Vatican memo aims to boost priestly identity

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Bishops walk through St. Peter's Square on their way to synod meetings on the New Evangelization Oct. 13, 2012. Credit: Mazur-catholicnews.org.uk.

In an effort to promote priestly identity, the Vatican Secretary of State has issued a letter asking clerics and religious at the Vatican to dress as befits their identity as priests conformed to Christ.

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said in an Oct. 15 letter that it is a “time in which everyone is specially called to renew his awareness of and consistency with his own identity.”

This call includes priests and religious who work at the Vatican, he wrote, reminding them that they have “the duty of wearing regularly and with dignity the proper habit, in every season.” 

The text of the letter, sent to all the offices of the Roman Curia, was made available Nov. 19 by the Vatican observer and journalist Sandro Magister.

Andrea Tornielli of La Stampa suggested Nov. 16 that it was also a message for the wider Church.

Tornielli said the letter was aimed at refreshing the minds of those who work at the Vatican but also to say that this extends beyond the walls of the Holy See. He added, “it is very rare for priests in the Apostolic Palace not to dress like priests.”

“The call for priests to be more law-abiding and look impeccable is meant to be a subtle example for those who come to the Vatican from outside and are just passing through Rome,” Tornielli said.

Cardinal Bertone's letter, written at Pope Benedict's bidding, recalls a 1982 letter of Pope John Paul II to his vicar general encouraging him to “study opportune initiatives destined to foster the use of ecclesiastical and religious dress.”

Cardinal Bertone said that bishops should faithfully wear the cassock every day during office hours at the Vatican as an example to the clerics who visit the Holy See.

He reminded clerics that at official and papal events, they are to wear the more formal “abito piano.” For bishops and cardinals, this is a cassock with an embroidered cape; for monsignors, a black cassock with piping of Roman purple; and for priests, a cassock with cape.

This new memo from the Secretary of State goes hand in hand with a 1994 document on the ministry and life of priests from the Congregation for Clergy. The congregation’s document said that in a “secularised and materialistic society ... it is particularly important that the community be able to recognise the priest, man of God and dispenser of his mysteries, by his attire as well, which is an unequivocal sign of his dedication and his identity as a public minister.”

“The priest should be identifiable primarily through his conduct, but also by his manner of dressing, which makes visible to all the faithful, indeed and to all men, his identity and his belonging to God and the Church,” it said.

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