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Secularized man has succeeded in making himself a shadow. By eschewing every trace of moral absolutes, tradition and, indeed, the very anchor of nature itself, he has made himself a ghost. So etiolated, he can only rely upon the whimsical demands of the gaseous self. In this claustrophobic universe there is no longer need for God or religion. For those without a stomach for so sharp a break with millennia of metaphysical stability, there are the Sentimentalists. These persist in religion but bend religion to their own ends. Committed to a reverence for the canons of modernity, they busy themselves trimming, accommodating and shaving away those sharp edges of religion that they claim have too long intruded obtrusively on the tender modern sensitivity. To these, sociologist Christian Smith aimed his damning description: “moralistic therapeutic deism.” W.H. Auden’s obloquy of the 1930s can well be attributed to them: “low and dishonest.” At least Nietzsche had the honesty to follow secularity to its logical cul de sac of atheism. No such courage is found in these religious sentimentalists. They arrive at de facto atheism crouched beneath the patina of religion.
Religious Sentimentalists heartily subscribe to the motto of the rioting French students of 1968 in Paris: “It is forbidden to forbid.” Strange that such antinomianism would hide under the sheep’s clothing of religion. But such dissembling is their mark. R.R. Reno recently wrote pointedly of this furtive wrecking spirit, “…everything strong and limiting goes. We must weaken social authority so that we can love more fully. For the radical French thinkers who came to be called ‘postmodern,’ nihilism offered the opposite of despair. The notion that there are no solid, enduring truths was for them a gospel of freedom.” Isn’t this the true project of the German bishops? Aren’t they and their tribe fashioning a New Religion shorn of religion? This band of happy trailblazers refuses to affirm that truth arrives from gazing wondrously at the Real. They choose manufactured meanings, loosed from Reality, and eventually suffer the all too modern fate of meaninglessness. Ask Sartre. Read Kafka.
Quite tragically more than a few in the Church have chased the chimera of Modernity. Under the severe lash of secularism’s hegemony, they welcome a regime of subtractions: in dogma, morality, priestly formation, liturgy and ascetical practice. Like a man taking a buzz saw to an ancient tree, they did the same to the Church’s Tradition and traditions. They justified their sordid agenda by posturing that they were clearing centuries of irrelevant accretions. In fact, they were axing the ancient tree of the Church’s life giving traditions, leaving the Catholic faithful scorched by secularism’s unforgiving sun. In the movie The Great Silence, on the life of cloistered monks, there is a great moment when a group of monks are chatting and one of them mentions that another monastery had dropped a number of its practices in order to adapt to the times. Quickly an elderly monk replies:
Our entire life, the whole liturgy, and everything ceremonial are symbols. If you abolish the symbols, then you tear down the walls of our own house. When we abolish the signs; we lose our orientation. Instead, we should search for their meaning… One should unfold the core of the symbols… The signs are not to be questioned. We are.
Libraries have been written on modernity’s seepage into the Catholic Church, none better than St. Pius X’s Pascendi Gregis. But let us be less ambitious and diagnose this penetration through the prism of a seemingly small detail of the Church’s array of sacred symbols: the priest’s black Roman cassock. Some will surely complain that this is an exercise in the trivial. Yet that very protest is a telling proof of the problem. Such flip demurrals divulge a corrupting superficiality, which cannot recognize an appreciation of the web of crucial symbols that constitute religion, and human life itself. Each strand of that web is critical to the whole, and disturbing even one of those strands strikes a blow to its integrity. Wittgenstein recognized these interwoven layers of meaning to human life when he warned that altering this complex tapestry of truths is like trying to repair a spider’s web with a boxing glove.
But why a focus upon the Roman cassock of the priest? Isn’t this a bit narrow? Not if one sees that the priest is the tip of our Holy Religion’s spear. He is the face of the Church’s redemptive mission, in all its comforting glory and stirring majesty. The priest is the bearer of God’s weighty mysteries, the “dispensatores mysteriorum Dei” (I Cor 4:1), and this weighty mystical vocation demands a correspondingly weighty sign. It must be noted that the Roman cassock, quite different from the black street suit and Roman collar, is dramatically unique, possessing a voice both dramatic and affecting. It bespeaks the supremely singular role the Catholic priest performs. C.S. Lewis once remarked that even if a liturgical vestment is not heavy, it ought to look heavy. Sacred signs bear the heavy weight of the Ineffable Trinity, so should their physical appearance. The Roman cassock does that to a tee.
The priest in the Roman cassock not only represents a divine institution, a legacy of illuminating dogmas, or a prestigious position in a world-respected Church. More grandly, the cassocked priest trumpets to the world a dazzling power: to summon the Word Incarnate upon altars for the salvation of the human race; to literally change the souls of men by uttering the words of absolution. Even while performing works of charity, the priest in the Roman cassock sets himself apart from those doing the same. In cassock, the priest adds a supernatural luster which brings to the work a radiance it did not have before. The habited St Vincent DePaul taking a child in his arms, or the cassocked St. John Bosco playing with his boys, is poetry; a state official, or even a good Catholic doing the same things is prose.
The priest is not merely a socially significant figure; he is a cultic embodiment. All this goes beyond the words he preaches in nomine Christi. More metaphysically profound, he stands in persona Christi. Here is the stunning ontology of the cassock, it discloses the power to invoke the supernatural. To this extraordinarily numinous role there must be attached an equally extraordinary sign. A mere business suit and collar, while adequate, is certainly not sufficient. Only the riveting sign of the priest covered in the folds of the cassock will do.
The black Roman cassock identifies the priest with a supernatural universe, a mysterium tremendans et fascinans, in the evocative words of the religious phenomenologist Rudolf Otto. It contrasts dramatically with the mundum. In a sweet paradox, the Roman cassock, by its very strangeness, separating the priest from the ordinary business of the world, simultaneously binds him more intimately to that world. For as His Divine Master, the priest exists for that world. His cassock bids man come back to his truest self, and most noble End.
If twentieth century phenomenology, so esteemed by St. John Paul II, has taught us anything it is that man is homo symbolorum. Man dwells in a world of rich and beckoning symbols sating his parched soul, as a thirsty man drinking water in a desert. Remove these elaborately embroidered galaxies of meaning and man is choked and existentially emaciated. Psychology tells us that 95 percent of all communication is nonverbal. Well before this researched psychological conclusion, Holy Church understood this. She is the preeminent herald of the Infinite through millennia of fashioning worlds within worlds of sign and symbol. The simple black Roman cassock is only one of the strands in that imposing firmament. It speaks eloquently to the world, but it is not principally for the world.
It is chiefly for the priest. It reminds him of his place, his duty, his obligation. Daily it teaches him that without Christ he is nothing; for the sake of Christ he must die to the world. Often the priest falls short of these ideals, and might find the cassock an indictment. Good, that is its purpose. The imitable Fr. Edward Leen, master scholar of dogmatic and ascetical theology of the early twentieth century, addresses this amazing power of external signs to transform interior disposition. In his Progress Through Mental Prayer he writes:
To act then as it becomes us to act, truly to reflect in our conduct what we are, we must in all things comport ourselves as having heavenly tastes and ideals… By the cultivation of a truly spiritual bearing in all things possible to me by ascetical effort aided by grace … the exterior will finally affect the interior.
Leen seems to be echoing the ancient truth about the religious rule: keep the rule, and the rule keeps you. At first, the maxim may seem jejune, but proof of it is found in the fact that the habit is worn by groups such as cloistered Carmelites or Carthusians, whom no one ever sees.
All this being true, the Roman cassock still continues to act as a potent sign to the world. It marks the priest as an Ambassador of the Absolute; a Keeper of the Permanent Things. To a secular age smothered in the ephemeral, the transitory, the soundbite, the cassock is a welcome respite, summoning man to breathe again the pure air of the Transcendent. The oft told story of Alec Guinness is illustrative. In the first volume of his autobiography, Blessings in Disguise, Guinness writes about an incident that happened to him while making the Father Brown movie in France. After a day of production, he was strolling back to his hotel still wearing the Roman cassock, the costume his role demanded. Out of a hedge darted a small French boy. He ran to Guinness, thinking him a priest, held his hand for a short time, then let go and dashed away, waving to the actor as he did. That little French boy recognized the priest in his Roman cassock as a supernatural shelter in which he could find security, protection, love, and goodness. That recognition struck Guinness’s soul like an earthquake. Guinness later confessed that the incident was the decisive spark that brought him to the Catholic Church. Soon after his conversion, his Sephardic Jewish wife, followed her famous husband, and entered the Catholic Church as well. One Roman cassock produced more than whole libraries of books. I suppose a picture is worth more than a thousand words.
Ah, the irony. Even as Secular Man scours every trace of traditional signs from society, it multiplies signs of its own. After all, secularity lives beneath the shadow of Marshall McLuhan and cannot escape obedience to his axiom. The famous social philosopher coined the emblematic slogan of our age, the medium is the message: what we communicate is not as important as how we communicate it. Common sense as well as common experience gives confirmation: long hair and the peace sign in the sixties, along with guitar, beads, and sandals were explosive signs of rebellion. Aren’t passions roused by the flag, a swastika or a coned shaped white hood? Peculiar, isn’t it, that just as signs ruled the popular imagination, many in the Church abandoned theirs.
In 1969 Peter Berger authored his ground breaking little book, A Rumor of Angels. There he bemoaned the relentlessly grinding secularization of culture which he viewed as dissolving religion, the crucial glue of human society. He searched desperately for “signals of transcendence,” shafts of light for a mankind sinking into a cruel darkness. Of course, the Church possessed all those “signals of transcendence,” and yet more than a few of her leaders were embarrassed by them and set out to ban their use.
The Roman cassock enjoys its own ontology, a window into worlds upon worlds of rich meaning. Every one of those worlds leads to God, esse ipsum subsistens. Setting it aside blows a gaping hole in that carefully constructed world. Yet this is what seems to have happened in the past half-century. Not only has the minimal clerical uniform of black business suit and collar become a rare sight, some priests have gone so far as to replace the black clerical front for a variety of colors. This is not mere quirk or eccentricity; it is a statement. Such a clownish display is a deliberate and conspicuous rupture with tradition. And while it makes those who sport such carnival attire only seem like bizarre cartoons, it still delivers its blow.
At the root of this attitude is conformity to the so-called “spirit of Vatican II,” a concocted parallel world to the Roman Catholic one, confirming a Modernist agenda decisively abjured by the Church. While many clerics have rightly distanced themselves from this aberration, too many harbor an obvious diffidence to the rich traditions of the Church, among them the Roman cassock.
Many a fine cleric falls prey to this embarrassment of the sacred, content to hide behind the thinnest display of religion. Clearly, this is manifested in the nervous fear that many Catholic leaders have in confronting the galloping zeitgeist. If there be paranoia in this essential obligation of the Faith, there should be no surprise at being ashamed of the Church’s ensemble of sacred signs.
Recently, the gifted essayist Maureen Malarkey wrote,
…I am inclined to believe that, yes, a priest who comes dressed like the yardman or a lumber jack is likely following advice from the chancery to meet people “where they are,” in the illusory cant of the day. Nevertheless the priest is not a technician, like the appliance repairman or meter reader. He embodies the Omega of our hope; his presence asserts it among those who have surrendered hope and trust. Is confrontation the sole means of bearing witness. That is not for me to answer. I can believe that retreat in advance affirms the very loss of trust… Maimonides said it well: “The beginning of all defeat is retreat.” Is not a cassock testimony in itself, a silent instrument that gives word of what we ourselves might be unable to say? It must not be put aside, mothballed for more congenial times.
Interesting: The abandonment of the simple black Roman cassock as an initial sign of retreat; the first waving of the white flag of surrender. It just might be.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is Alex Guinness and Joan Greenwood in the 1954 film “Father Brown.”