Today, I am awe struck at a blog post I read regarding the issue of priests who wear cassocks. For the uninformed, a cassock is the traditional priest attire. It is a long black overcoat (best way to describe it) that has a waistband, flared sleeves, and the traditional priest collar around the neck.
This started with a post on the blog Liturgy Guy, a blog that is directly related to Catholicism. The post referred to Father Lawrence Carney, a priest from Kansas who engages in street evangelization, whilst wearing his priestly cassocks. While a touching story of how this priest is using the stark image of a priest wearing a cassock, something we don’t see in today’s society too often, as a way to evangelize, it grew the ire of a priest in the Diocese of Springfield, Mass., where I practice my faith.
The priest in question here is Father Frank Lawlor, the pastor at St. Mary’s Church in Westfield, Mass. He commented on a Facebook post with the Liturgy Guy post saying, “A man in a dress is never a good sign. We are trying to bring people into our church, not drive them away. Cassocks are the height of clericalism. Look at me, I am different!”
Now, at the outset, not the best way to phrase criticism of brother priests who choose to wear the cassock over the more informal, ‘civilian’ like attire many priests wear today.
Fr. Frank continued his criticism by quoting Carey Niewhor, “Too many churches & church leaders are perfectly equipped to reach a world that no longer exists.” He added, “Are you not familiar with the statistics…..The second largest denomination in the US is ex-Catholics! The number of Catholics in the United States as (sic) dropped from 28% of the population to 20% and only about 20% of those attend Mass regularly…….Men in dresses won’t help!”
Instantaneously, there was a heap of anger and frustration levied at Fr. Frank from those who criticized his personal outward appearance, to those who criticized his previous life experiences (he’s divorced with three children, who got an annulment before entering seminary), to those who agreed with Fr. Frank and criticized the men who choose to wear the cassocks.
All of this begs the question, is this really what we should be focusing on?
Fr. Carney’s supporters are excited about how the cassock is being used to bring people to ask why this man is dressed in this way. He is serving the church, which in turns serves God, et. al. By this very nature, he’s bringing people into the church. Do these people stay? That has not been decided; however, Fr. Carney is evangelizing, something that most people would not subject themselves.
Fr. Frank’s point is one of understanding why people are not with the church. He is saying that the church is not currently up with the times. Its views on gay marriage, abortion, divorce, women’s ordination, and other social issues do not align with society’s views on these issues. If you want people to join a multiple thousand year old institution such as the Roman Catholic Church, it probably should be adjusted to current society’s views on social issues.
While Fr. Frank could have worded his perspective differently, I think the message is what matters. The church needs to adapt to what the people are thinking. The studies have shown the millennials are not attending Mass and other church services not because they don’t believe in God, but because they don’t believe that their physical presence in the church matters to their spirituality. This means declined Mass attendance, the shutting down of churches, and a lack of interest in what the Catholic Church has to offer.
Cassock supporters feel that these issues too, by the way. On the August 24, 2017 episode of the podcast Catholic Stuff You Should Know, the hosts discussed the evangelization power of the cassock. They also made mention of how you shouldn’t sacrifice your beliefs in the church and the message of the Gospel because you think the cassock is over the top or outdated. The cassock still has power today.
Who’s right? Neither. The cassock is a great evangelization tool but linking the cassock to clericalism or the failings of the church in terms of declined Mass attendance is not the right avenue to pursue. But “are cassocks really what we should be focusing on? No. Adaptation and evangelization are the focus.