Page 8, 8th January 1999

8th January 1999
Page 8
Page 8, 8th January 1999 — Why I love my

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Organisations: Catholic Church
Locations: Dublin, London


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Why I love my

Roman collar


4 H E GETS THEM On the collar," said my mother to me, when I ' mentioned that our curate never seemed to lack cigarettes. This was in the days of wartime shortage. The collar marked out men of the cloth, for the collar was the visible sign of the priesthood, and among the pious, the priest was something special, outside the normal ranks of human beings. So he was always the exception, and rules of rationing did not always apply, and whatever commodity was in short supply he was sure to have some. Even in more recent times, "Father" has been assured of petrol during a national strike.

However, it wasn't all onesided, and there were obligations imposed on those who wore the collar. This was particularly the case in the days before Vatican H, when men with the collar were not to be seen drinking in public, advised never to have a photograph taken with a glass in their hand. As Cardinal Heenan put it: "You never know what they may do with the photograph."

Neither was the collar to be seen in the theatre, and certainly not in the music hall. The collar demanded a steady gait and a smart, clean suit. On formal occasions years ago, a top hat would have been demanded, and a trilby elsewhere. Going to the races was permitted, but the collar was still to be worn, to show that a priest is a priest at all time, as witnessed by my mother, who said that at the Grand National, when a horse fell, half the hands in the stand went up in absolution.

It was in Ireland that the words "the collar" had a special meaning, and for a priest to be without his collar was frowned upon. The Collar io the title of a book of short stories about Irish priests by Frank O'Connor. It is said of liirn that the sight of the collar was enough to make his hair stand on end. He might rail at the authoritarianism of the Church, but his approach to the men set apart by the collar was marked by sympathy and a certain respect.

Even on holiday, at great hotels in the west of Ireland, an army of elderly clergy could be seen dressed in the only gear they are meant to be in. I suppose among the clerical golfers, there was some agree ment about the latitude allowed them, and them was an unwritten rule in Italy that the cassock and collar could be removed above 3,000 feet.

Much earnest thought was given to what the clergy might wear. Some suggested that there should be special holiday wear, a uniform, but everything pointed to the idea that a priest should be seen to be a priest at all times. To which the reply can come from The Imitation of Christ: "It is not the habit that makes the monk."

But the Roman collar has not always been a sign of the priesthood. It was introduced into this country by Fr Luigi Gentilu, a Rosminian, in the 1830s. Look at paintings of the Vicars Apostolic before 1830 and you won't find a Roman collar among them. It is interesting to see how the Roman collar has spread to other churches, and we even have ministers of the "Wee Frees" wearing this sign of the Catholic Church. It now adorns the necks of female clergy. So it has had a chequered history, and it may become so debased that it will decorate the necks of some pop group shortly.

You have to go a long way now to find a full blooded Roman collar. Nowadays most clergy, if they wear a collar, content themselves with a little piece of plastic pushed into a slot on the neck of the shirt. Some priests' collars might have seen service before as part of a Fairy Liquid bottle, cut into useful strips.

Times have changed. The Catholic priest may or may not wear his collar in the presence of his Bishop or Archbishop. But he might if he was visiting the Pope. Most modern priests have open necked shirts. But among the elderly there is to be seen a tie occasionally. Has this change been due to the "dumbing down" of symbolism in the service of the Church? We lie in the age of the Wimpey priest — bovver jacket and trainers. I suppose it is the informality stemming from a less structured church.

But the collar still has its role to play, and it still is the mark of the clergy. And for those who wear it, it tells people who they are. Being very human, they enjoy those moments, when they are upgraded in the aircraft and find they have an extra egg on their plate when they have gone to breakfast with friends in the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin.

The Rev Kit Cunningham is Rector of St Etheldreda's, Ely Place in London, where he has never been spotted without his collar

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