Orthodox priests wear distinctive clothing: an inner robe (called a cassock), an outer robe or vest, a cross in the practice of some Churches, and properly a hat. The Orthodox canonical tradition makes it clear that this is not optional; the 27th Canon of the 6th Ecumenical Council states:
None who is counted with the clergy should dress inappropriately, when in the city, nor when travelling. Each should use the attire which was appointed for clergy members. If someone breaks this rule, may he be deprived of serving for one week.
In our missionary experience, however, there are times when I must go about my activities in civilian attire, for instance when I go to work at my secular job. The Metropolitan has authorized me and other working priests in our diocese to do this if necessary. It is not something that I enjoy, though, because it tends to create a feeling of split personality. After I arrive home from work, if I need to go back out, I put on my cassock.
Many of my Protestant friends have no understanding as to why an Orthodox priest is required to wear distinctive clothing, but unfortunately, even some Orthodox in our times have asked why it is necessary. More than once, I’ve heard or read a remark along the lines of, “well, is it really necessary to go to Wal-Mart in a cassock?” The implication being that somehow it is “too much” to wear a cassock while shopping.
I wear my cassock to Wal-Mart.
An incident last week illustrates why this is the right thing to do. There is a Wal-Mart 5 minutes from my house, and one evening after work, my wife asked me to go pick up two or three items. I knew that I would be in the store for a maximum of ten or fifteen minutes. It would have been tempting to just go in my civilian garb; after all, I had just gotten home from work, was still wearing a shirt and pants, and could have easily just hopped in the car, taken care of business, and been back before I knew it. Instead, I put on the cassock and went.
When I arrived, an employee there approached me, and asked for prayers. She knew I was a priest, even if she was not Orthodox, and I asked her what she needed prayers for. This woman has suffered three great losses in the past few months. I blessed her, and went about my business shopping. I thought to hand her my business card just in case, and when I could not find her, I gave it to her co-worker. She called the next morning, and we met a few days later to discuss her circumstances more in-depth.
If I had not been in my cassock, I would have missed an opportunity to provide comfort to someone who needed it. Wearing a cassock is not always convenient, and the added attention can be hard at times. But it’s not about me. It’s about Jesus Christ, and the Church which He established. I am a minister of the Gospel of salvation, and if I do not present myself as such, an opportunity could be missed, and in this case would have been missed.
Sometimes people ask me if I am Orthodox; they are familiar with our Church. As Orthodoxy grows here, I expect that there will be more priests ordained, who will likewise wear their cassocks. As this occurs, Orthodoxy will become more and more known, and more and more people will become used to us, and seek us out. We priests should not deny them this opportunity.