Does the Cassock Make the Priest?
Priests and Metropolitans speak out concerning the attire of the clergy
April 4, 2013
We have become accustomed in Greece to seeing our priests move among us wearing cassocks (rasa, rason). To some the attire invites respect while for others it invites problems. How easy is it for a young man who loves the Church, to join its ranks, when he knows he must move around everywhere with this black costume? How easy is it for a woman to follow him in life and become a "priest's wife"? This issue has been addressed at times, not only by ordinary priests but also by hierarchs.
Th glorious Metropolitan Alexandros of Peristeri (+ 1978) wrote in the epilogue of his book The Outer Garb of Orthodox Clergy (Η εξωτερική Περιβολή του Ορθοδόξου Κληρικού): "Married parish clergy should not be prevented from making free use of the cassock and costume outside of clerical tasks. Such a solution is imperative. In this way the complaints of oppression and the excuses of those who want to become priests will disappear by not obligating the wearing of the cassock everywhere and always, something which is difficult to reconcile with a family man/parish priest."
Metropolitan Theoklitos of Ioannina, however, who is the only Metropolitan to make an appearance with a suit, speaking with the Typo in 2002, made clear that the priest is not only characterized by the cassock he wears: "At this time our Church has forgotten one thing: the independence of man, and it tries to win the priest and the faithful over with his allegiance to some human wishes. I think anyone who wears a cassock or a suit can be a priest. But it is superfluous to talk about the appearance of the clergy."
As for the difficulties faced by clergy to move around, he ascribed it to the general climate of pietism:
"The cassock is to blame for young girls not marrying priests, or perhaps all of us because we do not allow a priest to take his wife by the arm and go for a stroll. Herein is the problem of pietism which results from mixing with Protestantism. We have falsely made the priest a saint and not allowed God to make him a saint."
This matter has concerned, in recent years, Metropolitan Anthimos of Alexandroupolis. He has "dared" to raise the issue of simplifying the appearance of clergy and the hierarchs of the Hierarchy, like the late Archbishop Christodoulos, causing an uproar, mainly from his spiritual father, Metropolitan Anthimos of Thessaloniki. But he seems to even now argue the same views.* He believes the garb of the clergy should be changed. Vestments should be simplified and gradually phased out.
"In our country there is still a numbness regarding this. They want our priests to wear something that distinguishes them," say the Metropolitan of Alexandroupolis. He further notes: "I agree the attire of clergy today are a heavy burden especially for married clergy. We have boys ready to become priests, but they can't find a wife easily. Already our younger priests take off their kalymavkion, they do not wear the outer cassock with the sleeves, and in the summer they are more comfortable, and they go to the beach with their wife and children together with the people. If our attire continues, and our words and our ways are a continuity of our rich ancient language, if the Byzantine tradition is not moved to today, then it is doomed to become relics for a museum."
The brocaded vestments, the mitres adorned with precious stones, the staffs of precious metals, provoke most believers. Especially nowadays when more and more people are facing serious survival problems. Vestments however have a liturgical role in the church and are not used for gimmicky reasons, explains Metropolitan Paul of Sisaniou:
"If someone goes to Mount Athos they will see all day monks moving around with holes in their cassocks, holes in their shoes, and often with dirty cassocks. However, when they see them liturgizing then they will see them dressed brilliantly. And the question is simple: what are they trying to do? Who are they trying to impress? Other monks? Some pilgrims? But they always wear these, depending on the day. There is a certain symbolism. Vestments show that what is happening at this time, the Divine Liturgy or the Sacrament, belongs to the realm of another world that enters within our own world. It is therefore symbolic."
Especially in recent years, he says, hierarchs are increasingly choosing a more simple appearance, not because of cost, but so as not to offend their flock. Yet the pious, he says, are not scandalized.
But what do the ordinary clergy say about this matter?
In 1997 the glorious Evangelos Skordas wrote: "The abolition of the current attire of clergy will not be easy to do suddenly. The Greek people need to be seriously enlightened. Perhaps the cassock could, with a clear understanding of the subject by the Holy Synod, remain as a formal dress of the clergy on major feasts and official appearances. The current inner cassock (anteri) can be modified to become the current everyday dress, at least for the married parish priests. Hieromonks can keep the cassock. Besides, it is exclusively theirs, since it is from them it came from. This will stop the perseverance of some parish clergy from wearing the cassock everywhere and always even in 40 degree celcius heat, which causes them to persevere the joking of the people and adverse comments."
The Orthodox Clergy Association of Greece seems to have a different view. The issue was even discussed at a recent general meeting. Fr. George Vamvakidis, a spokesman for the association, says:
"The response and the decision of the general meeting, with the absolute majority we can say - a vast great majority with few exceptions - is that the outer appearance of the clergy should remain as is, without modification, without simplification, without the abolition of the sacred cassock, which our Church has entrusted. It is to be understood that the decision of the general meeting is my personal opinion as well. We firmly believe that the non-arrival of young, capable clergy to the ranks of the clergy, is not related so much to the external attire as the mentality that prevails in the ranks of our Church."
According to Fr. George, young people have a misconception about the clergy and their lifestyle today, as if they remain in older times. He says:
"They have a misconception about the lifestyle of the clergy. They think that the cleric is isolated and cut off from the body of society, while it is quite the opposite. The clergyman is absolutely synonymous and united with the body of society. The view that the cleric is aloof has simply remained. They even have in mind that the clerics of olden times would not go out, did not socialize in public places, places frequented by young people, where they could be searched for and found. But such a thing no longer exists, because the presence of a cleric, we can say, is a positive presence in every place, even in those places that do not comply with the status of the clergy, such as the infamous nightclubs, which do not bring something beneficial to the soul but we think they bring devastating consequences for the human soul."
Regarding finding women who are willing to become presvyteres, he believes that not even there does the cassock cause a problem.
"My personal experience, and I am not a clergyman that was ordained yesterday but I have been a cleric for over twenty years, and within the position of church administration and as a spiritual father, I can judge and conclude that it is not so much the problem that it appears and is advertised that women are not becoming presvyteres due to the sacred cassock. It is primarily the life, the attention, the vigilance, and the care the cleric should have. Women now cannot coexist with such a lifestyle such as the holy spiritual life of a cleric."
The majority of hierarchs support the maintenance of the cassock
The cassock is a garment of Orthodox clergy formed by tradition and is his distinctive recognition, says Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos:
"It has a history connected with sacrifices, struggles, tears and blood. As you know, many functions in society have some sort of distinctive clothing, such as doctors, nurses, pharmacists, etc. To clergy the cassock reminds them that they are spiritual physicians and not just social workers. The life of the cleric is sacrificial, an ongoing offering that requires the coming out of ones self to offer himself to others. This is connected with the struggles, the sacrifices, the patience in slanders and the criticisms of the people. Ultimately I believe that the cassock does not make the work of the clergy more difficult, but rather it is the high mission of the Priesthood that is difficult. For someone to don a cassock is the smallest sacrifice they can do."
According to Mr. Hierotheos neither the Church nor the Greek community is ready to accept such a big change.
"The Church moves slowly with changes as is the same in every culture, so as not to simultaneously eliminate the deeper aspects of its tradition. Any change should be handled with care to ensure the essence of ecclesiastical life. The Church should not easily alter to any new thing, because there lurks the danger of alienation. I also think that society is not ready to accept the elimination of the cassocks from the clergy. There are some who want the priest without the cassock, but most want their clergy to respect tradition, to express what they represent and are sincere in their mission."
The Metropolitan of Sisaniou does not seem positive about a change of clerical clothing outside the church area:
"Among our people there is a tradition, a tradition that wants a priest with a certain physiognomy, especially with his cassock. And it seems that our people, with this tradition it has, would not be able to tolerate this. It bothers them, and this is seen when sometimes they meet a priest from abroad who circulates in regular clothes. A priest who becomes a priest knows what he is becoming and that he exists in our land. Accordingly, it is not unknown to the priest himself how he is to be as a priest, and on the other hand, neither is the believer ready or mature enough to see something different. Of course, our people do say that the cassock does not make the priest, and this is true. On the other hand, it seems that the cassock has a multicomponent element of how the priest is to be in this land."
Metropolitan Dorotheos of Syros is against a comprehensive decision that will simplify or abolish priestly attire:
"A young man today who makes the decision to lift the heavy cross of the priesthood, the least thing he should worry about is his attire, because there are other things for which he will have to give an account before God, and there are other things which the faithful expect from the cleric. The thing today a cleric should occupy himself most with is that his conscience remain clean, that his witness be holy, that his work be worthy of his mission, which is the priesthood he bears, and that he could truly be considered worthy of his high ministry undertaken through the priesthood. These should be his main goal, and not if he will wear a cassock and kalimavkion."
According to the Metropolitans, the Church has shown in recent years a tolerance regarding the appearance of the clergy. Things, they say, have been simplified enough for young clerics and a discussion on the abolition of the cassock should not be considered at this time.
* The statement of the Metropolitan of Alexandroupolis was published in the newspaper National Herald on 01/16/2003.
Translated by John Sanidopoulos