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.
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?”
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.
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!”
Deacon Bill Ditewig