During my formation for the diaconate while serving as an acolyte, the deacon at my previous home parish insisted I join him and our pastor after Mass at the doors. Time and again as parishioners filed past on their way to their cars I was referred to as “Father”. Mind you, this was just an hour after being “introduced” to my fellow parishioners as an acolyte. When I shared this with our deacon his response was, “Get used to it.”
This mistaken identity continues, especially when I’m vested for Mass in a dalmatic or dressed in clerics (black clerical shirt with the Roman collar). Depending on the situation, I do my best to kindly inform the other party that I am a deacon, not a priest. If it happens while vested in a dalmatic for Mass, I’ll lift my arms and with a big smile share, “Deacons have sleeves, priest wear ponchos!” When it happens while wearing clerics, I point to the Deacon Cross I wear.
These encounters are not too surprising. Within an institution that is over 2,000 years old, the permanent diaconate is relatively “new” considering it was restored just about 60 years ago in 1964. Here in the Archdiocese of Detroit the permanent diaconate was reinstituted in 1971. Until recently, for many Catholics I suspect, seeing a deacon vested for Mass or in clerical attire has been a rarity. And unless someone is aware of how to distinguish between a vested priest and deacon, it is understandable why deacons are often greeted with “Father”.
As already mentioned, an easy way to distinguish between the deacon and the priest vested for Mass is the priest wears a chasuble, the design which truly gets is origin from the poncho. The deacon wears a dalmatic, which has sleeves. At Mass when not wearing a dalmatic, a deacon will be vested in an alb with a deacon’s stole. The deacon’s stole hangs from the left shoulder across to the right hip.
Permanent deacons within our archdiocese are permitted to wear the Roman collar when presiding at liturgical functions in or outside the parish. They may wear the Roman collar while involved in ministry work, such as at hospitals, cemeteries, prisons, etc., where the Roman collar serves as a valuable witness to the ministry. While wearing clerics, permanent deacons also wear a deacon designation pin or patch. The pin is a cross with a deacon’s stole across it and will likely be on the left lapel of the jacket or suit coat. The patch or embroidered deacon’s cross will often be located above the left pocket of the shirt.
I can attest to the value of clerics giving witness to the diaconate ministry. While serving as chaplain for the military lounge at Detroit Metro airport, I have worn a polo shirt with the deacon’s cross embroidered on it, and I have worn clerics, with the necessary deacon’s pin. The difference in the awareness of the ministry was surprising. Travelers approach me far more often while I’m wearing clerics rather than the polo shirt. Considering the focus of the chaplaincy at the airport is a ministry of presence, the Roman Collar provides a much more outward sign of presence. Yes, I am frequently greeted as “Father”. But that also opens the opportunity to engage in conversation while clarifying that I am a deacon.
Will the mistaken identity ever end? Probably not. Though in time the frequency of being called “Father” will likely decrease. But when does happen, with a charitable heart I’ll reply “Deacon” and smile because – it’s the cross we wear.
In the peace of Christ,