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Why do priests wear cassocks?

How many times did you hear a comment from someone who says: Why do those priests wear those funny skirts????

Most certainly, I did hear that question many times. As a student of theology but also as deacon and sometimes as a priest. I was once wondering about the same thing. Why aren’t priests ‘trendier’? Why don’t they adjust to modern standards? After all, they and their flock do live in the world. One might think that the mission of the Church would have been more successful if we adjusted to the world. Questions like this persisted in my head until the moment I learned why priests actually wear cassocks.

In the old days of the Byzantine empire, the only people who were allowed to wear black robes were priests and the emperor. Priests usually nowadays wear just a cassock, a tighter fitting black robe. On top of that, they also wear, usually for special occasions in modern times, the so called ‘gornja mantia’, the upper cassock. You may have seen priests wearing this flowing robe with long sleeves. The emperor would just wear this upper cassock. This practice in the Byzantine empire was to show people that both of these roles are of paramount importance for the existence of the empire and that both functions were royal!

Needless to say, for the individuals more advanced in theology of that time, they understood that being a priest requires a special sacramental blessing during the liturgy (the ordination), which therefore made the service of the priesthood royal, heavenly royalty. Priests were understood as such (and still are and should be understood that way) and the respect people offered to them was given to their priests in faith that through respecting their royal rank which is bestowed upon them from heaven the faithful people of God would get the blessing as well. Cassocks were just the outward clothing reminding people of the grace of royalty from heaven this priest is bearing. 

The fact that these cassocks hide priest’s legs emphasizes the fact that all of us will be angel-like in heaven. Angels do not have legs nor limbs. However, us human beings have and will always have limbs. To be angel-like for us human beings means that our bodies will be transfigured and will be more spiritual, as Paul the Apostle says, rather than this hard matter that we have now. Priests’ cassock should always remind us that we live on earth but we are not of the earth! Our living should always be heavenly and angelic. 

This historical and theological perspective on why priests wear cassocks should help us understand why it is necessary for priests to dress the way they do. The visual reminder of our goal in life is more important that following modern trends. 

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One Response

  1. So enlightening, Fr. Stefan! And now, when I see an Orthodox Priest Not wearing his “funny skirt,” I’ll try very hard to mind my own business and not wonder why! 🙂

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