Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The cape is the man

NO man can shoot a priest in cold blood.

When she heard the news that a priest had been shot, apparently a victim of street crime, Yaya rued that he was not in his “sotana” during the accident.

The cassock would have turned away the bullets? I asked, incredulous to hear her state this with all seriousness.

My yaya is approaching her sixth decade, with nearly 50 years of that spent in the city. She regularly tracks the news. None of the issues embroiling the clergy escapes her. Yet, she retains the view that priests are essential, a life without them as unimaginable as a town without a patron saint and a mayor.

Yaya mused: How can a sinner, already blinded by evil, not be stayed by the fear of God if he had no sign that his victim was a priest?

Shouldn’t fear of God put a stop to any thought of taking away any life, I retorted.

Yet, monitoring the follow-up news and commentaries about the incident, I realized that others share Yaya’s view.

For many, the cassock, also known as the soutane, is a symbol whose power of association has ironically outstripped its wearers.

While controversies have pummeled the Church as an institution and its clergy’s lives have been encroached by the vicissitudes of worldliness, the cassock remains virtually unsullied, its associations with purity turning the vestment into a kind of wearable litmus test for the wearer as well as for the viewer.

So though priests, like doctors, live in great intimacy with disease and corruption, the white of the usual cassock seen in the Philippines and other tropical countries raises almost instinctive reactions: Am I clean? What have I done to be clean? What personal stains mock the whiteness I exhibit/witness?

According to Internet sources, a Papal indult (or permission granted by canon law) allows the ordinary cassock to be white in tropical countries. Black is the usual color of house cassocks worn by Roman Catholic clerics.

Another online source points out that Roman Catholic cassocks have traditionally 33 buttons down the front. The number stands for the years Jesus Christ spent on earth.

I’m not sure how many of the faithful know this trivia. But I know that whiteness and its association with purity and the religious is almost an automatic perception among many people.

I remember my late father reacting to the practice of the nuns in my school to wear civilian clothes instead of their habit in the late 1970s. “How will we be alerted to their presence?” worried my father, who was irreverent about nuns wearing mini-skirts and embracing street protest.

In the trigger-happy drug-addled view of street thugs, though, will a cassock still function as a spontaneously activating shield of virtue and privilege?

“Even if we wear cassocks in the streets to show that we are priests, we are never exempted when it comes to death and danger,” declared Fr. Bernardo Oyao to Sun.Star Cebu’s Justin K. Vestil.

Vestil interviewed the cleric, a member of the Young Clergy of Cebu, a group of newly ordained priests, for the paper’s July 11, 2009 story.

Once the daily clothing of priests, the cassock has also undergone political coloring. The wearing of it during liturgical services accounts for the vestments’ association with the traditional roles of priests.

The abandonment of its wearing is justified either for practicality in the face of parish outreach to communities or as a rejection of the Roman Catholic Church’s association with power and the status quo.

In pop culture, the soutane has not also been exempted from morphing. In “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions,” a trim and grim Neo mows down enemies and kicks ass, apparently unhampered by his close-fitting, floor-length cassock.

Although many of the faithful still reserve a deep respect for the cassock as symbol—perhaps inspired by etymological roots derived from “cassaca,” meaning “white”—it would not be irrelevant to remember the word’s other origin: “casaque,” meaning “cloak.”

As with all garments, the cassock takes its shape from the nudity it cloaks. 01973226131

* First published in the “Matamata” column of Sun.Star Cebu’s July 12, 2009 issue

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