simple servants and marked men

By Diogenes (articles ) | Dec 22, 2005

A Christian Brother in Philadelphia explains why he's switched to wearing civvies.

Twenty years ago, Brian Henderson wore his full habit more, well, habitually as a clear sign he was a cleric. Now, the Southwest Philly native, who last spring celebrated his 25th year as a member of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, says the crisis in the Catholic Church has left many priests and Brothers embarrassed to wear their collars.

While Henderson usually wears a collared shirt, sweater and khakis, his preference for casual clothing isn't a betrayal of his religious life. The Brothers' unique habit -- a judgelike black robe with a wide, white collar -- just isn't part of the persona he wants to portray. Instead, Henderson, 46, wants to play the simple servant. What he definitely doesn't want for himself, or any member of his 325-year-old religious order, is to be lumped in with the priests.

While I can sympathize with Henderson's reluctance to target onto himself the ignominy associated with child molester priests, I don't think this is the way to go. In tough times -- and these must be tough times for Catholics in Philly -- a small act of defiance like wearing clerical garb would give heart to the folks you want to give heart to, and antagonize the people whose antipathy is beyond your control.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with khakis and a sweater, obviously, but to me it conveys little of the "simple servant" and instead appears to be a kind of camouflage. It speaks of a challenge ducked instead of a challenge confronted. Spiritual writers such as Thomas à Kempis urge us to pray for humiliations as a means of spiritual growth. I confess I've never managed myself to utter such a prayer with conviction, but there's no denying that a humiliation handed to clergymen on a platter, so to speak, might be accepted with profit if not enthusiasm. One could compare the roman collar, in the case of an innocent priest, to the yellow Star of David some Danish Christians wore in solidarity with the Jews during the Nazi occupation. And of course the stakes are much smaller in the present circumstances.

Leila brought up a further aspect of the problem two years ago. As opposed to the manner of predation that went on in the 1950s and '60s, very little of the contemporary clerical misbehavior is likely to be committed by a man actually wearing a cassock and roman collar. There a certain dangers from which a marked man, like it or not, is especially well protected.

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  • Posted by: - Dec. 26, 2005 11:50 PM ET USA

    Salve Regina, I'll second that!

  • Posted by: - Dec. 25, 2005 2:23 PM ET USA

    I am a layperson who would love to wear a cassock (minus collar) as a visible act of defiance agaisnt the modernist assault. It is time that we recognize the seriousness of the times & that many of the "soldiers of Christ" are too afraid to wear their "uniforms". It is time for us who wish to defend our faith to move beyond petty bickering & name calling and confront this assault in more tangible means.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 23, 2005 1:54 PM ET USA

    As a lay Catholic, I'm sure I speak for many of us: Dear Priests and Religious, we are edified greatly by your beautiful habits, cassocks and collars. They remind us that you are wholly consecrated to God and may approached if we are in need. It clearly communicates to us that you BELONG to God, yet work in the world. If I see that collar in public, I may ask you to hear my confession-perhaps right before I get hit by a car. Please wear them - we need you to wear them. We need your witness!

  • Posted by: - Dec. 23, 2005 6:45 AM ET USA

    Priests are not the only Catholics who have behaved scandalously! The most notorious predatory homosexual in the country where I live was a Christian Brother! He fled the country years ago and subsequently was outed - working in a Catholic school in the US.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 22, 2005 5:10 PM ET USA

    Unless the law of the Church has changed, the good brother is not a clergyman, and thus not a cleric in the canonical sense. He is a religious, and it seems that he does not even want to take ownership of that. What of his identity is next to go? Jashu

  • Posted by: Fr. Walter - Dec. 22, 2005 3:06 PM ET USA

    I fear that the good Brother is way off the mark on this issue. Would St. John Baptist De LaSalle be impressed by Brothers who saw themselves as merely "playing parts?" Having studied in Philly, and with many contacts there both clergy and laity, there is no anit-clericalism. The anger of the people is aimed at the Philly hierarchy, not at the priests on the street. The remark that the Brother doesn't want to be "lumped in with the priests," is sad at best, arrogant and unchristian at worst.