Further Reflections on Clerical Dress for Deacons

Once and a while, you get lucky. So when a former key staffer for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops takes the time to comment on your blog, a simple thank you isn’t enough. Deacon William Ditewig, Ph.D. was kind enough to share these thoughts on my posts, Should Deacons Wear the Roman Collar, and Forbidden to Wear the Roman Collar. Deacon Dietwig has authored ten books on the diaconate and lay ministry, and served as the head of the Bishops’ Secretariat for the Diaconate. His thought’s follow:

Lots of great thoughts here. If I may add my own two-cents’ worth?

This question is, first of all, not a new one. All the way back to 1968 when the US bishops first sought permission to renew the diaconate here in the United States, this was discussed. Remember that back then, the medieval “cursus honorum” was still in place with tonsure admitted a man to the clerical state, then the four minor orders, then the major order of subdeacon, and then the diaconate. Our first permanent deacons in this country went through all of that, since it didn’t go away until 1972! So in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, for example, we have some wonderful pictures of our first permanent deacons (ordained in 1971) wearing cassocks, collars and all the assorted vestments associated with the time. The collar, however, remained a sticking point, even from the beginning.

Baltimore's First Deacons
Baltimore’s First Deacons

The first negative experiences back then WERE based on confusion. The original permanent deacons in the early 1970s were actually considerably younger than many of our current ordinands: the age at ordination has been rising steadily over the decades. So, you had transitional deacons AND permanent deacons, both of whom could look quite young, out and about doing ministry. There WERE times when both sets of deacons would have to explain that they were not priests and couldn’t hear someone’s confession, and so forth.

But there’s something more significant at play here. I served for a number of years on the USCCB Staff, and one thing that I learned very clearly was that the bishops of a country — ANY country — do not like to generate particular national law whenever they can avoid it. The like to keep as much autonomy as they can so they can adapt things to the specific and very concrete needs of their diocese. This approach applies to ANYTHING, not just “deacons in collars.” Now, suppose there was a national policy that required deacons to wear collars. OK, fine. Got it. Now, imagine you’re a deacon in a remote diocese in the State of ________. There, the diocesan practice for the priests is that when they gather for anything outside of Mass, they are NOT in clericals. Then, here comes the deacon, following national law, and he’s the only cleric around who is. Who will be confused now? See, there’s no national law or practice on what PRIESTS are to wear either! The practice of wearing collars didn’t really catch on till the 20th century. Clerical attire is simply supposed to be “distinctive” attire, and it’s really only custom that has led to what we now have. So, bishops reasonably ask, “Why, when we don’t have a national law or policy on what our priests are supposed to wear, should we have one for deacons?”

Casual Priest Retreat
Casual Priest Retreat

During the preparation of the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States, one bishop recommended that the questions of “what deacons wear” should be determined by the bishops of each of the 15 episcopal regions (there are 14 geographical regions, plus one “region” for the Eastern Catholic Churchs). This got hooted off the floor very quickly. As one bishop told me later in the hallway, “We can’t decide by regions on what day to celebrate the Ascension? How would we ever decide what kind of shirt our deacons are wearing?”

The wearing of the grey clerical shirt (what we used to refer to for many years as “the St. Louis model,” because it seemed to originate there many, many years ago) is one way to go, but since many priests and other ministers of other faiths also wear multi-colored clericals, they don’t, ultimately, help all that much. Over the years, many designs have emerged. I would say that in my six years or so at the Conference, a new one would arrive about once a month. One was even a kind of clerical “dickie” that had a vertical stripe in the middle of the collar. Another was a collar without a notch; this was quickly vetoed by the bishops, however, because of complaints by many religious brothers who wear that kind of collar with their habits.

Colorful Collars

Seriously, after twenty-three years as a deacon, I’ve encountered every reason there is to wear a collar, and every reason why not to. Yes, I believe deacons should be readily identifiable as deacons of the Church in service to others. I also don’t like the fact that non-ordained seminarians wear clericals without question. That’s why I’ve always liked the policy that we have in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, and which I’ve recommended to many bishops around the country: “If in the professional judgment of the deacon, the wearing of clerical attire will enhance his ministry, he may do so.”

All I can say is, “Hang in there; there are more important things to worry about!”

God bless,

Deacon Bill Ditewig

A little update

I am a writer. I cannot help but write. It has been so frustrating trying to find a way of processing my experience that doesn’t include writing publicly. Not only that, I really miss the questions and comments from this online community. It really helped me work through what I am going through.There can be no doubt about it, I consider not writing this blog a penance.

Nevertheless, I felt it would be appropriate to write a brief update on where I am for those who follow this blog. I am very thankful for all the sweet emails and new Facebook friends. I have really enjoyed peering into your lives, and pray for God’s blessing for you everyday.

Patience

Yes, I am still in formation. You will know if I ever am not, as this blog will be removed from the web in that circumstance. Our class is running a little bit longer than most, so we are still about three and a half years from ordination. (Personally, I think we are running long because I’m not all that bright, but they are charitable enough to tell me it’s because of administrative stuff) If nothing else, I am certainly learning patience.

My biggest challenge has been one of worth. I know that no one can be worthy or God’s blessings, but in my own eyes, I feel incredibly unworthy. I don’t know, I guess I had hoped that this formation process would make me a better person somehow, and when I look in the mirror, I am still shocked by the glaring faults that look back at me.

Unworthy

The loss of my father in law has been the hallmark moment of this year. He was a very dear friend, and I pray for him every day, even now. While it has been very hard not listening to his Santa Claus-like laugh, he gave me a great gift with his passing. He let me know that I really believe all I say I believe. I was actually happy he had died, because I knew what kind of man he was, and I could not help but feel his moment of triumph. I don’t know that I really had any proof of my faith that would pass my interior eyes until he gave me this gift. Thanks to him, I finally know I am not (entirely) full of crap.

Just for you to know, it’s driving me crazy to not comment on Benedict’s resignation and the eminent conclave. Absolutely bonkers.

So there you are, brief update. Just to let you know I’m not dead or anything.