An old adage says that a priest is "in the world, but not of the world." I'm not a priest, but I hope to be one day.
As a seminarian, I find that in order to not be of the world, I often have to learn to be in two worlds at once.
Part of forming men into public ministers of the Church involves helping them leave behind whatever would get in the way of ministry. This requires a sort of boot camp environment, where structure, punctuality and policies guide the day-to-day.
Boot camps have dress codes, of course, so for most seminarians, the day they entered the seminary was the day they stopped having to decide what to wear when they got dressed in the morning. Basic black with a white tab at the neck is what most seminarians wear nearly every day of their four to six years in the seminary.
The clerical collar serves an important purpose for seminarians, helping them to embrace their new priestly identity while sending a strong message to the world: even in these increasingly secular days, some still hear God's call and respond with their whole lives.
I can buy that - so, in preparation for my first semester at the seminary, I bought myself the most basic and affordable clerical shirt I could find.
As I stepped in front of the mirror - seeing myself for the first time dressed in the Roman collar, a universal symbol of priesthood - I was impressed. "This is really happening," I thought; "I not only can imagine myself as a priest, I can see it."
Then came a scary thought: so can everyone else.
Wearing a collar as a seminarian is complicated. While inside the seminary, the collar is a great symbol of transformation and unity. It reminds us of who we are and encourages us to persevere in becoming who we hope to be.
But when you go in public wearing a collar, people are going to call you "father" because they think you're a priest - and why wouldn't they?
In Rome, priests in collars have all-access passes to go beyond the velvet ropes at all the Vatican sites. Their collar is their ID.
Someone once asked me what I would do if I were wearing my collar and someone in distress asked me to come anoint their spouse who was about to die and, in their panic, didn't understand the difference between a seminarian and a priest.
If there were no priest around to do the anointing, how would I handle it? Would I simulate an anointing? Would I administer a blessing that wasn't sacramental? Could I be sure that I wouldn't cause scandal?
Although most seminarians wear their collars daily in the seminary, we are discouraged from wearing them in our parish assignments or in casual circumstances until our final year before ordination.
We're not priests yet. It's illegal to dress like a cop if you're not one, and no second lieutenant gets to dress like a general in hopes of becoming a general one day.
Although wearing the collar gives me a thrill, I know it comes with the responsibility to be a true spiritual shepherd. I am grateful that taking on such a monumental responsibility comes only after years of training - and that my training is at least three years from completion.
The honor and responsibility of wearing the collar in public is worth the wait.
(Scott VanDerveer is studying for the priesthood for the Albany Diocese at Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Mass. He is also spending six weeks this summer at a Spanish language immersion program in Cochabamba, Bolivia. He formerly taught at St. Pius X School in Loudonville.)