Before they started wearing civvies, priests used to wear distinctive black suits (with a plastic white collar in place of the layman’s phallic tie), black hats, black shoes and black socks. They were meant to stand out as different from the rest of the population. They shed their suits to dress in colorful, flowing, full-length, embroidered vestments when they performed the ritual they called the Sacrifice of the Mass. Sometimes in the street but especially in their “presbyteries”, homes they were given free of charge, they wore a long black soutane, and maybe a sash, black or red depending on their rank, and added an effeminate white short frock called a surplice on certain ceremonial occasions, such as processions, in which they often carried a “monstrance” to display a white circular wafer which people believed was the “transubstantiated” body of a man called Jesus (who died 2000 years earlier), or following some men carrying on their shoulders a statue of Jesus’ mother, Mary. Sometimes they put a “stole” around their neck, for example when they sat in a dark cupboard to listen to kneeling penitents’ confession, or when they were dabbing the victim of an accident or dying hospital patients with the oil they carried in a small metal phial adorned with a cross.
You see very few priests today in public wearing their clerical suits. But in Israel you see many men, who, apart from their curious, dainty curls, look like Catholic clergy, wearing similar black attire including oversized black hats. They are ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, 50% of whom – like the Catholic clergy – do no work but spend their day studying Sacred Scripture and performing religious rituals. Unlike Catholic priests, they have wives who work (to pay the bills). They are poor but are financially supported, not by the faithful as are in most countries the Catholic clergy, but by the government of Israel !
“Priest-Workers” : the words could be a good example of an oxymoron. In fact the words are used to describe a post World War 2 movement among, initially, French priests who felt they should have a job and work for their living like everyone else, while they continued to minister to the faithful, especially their fellow-workers. They shifted their ministry from the comfortable bourgeois parishes of the well-heeled and joined the workers in factories. Their ideological coziness with Communism led the notoriously anti-Communist Pope, Pius XII (who overlooked Hitler’s crimes because of his opposition to Stalin and atheist Russia) to condemn the movement in 1954. Eleven years later Pope Paul VI reinstated the priest-workers and blessed their ministry. In 1976 there were 800 worker-priests in France and a short time later only 400, of whom only 80 actually worked, rather than merely “ministering” in the work-place.
(A personal anecdote : My doctoral thesis-director, Father Marie-Dominique Chenu, O.P., was a famous Vatican 2 “peritus” (expert) and specialist in medieval Theology; my thesis was a study of that of the Franciscan contemporary of St Thomas Aquinas, St Bonaventure. Father Chenu, like his confrere Fr Yves Congar, was a strong supporter of the worker-priests. Pius XII twice put their books on the Index of Prohibited Books, but Fr Chenu was in good standing with the Church when I worked with him on my thesis in 1967. I left the priesthood in 1968.)
Today the ranks of the clergy are seriously depleted and destined to extinction. Apart from priests with “late vocations” who had worked as laymen before being ordained, none of them ever worked a day in his life – anymore than I did myself during the seven years of my (non-worker !) priesthood. Franciscans are a “mendicant” (begging) Religious Order anyhow, but members of the diocesan clergy, like my late brother Jim, never worked for a living. Curiously, that word “living” is the term used in the Anglican Church to designate the income-producing gift which is the parish assigned by the Church to its priests, who though usually not wealthy, will henceforth want for nothing. Curiously, parishioners as a rule do not complain about providing that “living”, and are happy to contribute (meagerly, but sometimes extravagantly) to their upkeep. Priests are, in reality, “kept” men. It is a scam long embedded in the clerical caste-system, though in the very early Church its ministers, like the Apostle Paul of Tarsus, a tent-maker, worked for a . . . livng.
As a priest, I was considered a professional, like a doctor or a lawyer. But the latter have agendas full of consecutive appointments. Priests in presbyteries may, on occasion, find someone at the door or on the phone, asking for advice (or a hand-out). But priests do not have a schedule of back-to-back clients. That used to happen only on Saturday afternoons when people actually queued up to go to Confession (an hour and a half, max, often much less). I heard a confrere quip once : “Priests have a pretty easy life – except for the weekend”. The Church and its clergy got away with it for ages.
There are, of course – there have always been – priests totally dedicated to their ministry in which they were full-time occupied with counseling, encouraging, supporting, helping people in need, giving them hope when everything seemed hopeless, bringing them joy when it seemed forever out of reach, reconciling them with others and with themselves and, they believed, with God. Priests still in the ministry today are often tireless servants of Christ, doing whatever they can to bring light and love into the lives of those they call the People of God. A pity that so many of them missed out on the life I was lucky enough to discover and to live since I abandoned their and my illusions and found fulfillment as a family man, without the folly of either blind faith or a black suit.