From the time of the restoration of the Diaconate as a permanent order in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, barrels of ink have been spilled regarding the issue of whether permanent deacons should wear clerical garb. In some dioceses, it is assumed that deacons will wear "clerics" so that they are readily recognized as members of the clergy.
Other dioceses, including my own Archdiocese of Chicago, have an established practice that permanent deacons not wear the collar unless they are actively engaged in areas such as prison ministry or hospital chaplaincy in which the wearing of such distinctive garb helps facilitate that ministry.
For myself, as I have commented to the Vicar of Deacons on several occasions, "I don't like wearing a tie. why would I want to wear a Roman collar?" Well, those days may be at an end for me and this change has caused me to reflect on what the wearing of the collar might mean.
A few months back, our parish began to serve as a temporary home for a congregation of Chaldean Catholics who had sold their facility which they had outgrown but who did not as yet have a larger church in which to celebrate Mass. As my pastor had another obligation on the first weekend our visitors would be at the parish, I was to be the member of the clergy to represent the St. Lambert parish community to welcome our guests. While my own parishioners have been long used to seeing me in my role as deacon, I was an unknown to this other congregation and not readily identifiable as a deacon.
It was then that my pastor suggested that he would like to see the deacons in the parish wear clerical garb on Sundays to both serve as a ready identifier and reinforce in the minds of all the people the clerical status of deacons. So that we would not be mistaken for presbyters, the pastor suggested we wear black trousers and grey clerical shirts. Like it or not, I was going to be wearing a Roman collar.
Last weekend was the first time that I wore that collar. I anticipated some remarks from friends and parishioners questioning whether I was bucking for a promotion or trying to pretend I was a priest (the type of comments I would make were I in their shoes). But the reactions I got weren't quite the ones I anticipated.
Most people seemed to feel that it not only looked good, but that it seemed appropriate. There were, to be sure, several people who addressed me as "Father", but no more than normal. I was surprised however when one parishioner -- with whom I've been acquainted for several years, but with whom I have had little interaction -- approached me to ask a few questions regarding the Scriptures. It may have been coincidental and only because the pastor was engaged in conversation with someone else while I happened to be standing there -- but she had not done anything like that before and I could not help but think the wearing of the collar had increased my credibility in her eyes.
Again, the reactions were positive and affirming and led me to reflect on what the collar means and, more specifically, what it means to me. All of my life, I have accorded special respect to those men who wore Roman collars, a respect that was directed as much to the person as to the position. However, I know all too well the person that I am and that I am the same person with or without the collar. I know that I was not ordained because of any qualities particular to me, but simply in response to an undeserved calling.
Suddenly I am caused to view the collar in a different way and I can only call to mind the words of Jesus expressed in Matthew 11:29-30, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."
Suddenly it began to make sense to me. At least in my case, the collar is a yoke, serving to indicate one who is but a beast of the field whose only purpose to do the bidding of the Master. Considered in that light, I can not only wear the collar, I find it quite appropriate.