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TOULOUSE, France (ChurchMilitant.com) - The bishop of Toulouse has banned seminarians and deacons in his diocese from wearing cassocks because he does not want men in formation to "appear too clerical."
Bishop Guy de Kerimel wrote a letter to seminarians on Thursday noting that he had seen some of them wearing cassocks and surplices at a recent confirmation service in the diocesan basilica of Notre-Dame de la Daurade.
The bishop said he found that "the image presented to the basilica of these future clerics installed in stalls, away from the faithful (without being in service), gave a very clerical image not adjusted to the situation of seminarians who remain lay faithful."
Bishop Kerimel lashed out at the seminarians for disregarding his previous instructions regarding the wearing of clerical garb and ordered that "the wearing of the cassock is not permitted in the seminary; it is the law in force."
"I, therefore, ask that this law be applied outside the seminary in the diocese of Toulouse, including for deacons," he added.
Seminarians should prioritize their "relationship with Christ, in humility and truth, without trying to enter into a role so that He is accessible to all, particularly the poorest and most marginalized, before worrying about displaying a distinctive persona," Kerimel stressed.
"The future priest must be identified and recognized by his holiness, his spirit of service and the quality of his pastoral relationship, above all," the bishop wrote, pointing out that deacons may wear a Roman collar or single cross while priests may wear a habit.
Kerimel was earlier accused of downplaying clergy sex abuse as bishop of Grenoble after a victim of Fr. Louis Ribes complained to the diocese. The victim wanted to recover photographs that the priest had taken.
"It is impossible that this was not known. There was a desire to hush up the affair," the bishop said, admitting there were other victims but adding, "Well, you know, at that time the newspaper Liberation was also promoting pedophilia."
Known for his disfavor of the Traditional Latin Mass, Kerimel blames traditionalist communities for high numbers of attendees "because the social and societal climate is tense."
"The moral crisis of our time is combined with the fear of Islam that exists in certain Christian circles. It is a stiffening of identity: We go to Mass in Latin to better identify ourselves as Catholic," he noted.
The bishop's letter comes in the wake of a resurgence of clerics wearing cassocks, after the distinctive garb was made optional in the early 1960s and rejected entirely by a whole generation of trendy priests, French Catholic website Famille Chrétienne reported.
"It is no longer the prerogative of the traditionalists, nor of the St. Martin Community [a flourishing charismatic community]. More and more young diocesan priests wear it. After years of 'purgatory,' the cassock is back," Fr. Laurent Gastineau from Séez diocese remarks.
"At one time, some thought that it was an obstacle to their apostolate. Today, many young priests believe the cassock is their best ally in a de-Christianized society," reasons Fr. Marc-Olivier de Vaugiraud from Mantes-la-Jolie.
Clerical outfitter Arte Houssard, which tailors made-to-measure cassocks, has seen its sales rise by 145% between 1999 and 2016.
"For people, the cassock means that I am 'in service,' at their disposal," observes Fr. David Lamballe, vicar of the basilica of Argenteuil in Val-d'Oise. The priest says he is regularly met with requests for confession in the street or metro and has to plan ahead when traveling because he knows he will be in demand.
"In an increasingly secularized society, the cassock plays its role as a sign that there is another reality," quips Fr. Don Louis-Hervé Guiny, insisting that the garb is not only an excellent tool for evangelization but also a means of reintroducing Christianity to the public square.
"The cassock is an effective way to go to the peripheries, particularly towards Muslims who are more respectful with people who display their faith," confirms Fr. Raphaël Dubrule, Missionary of Divine Mercy, who serves in Toulon.
In a neighborhood made up of 75% Muslims, the missionaries who engage in Islamic evangelism dress in white cassocks, evoking the habit of the White Fathers.
"The Salafists don't get too close. They tell themselves that it is a Christian space, already occupied by the 'men in white,'" comments Fr. Dubrule. "And the culturally Catholic French, even if distant from the Church, appreciate those in religious habit. It is for them a small mark of hope."
Father de Vaugiraud explains how he experimented with the missionary dimension of his cassock and learned that it had provoked a discussion among customers in a bar.
"The Good Lord invited Himself into their conversation. We spoke at length about charity, about the love of Christ. This piece of fabric, which the Franciscans of the Bronx call 'the silent homily,' allowed me to introduce the name of Jesus into a heart. I am the Good Lord's sandwich man," he reveals.
Father Lamballe points out that the priest kisses it in the morning before putting it on and that it allows him to remember "who he is, for Whom he lives and in Whose service he puts himself, for just as the scapular puts us under the protection of the Blessed Virgin, the cassock puts the priest under the mantle of the One to Whom he belongs first."
"I know I am watched," explains Fr. Gastineau: "It influences my behavior, it strengthens me in the virtues. If the habit does not make the monk, it can contribute."
Not long after the Second Vatican Council, faithful cardinal and archbishop of Genoa Giuseppe Siri drew attention to "a problem which is becoming of the utmost importance — that of the ecclesiastical habit."
"In fact, we are witnessing the greatest decline of the ecclesiastical habit," Siri lamented, observing how in many Italian cities, seminarians had begun to frequent "infamous cinemas, night clubs, houses of ill repute and worse."
"He is not a soldier who does not love his uniform," Siri wrote, tracing the breakdown of ecclesiastical discipline in Italy to the abandonment of the cassock.
"The defense of the cassock is the defense of vocation and vocations," the cardinal maintained. "Whoever loves the priesthood, don't joke with his uniform!"
In 2017, Bp. Aristide Gonsallo of Porto Novo, Benin, made it obligatory for all priests to wear the cassock in all "places where the faithful come to the clergy for the exercise of the priestly ministry" and "in any place where the identity of the priest could be questioned."