Why Priests Should Wear Their Collars…and why lay ministers need something to identify themselves like it


Earlier this week I went to a campus function with Fr. Pat, the pastor of our North Campus. It’s rare that I see him without his collar on, as he wears it often, especially when on “official business.”

We walked into the gross anatomy lab, as I was getting a tour of the facility from Fr. Pat and a young man was getting ready to leave. As we were about to turn the corner the young man stopped us, out of the blue.

“Excuse me, Father…”

Fr Pat turned towards him and the young man broke down in tears within seconds.

“I just found out that my grandma died about an hour ago and I wondered if you would pray with me?”

I excused myself and let Fr. Pat and the young man sit together to talk and pray for a few minutes, sensing that he wasn’t inviting me to prayer but that “the collar” called him towards an identifiable minister.

We just happened to be there that day. But had Fr. Pat not been wearing his collar or had I been by myself, that opportunity would not have presented itself. That symbol of ministry, the symbol of priesthood, the identifiable sign to this young man that said, “I can ask this guy to pray for me…I NEED him” was welcomed and not abhorred.

I could have been the campus minister there all semester, but for those not readily aware of me, or of my position (which I fear is most students, especially in the med school–one because I’m new and two, because many aren’t regular churchgoers) would never have dared to ask me the same question.

Jesus asked us to “go out to all the world and tell the good news” and to “not hide our light under a bushel basket” but for the unaware, or the agnostic, or the sporadic attendee, we all need to be welcome signs of Christ’s presence. For priests an easy way to accomplish this task is to wear the collar. For nuns, a habit perhaps (although most have “kicked the habit”–however many young nuns are trying to be more intentional about wearing theirs and some like the Felician Sisters here wear a very identifiable pectoral cross) does the trick as well. But for us lay ministers…it’s more difficult. I’m pretty vocal about who I am, introducing myself to all I meet as the Campus Minister, but it’s not as easily recognized. I’m considering getting a golf shirt with “campus minister” scrawled on the crest, maybe with a cross? Maybe I wear a cross around my neck over my clothes? Deacons have an identifiable lapel pin, but even that “whispers” their presence, especially to the young. Many deacons like to keep their presence as lay people in a parish and have found that “looking like a lay person” outside of the liturgy often makes them “more approachable” to many. However, I would argue that this is true only to those who are already initiated into parish life. What about when you head off to do prison ministry, or head to the hospital? For deacons, I wonder if their diagonal stole might serve more than a liturgical purpose, even over street clothes?

A friend of mine was a volunteer down at ground zero after September 11th and he reported something similar. That symbol of the priesthood invited him to be a presence for many. When workers found two vertebrae in the wreckage, the priest was immediately found and a makeshift prayer service for those remains occurred–at the workers request.

So I’d like to hear your stories, priests and ministers…for those who wear their collars, tell me the good and the bad of wearing it. For women religious, how do you make yourself present to those you minister to? Campus and other lay ministers, how much harder is this for you? For those in the marketing or fashion field, what might you suggest for us lay Catholic ministers?

Maybe our friend Peacebang, whose blog should be on your must-read list might have an idea or two as well?

Don’t misunderstand….this is not about recognition in terms of haughtyness…but rather it’s about serving the needs of those seeking someone in their time of need. With few priests around and some not wearing collars, I wonder how many opportunities fall by the wayside?

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4 Comments

  1. As someone who has had mixed feelings about clerical garb, you have tilted me towards clarity.

    You are so right.

  2. In the Anglican tradition, lay people can be licensed to bring the Eucharist to the homebound or to the sick in hospital. They often don't get much respect or cooperation for their pastoral function in healthcare settings because of lack of identification. It's easy for medical staff to see a priest's collar and be accommodating to the spiritual needs of the patient/parishioner. When lay people provide pastoral care, even in an official capacity, it's much harder for them to get a similar result.

  3. Caitlin Czeh commented on your note "Why Priests Should Wear Their Collars…and why lay ministers need something to identify themselves like it":

    "I would have to say t hat I've had a similar experice. Not only because I'm not a priest nor a nun, but because I'm fairly young female. The Campus Ministries Association of Northeastern PA organizes what is called "The Listening Post". So, for 2 hours every Tuesday, a clergy person from the area comes and sits at a table in our student center for who wants to talk about anything. At the end, I always have a new list of questions/tasks to be completed, such as where is a specific house of worship, etc. Which is fine, that's part of my job, but I'm in my office for 8-10 hours EVERYDAY! But because the clergy persons have their collars, I guess people feel more comfortable asking them.

    My other experience is that Fr. John, my part-time campus chaplin comes over twice a week for dinner. One with just him & I, and one day with myself and my intern, who is a United Methodist Pastor, and who is working on her MDiv and heading toward ordination. It doesn't matter who is with him, Jane (my intern) and I get ignored, and it's always, " Oh, Fr. please pray for me. Etc". Only one of the cafeteria workers recognizes me outside of dinner with the priest, and knows that I'm the campus minister, but he usually only ever asks me "Where is Fr.?" .

    Finally, my last experiene is that Fr. John, for the most part wears his collar when on "official business". However, there was one "holiday" where the HS, where his the full-time campus minister & teaches. So, he has spent the day doing some personal errands and when he got back for dinner, he didn't have time to change, so he just came in his lay clothes. It seemed that no one recognized him. It was as if it didn't matter that we had been coming to dinner in the same cafeteria twice a week for the semester. They didn't recognize him as Fr. because he didn't have the collar on. It was rather interesting.

  4. Hi,
    Firstly, I just realized I’m the first person to respond to this article in over 4 years, but hopefully it’ll help and guide others who stumble across this! I found your article quite thought provoking and I identify quite profoundly with it.
    I myself am a member of the United Church of Canada and am also in the process of becoming ordained… but only in about 5 or more years from now! The thing is, because I have been called by God to ordered ministry, I feel that our ‘job’ does not begin at the laying on of hands, but rather, is a life long state of being. This goes for those in lay leadership as well! Though all of us are ministers in one way or another, those of us (lay or ordered) who take part in ‘special’ or more formal forms of ministry, need to be more willing to reject our anonymity and embrace visibility. As its been said before, its not about being ‘holier than thou’ but rather it is a symbol to those who need us, as well as being a symbol of who we are as God’s followers. For me its a uniform; police have theirs, those working in grocery stores have theirs and we have ours. I feel that if we adopt the absence of a collar, then we are hiding and are not really willing to ‘put ourselves out there’. *rant over*
    As for a suggestion, I’ve read in a number of places and come across a few instances where seminarians wear a clerical collar with a vertical black stripe; perhaps this can be adopted by us lay folk!
    If anyone else stumbles across this, I’d be very interested to hear what you think!

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