What are (presumably) Catholic priests doing wearing robes in shades of
July 28, 2013 6:51 PM   Subscribe

While on facebook, I saw a group photo of Catholic priests in India at St. Alphonsa's Tomb and Chapel, Bharananganam, Pala. While I am aware that it is the norm for Catholic priests in India (and some other countries considered tropical) to wear white cassocks as their street dress, and indeed, a number of the priests in the photograph were wearing them, there was something that was truly puzzling to me in spite of growing up Catholic and having attended mass and otherwise had contact with the Catholic church in two Asian countries, Japan and Thailand. In the picture of these priests gathered at this saint's tomb in southern India, there were some among them who were wearing robes or cassocks in shades of peach or puce, and light goldenrod. I have never seen priests dressed this way in any country, and I want to know if there is some special meaning to this. (For those who don't know about Catholicism, there is a lot of symbolic meaning attached to what priests and other members of the Catholic hierarchy wear, and why. There is actually a webforum devoted to people discussing what then-Pope Benedict was photographed wearing on public occasions and the philosophical and political implications of same).

Are the priests sporting pinkish robes Eastern Rite (such as Mar Thoma) while the ones in white are Latin Rite? Are they Orthodox instead of Catholic? Are the priests wearing white diocesan priests ("just priests") while the ones in the pastel-colored raiment are members of religious orders, such as Carmelites or Franciscans, who would ordinarily wear heavier and dark brown robes in more temperate climates? Perhaps they are religious brothers (monks) rather than priests? Or perhaps inculturation has gone too far, and the ones wearing light yellowish robes are trying to emulate Buddhist clergy, while the ones wearing puce or pinkish are emulating the Hindus holy men/Hare Krishnas?
posted by bunky to Religion & Philosophy (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It's hard to say without seeing a picture. Any chance you can share one?
posted by Jahaza at 7:02 PM on July 28, 2013

A lot of Christian/Catholic priests in India use these kind of tactics (dressing in robes similar to Hindu priests, combining Hindu rites and rituals during Christian prayer) to digest Hinduism into Christianity, to ease the conversion of the masses to Christian denominations, to merge/blend the two as if there is no distinction.

Please read more about the topic of digestion in Being Different and Breaking India by Rajiv Malhotra, an extremely well-studied authority on these subjects. There are many, many examples of these types of digestion in the Christian/Catholic community in India.

You can find statues like these:

Where Mother Mary holds Ganesh. It's an example of how Christian/Catholic authorities try to normalize Christianity in traditional Hindu communities.

There's also a lot of digestion of Buddhism into Christianity. It's happening all over the world, but I am aware of a lot of instances of this kind of thing specifically in India, where the country is slowly facing the eradication of Hinduism through systemic digestion. Hinduism is so different in comparison to histocentric religions such as Christianity that melding elements of the two has been a good tactic for conversion by missionaries.

Lots of examples in a bit.
posted by rhythm_queen at 7:12 PM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think these might be priests from the Syro Malankara Catholic Church. They are most prevalent in India and they wear cassocks in colors like you describe. You can see them here.
posted by Biblio at 8:41 PM on July 28, 2013

Response by poster: Jahaza, if there is a way to upload a picture to ask metafilter, I haven't found it. I wasn't sure the picture from the facebook group would show up if I posted the link in my question, but here goes:
Biblio, You've solved my conundrum with the link Confusing Vestments of Oriental Catholic Bishops, where there are posted some good, clear pictures of the colored cassocks in question, in addition to some of the Syro-Malankara hierarchy's other vestments, with no need for registration on fb or any other time-wasting social media as a prerequisite for seeing them. Yes, that's them.
posted by bunky at 10:18 PM on July 28, 2013

Yeah, so if the Facebook pictures are like those in "Confusing Vestments of Oriental Catholic Bishops" what's going on here is that Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic priests don't actually have super strict rules about the color of cassocks like Roman Catholic priests do (ordinary priests' cassocks must be black, white is allowed in certain tropical climates). For instance the ecclesiastical tailor Krista West sells black, navy blue, blue, grey, and white cassocks.

So what's going on here is inculturation, where the symbols of a local culture (colors of "religious" garments) are being adopted where the rules allow (no color is specified for Othodox/Eastern Catholic cassocks).

This kind of local adaptation has been going on for a long time, for instance with the permission given to Jesuit priests in China in the 17th century (self-link to book excerpt) to wear the biretta (an ecclesiastical hat) during the entire celebration of Mass (i.e. not remove it when they arrived at the altar).
posted by Jahaza at 8:50 AM on July 29, 2013

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