Whether seeing groups of seminarians home on academic breaks or greeting newly ordained priests, you are almost guaranteed to see one thing. Many of the young men will be wearing cassocks, and some may even have birettas on. The reasons behind this can be grouped into 3 categories: Practicality, Symbolism, and Tradition.
Firstly, the practicality of the cassock, is a huge reason that even many older priests are beginning to wear the cassock again.
For those who live in warmer climates, they wear a t-shirt, shorts, and a clerical rabat and the cassock keeps them cool. For those in cold climates, they layer black pants with a thick button up shirt and collar under their cassock to keep them as warm as if they were wearing an overcoat (which many will still add on top). The cassock is also looser fitting than any pair of trousers with a belt and, unlike a tucked in shirt, will hide a large belly on those priests who are not in their prime athleticism. The cassock even works perfectly for manual labor. The sleeves on a cassock are French cuffs, specifically made to roll up and out of the way easily.
Any priest or seminarian wearing the cassock undoubtedly knows the symbolism behind each part. First, the parts that also are apparent in a clerical shirt. The entirety of the cassock is black, showing the priest’s death to himself and to modern society, which is bound to not accept him. The white of the collar shows the priest’s authority in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Some of the subtle symbolisms that many people may not know involve the buttons of the cassock. Up the front of the cassock, traditionally there are 33 buttons, symbolising the 33 years Christ walked the Earth and 5 buttons on each of the cuffs, for the 5 wounds Christ suffered in His Passion. The fascia, or cincture, worn with the cassock is symbolic of the priest’s celibacy, which sometimes carries the same prayer as the cincture at mass, “Gird me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity, and quench in my heart the fire of concupiscence, that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide in me.”
Lastly, tradition is pretty straightforward. The wearing of the cassock by priests was common in most countries until the 1960’s. The cassock was just the common ecclesastical wear of the secular priest, just like the habit of a religious priest. This is where the biretta also comes into play. The biretta is a sign of both ecclesiastical authority and of academic achievement. The biretta is an academic hat and many doctorate level degrees come with the authority to wear particular four-horned birettas. With a priest’s unique ecclesiastical and academic training, they are granted the authority to wear the black, three-horned biretta. Our young priests are here to be role models of true Catholic men. The cassock is a constant reminder of their unique vocation in our society and their death to themselves so they may fully serve God and His people to his full potential.