Why do Priests Wear Weird Clothes?



On the topic of weird things in religion, priests and nuns (and other folk) do wear curious outfits. They stand out. If God’s goal for human beings is to transform us into fully human persons, then why would he institute a whole group of people who are seemingly left out of fully human life? That is a terrific question. So, let’s start with the clothes and then move to their lives.


If God’s goal for human beings is to transform us into fully human persons, then why would he institute a whole group of people who are seemingly left out of fully human life?

First, consider that not all priests wear their collars and black clothes all the time. They wear a uniform just like a soldier does. When on duty, they wear the uniform. The uniform is meant to represent a uniform pattern for all priests, allowing us to see the priest as his office, rather than as the man behind it. There’s nothing strange about this at all. But what about nuns? Some orders keep their nuns in their habits all the time! Yes, that’s true. But here again, it’s a uniform, but unlike the parish priest, the sort of nun you have in mind wears her uniform at all times. The reason is that her order has a constant function that requires a continual form of community, a community whose identity includes the common clothing. Some orders emphasize a life of care for the poor and to illustrate this you might see rough clothing. But other church personnel such as a bishop on a high feast day will be decked out in extremely expensive apparel, to illustrate the majesty of the king who will one day return in full pomp and glory. The uniform fits the mission.


But aren’t there some religious people who do withdraw from the normal world entirely? Like hermits? Yes, there are. But these people are not life models for the rest of us who need to love our kids, befriend our neighbors, vote in the next election, etc. In fact, the cloistered person usually depends upon the charity of the normal people in the Church to survive. The cloistered person is cloistered because of a very special mission of his order. For example, some cloistered orders devote themselves to prayer. They live to pray, and they pray for you every single day. They are thus apart from the normal world but also fully engaged with the battle for the hearts of the world. But they need our material support in order to fulfill that mission. It’s not unlike the nuclear submarine force that at this very minute prowls the arctic waters to keep the world safe from nuclear war. These people are withdrawn from the world spending months at sea, underneath the world in fact! They serve a special mission and, like the cloistered prayer communities, they require our support so that they can maintain their vigilance.


God had a habit of identifying prophets in ways that helped them stand out to express God’s concern at the time, a concern that like the prophet himself, stood outside the way the people were currently behaving.

You might remember that St. John the Baptist was one of these kinds of people, a hermit out in the wilderness wearing sackcloth and eating locusts and honey. That’s weird. But God chose John as one in a long tradition of prophets to Israel. And God had a habit of identifying them in ways that helped them stand out to express God’s concern at the time, a concern that like the prophet himself, stood outside the way the people were currently behaving. St. John the Baptist was the last prophet in one of these ancient orders. Jesus remarked once how his religious opponents complained about John for being weird and preaching in the wilderness but also complained about Jesus for being worldly because he ate and drank with tax collectors and prostitutes. Either way, they never stopped criticizing. But notice what they were really criticizing: his love for people.


And that’s really what it all comes down to: love. The greatest two commandments direct us to our maximal mission in life, to love God and to love our neighbors. As God repeatedly emphasizes to the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible, all of their rituals and sacraments were useless when divorced from love. St. Paul tells the Church the same thing in the famous Corinthian letter, when he compares miraculous powers, visions, and languages to the power of love. It’s all for love. So, yes, sometimes God marks people off for special missions, but even then, it’s not simply to make them weird, as though being weird makes you holy or closer to God. When God makes the saint, he does not unmake the man. John the Baptist was still a full human being with all the worries and concerns that the rest of us have. You cannot cheat on your humanity in order to sneak next to God. Our path to God is our humanity, because God’s path to us is the Incarnation! So, don’t fall for the error of that little mermaid, who thought that only by changing what she was could she ever be happy. Your happiness and fulfillment lies solely in becoming the maximal human person that God created you to be. Maybe for a few of you that will involve taking holy orders. Just remember always to be human first, because if you lose your humanity, you lose yourself.


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