings with priests I have expressed my thoughts in this regard, pointing out the value and significance of this distinctive sign, not only because it contributes to the dignity of the priest in his external behaviour or in the exercise of his ministry, but above all because it gives evidence within the ecclesiastical community of the public witness that each priest is to give of his own identity and special belonging to God," he says in his letter.
If, as seems likely, clerical dress is enforced worldwide, there are some countries where it will be more difficult to change. England, and, even more so, Scotland, have retained traditional clerical dress to a large extent. But in France, most priests have dropped the clerical collar, and many have no more sign of being priests than a small cross in the lapel.
When the French bishops made their ad limina visit to Rome recently, some of them wore ordinary lay dress. It is known that when the Pope visited the United Nations offices in Geneva, he appeared angry or distressed at the appearance of the clergy there.
The obligation already exists under the current Code of Canon Law (Canon 136) which says: "All clerics are bound to wear a becoming clerical garb according to the legitimate local customs and the regulations of the Ordinary." But it has been estimated that up to 60 per cent of the priests in Rome had dropped the use of the clerical collar.
The precise details Of the new regulations include an injunction to wear "the cassock or the clerical suit according to the Italian use, black or dark grey, or dark blue with the ecclesiastical Roman collar." Religious should wear the habits suitable to their congregations or at least clerical dress, and in seminaries, clerical dress should be worn from the admission of candidates for the priesthood. The rules apply also to priests living temporarily in Rome.
The Pope realises that there are good arguments against the use of clerical dress. But he concludes that when the objections are considered serenely with a religious understanding, they turn out to be more human than ecclesiological in the nature.
There is no doubt that if the regulations are extended, the Pope will run into a strong current of opposition from those who do not wish to be guided in such matters.