Good habits: sisters and the silent witness of what we wear

The always-interesting Msgr. Charles Pope found the video below, and posted it yesterday, along with some intriguing information about the importance of sisters wearing the habit.

First, the video:

As Msgr. Pope explains:

It is clear that the orders that preserve the wearing of the habit along with common life, common prayer, and a focused apostolate are doing better, some quite well, with vocations. Orders that have set aside the habit are largely dying out. It is not the habit alone, I am sure, but the habit (or lack thereof) does signify something important about the health of the religious community.

What is the purpose of a religious habit? Religious life is not hidden, neither is it occasional. To enter the priesthood or religious life is to publicly accept the consecration of one’s whole self to the service of God and neighbor. That is why the most traditional religious garb covers the whole body. It is more than a tee-shirt, a hat or an emblem of some sort. It is a covering of the whole body to indicate the entirety of the consecration.

Further, each habit is distinctive since each religious community has a particular charism or gift by which they collectively serve the Church. Religious and priests do not merely consecrate themselves for their own agenda. Rather they join others with a similar and proven charisms in communities recognized by the Church.

The word “habit” also suggests that religious life and priesthood are not an occasional activity, or even a 9 to 5 job. The are the habitual identity and life of the one who receives the call. That is also why the habit is usually worn at all times.

The widespread disappearance of clerical garb and religious habits back in the 1970s was a disturbing trend. Many religious and priests no longer saw themselves as set apart, as distinctive. Many wanted to blend in and also lost a sense of the charism of their order. Many also preferred anonymity since it made them less busy and they no longer had to live as “public” people. However, many newer orders have emerged which once again wear the habit faithfully. Further, many older orders either never wholly abandoned it or have re-emphasized its importance. This is praiseworthy. If you are a lay person, encourage priests and religious as you see them about bearing witness to the their consecration by the way they dress and reminding others of God and the Kingdom of God.

He also directs readers to this website, which has a library of photographs of traditional habits.


"I think I would have been happier had the CDF handled the nuns the way ..."

Vatican challenges “interpretation” of cardinal’s remarks ..."
"Blaming "Islamics" for this is like blaming the Pope for the Holocaust Denial of Hutton ..."

One killed, 44 injured in Catholic ..."
"It smacks to me of hyper-sensitivity, a veiled spiritual and intellectual pride, with regards to ..."

Pope Francis: “A Christian who complains, ..."
"Oh, no, we never change our mind, and we always agree, even on points of ..."

Vatican challenges “interpretation” of cardinal’s remarks ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment

26 responses to “Good habits: sisters and the silent witness of what we wear”

  1. Thanks for the link Deacon Greg. There are some great comments over at Msgr Pope’s blog post. The most interesting is from a former woman religious…she mentions the “dying orders” ….if they’re looking for young vocations they need to PUT THE HABIT BACK ON…she says something like..”They (young women)…cannot see what they DO NOT SEE”…..and she’s right! This is not a time to “blend in”…’s time to STAND OUT for the radical call of consecrated life!

  2. On the other hand, I trust adult women to make responsible choices. Even if they’re in religious life. It would be far more interesting to hear from women’s orders as to why they may or may not have dispensed with distinctive dress, rather than hear it from a blogging man.

    I would also trust young women to be looking a bit deeper than clothing as to making decisions about a religious order.

    This whole meme about putting sisters back into habits gives off a faint whiff of sexism. My response is MYOB.

  3. I would want habits with modifications – the habits the nuns wore in my youth were miserable in the summer, and the nursing sisters (same habit, in white) were (I realized later) unsanitary – they would be totally unsuited to the modern hospital with their flowing veils and hanging sleeves (admittedly romantic but unsanitary). My understanding is that habits started as the adoption of humble work clothes – I think work clothes suited to the modern hospital of MRSA etc would not be the “old” habit. (nor would the headgear of God’s Geese – the Sisters of St V de P – work today, as picturesque as they were)

  4. I see the value of the habit, but I really deplore the notion that sisters who do not wear one are somehow deficient. I know far too many good sisters – both in the habit and not – who are exemplary.

    Urging is one thing but these conversations always seem to hint of shaming or demeaning in some way. I just dislike the tone overall, not your post specifically. Although you do write about this a lot.

    There are three orders of women who have so profoundly and continue to profoundly influence my life. One – the cloistered Dominicans, do wear a habit. The other two, for the most part, do not. One would be the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet, without whom, my own life would be greatly diminished in the present. The other would be the Sisters of Divine Compassion, without whom, with habit and without habit, laid the groundwork for my own life of faith.

    I guess in the end – is this conversation about habits so necessary? At least Monsignor Pope speaks from his own religious identity. When lay people go on about this, I have to wonder whether we are back in the “who is a better Catholic?” conversation and what the worth is of that.

    Please understand, I am not trying to be antagonistic but my heart is sincerely troubled by all of this.

  5. This seems like a conversation that will be played out over time. If the non habit wearing nuns are indeed dying on the vine, the issue will go away as they leave this earth like all of us. From everything I have seen, the habit wearing orders are in most cases flourishing. Again, I think those who are willing to do what Jesus called for from all of us, to give God our entire heart, soul, and mind is even more essential for those who chose to become his bride. To me, the habit was always the willingness of the bride to show to the world that they are accepted by Christ as bride.

  6. My own anecdotal observations…

    The ditching of the habit seems to point toward deeper, systemic issues within communities, and is not necessarily THE causal phenomenon in the disintegration of the once-thriving orders. Father’s post points toward that by noting that those who wear the habit also have robust communal prayer life and greater community life overall.

    The orders wearing their habits are also not in rebellion against the Magisterium, and that’s the elephant in the room that nobody wishes to acknowledge. I’ve known sisters by the score who were angry that the Church will not ordain women to the priesthood. None of them wore habits. Along with that anger came a general spirit of rebelliousness with varying degrees of teaching a radical feminist agenda around the life issues.

    What young woman in her right mind wants to sign on to live with that?

    People are typically drawn to a life of sacrificial service, not anger and rebellion. I can’t think of any woman in her 20’s or 30’s who would be drawn to a community of women whose average age makes them old enough to be her grandmother, and who are bitter and disaffected.

    That’s why the orders such as the Sisters for Life, The Dominicans of Ann Arbor and Nashville, among others, are thriving. They are joyful and love who they are and what they do. That’s the difference.

  7. I think it is important to keep in mind that what is vital to the life and growth of a religious community is the fiedlity of its members to the charism for which they were founded. And it is also important to keep in mind that there are religious congregations that were founded and approved by Rome without any religious habit or with a modernized secular-style uniform rather than traditional garb.

    The Society Devoted to the Sacred Heart is one such group founded in communist Hungary in the 1950s. The foundresses eventually made it to California and I ministered with one of the foundresses and her sisters in parish CCD. They are 100% orthodox and Bl. JPII even appointed some to the Pontifical Catechetical Commission. A few were also exported to St. Louis from CA to run their Catechetical Institute. They all wear lay clothing of the same colors and styles along with a silver Sacred Heart lapel pin. No veils or “nunny” dress.

    But for deacons, here is a thought: if Msgr Pope and many of us readers agree that out of sight = out of mind, and that vocations flourish where clerical and religious garb are worn…then should we be so easily taking advantage of our canonical freedom to not wear the collar? Should we be wearing it more often for ministry, meetings, presentations to groups, etc? In my archdiocese when and where to wear clerical clothing is 100% up to each deacon. This respects our maturity and allows for better witness in my opinion.

  8. “We [bishops and clergy] should be distinguished from the common people by our learning, not by our clothes; by our conduct, not by our dress; by cleanness of mind, not by the care we spend upon our person.”
    Letter of Pope Celestine I in 428

  9. I wish we would go back to the beginning where Jesus and his disciples wore the clothing of the people of the day. It is what is in the heart that is most important. Even Christ taught against those who seek titles, positions of honor, and greetings in the marketplace. When a priest dresses in clerical garb he gets all that recognition, yet the same people would not give him the time if day if he wears regular clothes. So these people are nice to him because of the way he dresses? I hope we don’t become so shallow as to judge others by outward appearances. If someone chooses a religious community because of what they wear, there is definitely something out of whack there. Hopefully they join for the right reasons. PLEASE DO NOT SIT IN JUDGEMENT BASED ON GARB OR LACK THEROF. That’s just plain shallow.

  10. I think Jesus is condemning those who wear or do those things BECAUSE they will get the special treatment. I agree that IF a guy is going to don a collar or a lady a veil so that others defer to them and all that stuff…they should be the first out the door. I also think that many people who show that respect are not reverencing the individual guy or lady who is dressed up in church clothing, but rather Christ whom they bring to them for that person. For example, when many of our elderly ladies kiss the hands of a priest they are not kissing the guy’s hands per se but THROUGH him they are showing reverence (according to their culutre) to Christ the High Priest. I wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water on this issue. It’s overall effectiveness in bringing others to the Faith and in getting the attention of younr people to consider such a vocation is well proven by human and ecclesial experience.

  11. Eirc,

    I agree with Diakonos. In the military, one salutes the rank, not the man. The same for the respect shown the collar or habit. Beyond religious life, many wear distinctive garb in their chosen professions. Scientists and physicians wear long white lab coats. Policemen wear uniforms and the badge, etc…

    Our first sign of respect is for the office, and many of us move beyond that to show respect for the individual who has made great sacrifice in order to serve us in some way. I think that’s healthy if it’s offered as a sign of gratitude, which is indispensable in the spiritual life.

    But, really, the habit is worn as a witness to a lifestyle. If it’s being worn to garner respect, that’s often caught and weeded out during formation.

  12. I attended our 4th degree exemplification of the K of C this past weekend here in Florida, we had 3 seminarians take the degree and they wore cassocks and roman collars. I hadn’t seen that in years.

    It looked absolutely perfect.

  13. Dear Don from NH,

    In my youth, I spent eight years in the seminary. And, yes, that was so long ago, that we also occasionally wore the cassock and collar. However, I question why these guys in your post wore them to the 4th Degree exemplication. Even in the “old days” the cassock — for secular clergy — was seen as “house” attire; it’s what was worn around the seminary: going to class, going to chapel, and so on. Yes, it was worn under liturgical vestments as well, and it would be worn when going to the cemeteries to do commitals. HOWEVER, when we left the seminary/liturgical context, we would shift to clerical shirts/suits. The cassock, at least in my experience from those days, was seen as a more casual, “at-home” choice, and we “dressed up” when we left the house.

    I’m just afraid that these things have now become more of a sign of “theo-political correctness” than was their original intention.

    Notice that my observations are made concerning SECULAR clergy, not religious. The wearing of a religious habit is one thing, the cassock/collar is another.

    Oh, and by the way, if these seminarians in your post were not yet ordained deacons, they really should NOT have been out in public wearing clergy attire in the first place, unless their rector or the diocesan bishop has approved them to do so. They’re not clergy yet, so why should they wear clerical attire? To continue my lesson from history: remember that seminarians used to become clergy at a much earlier point in the process! Until 1972, when the system was changed by Pope Paul VI, a seminarian became a cleric through a rite known as tonsure. He was then capable to receive the ordinations of minor orders (porter, lector, exorcist, acolyte) and then ordinations to the major orders (subdeacon, deacon, presbyter). So, in those cases, it WAS appropriate to wear clerical attire because they were, in fact, clerics.

    God bless,
    Deacon Bill

  14. Last time I looked, there was some pretty fancy vestments used by the Pope, Cardinals, and Bishops. Are you suggesting dcn marv that all should go about and dress as Peter, Paul, or Christ? Of course that would really make them stand out to everyone.

    Should the vestments not be worn at mass? Just curious?

    Dress does matter in our society. Try getting a job with pants hanging halfway down your backside or coming in dirty in appearance. It seems like Vatican II wanted to take the Catholic Church in all its beauty out into the world, not to dress the religious like occupy wall street crowd or even like everyone else in the world. When I see the Pope arrive dressed like every other person in the crowd, then this statement might make some sense. Of course back in 428, I would suppose many did still dress like Peter and Paul..

  15. Have to love the K of C. Now those folks know how to dress. We had the K of C mass a few weeks ago with full on dress, swords, hats, etc. It was impressive. Besides this, they do amazing work inside and outside the parish. I love those guys and their dedication and service.

  16. As a 4th Degree Knight, I would agree that the seminarians in question shouldn’t have worn cassocks to their 4th Degree exemplification – but for an different reason: How can they wear their social baldrics if they are wearing cassocks?

    On a more serious note, while cassocks are traditionally considered “house” attire, the cassock and simar are the social equivalent of semi-formal and black tie dress and the cassock/simar with ferraiolo are the social equivalent of formal/white tie dress. The traditional academic dress for clerics isn’t academic cap and gown but cassock, ferraiolo, biretta.

  17. Deacon Bill is quite right about the inappropriateness of seminarians wearing clerical attire out of the seminary or other than during the liturgy. Frankly, I’m not sure why seminarians wear the cassock as ordinary attire while they are in the seminary. Is that their witness to one another? I’m very afraid that the whole thing has become something of a clerical fashion show/costume ball thing.
    Too many – even among the ordained – are all about the externals. What was it that Jesus said about what comes from within???

  18. I find all of this a bit too simplistic. While I think that religious who wear habits are praise worthy, I find it a bit disturbing that young people choose religious orders based upon whether the group wears a habit or not. That’s very superficial. I also think that while it may be true in some circumstances, it is not true in all. Assuming that religious don’t wear a habit because of the liberalism that took place in the late 60’s and 70’s is not always true either. I am a Salesian Brother and we do not wear a habit. This is because it was an explicit wish of our founder, St. John Bosco, that we dress like regular professional lay people and not be identified by a habit. Our Brothers have not worn a habit since our very founding in the middle 1800’s. Our priests wear the same garb as the local diocesan clergy of the country in which they serve. Today we are the second largest religious order in the Catholic Church. We currently have 33 men in our province who are in various stages of formation. None of them joined us because of a habit. They joined us because of our charism and strong community life.

  19. Personally, I prefer to see a sister in a habit. A simple modified habit not the old flowing yards of serge. It reflects the simplicity of their life as well as their witness. I cannot understand how so many sisters have taken up wearing jewelry, dyed hair and expensive clothing. What happened to the vow of poverty?

  20. From this proud Italian-American to Br. Tom: God bless the Salesians! You guys rock! My immigrant family was ministered to by your Society for many years and my family as well as been blessed to be in close touch with Salesians in many places here in California. And you Society is also one of the kind I had in mind in my prior post above: there are communities that were founded without a religious garb and approved as such by the Holy See. You simply cannot judge a book by its cover.

    With that said, however, I must confess that in my many dealings with religious over the years it is by and large the Sisters in secular clothing (though their congrgegations wore habits until the 70s) who by and large have been the more dissident ones. However, I also know many – i would say most – unhabited Sisters who have said they felt coerced into secular clothing by their leadership after the Council and they thought their duty was simply to forget personal wishes and obey. Sad thing is these good nuns were misled…the Council never called for or asked for the emilination of the habit, only its simplification as or if needed. And the Holy See under the long pontificate of Blessed JPII called for the wearing of the habit several times and stressed its importance for those congrgegations who had one but had abandoned it.

  21. Consecrated women wearing a distinctive habit is essential for vocations to flourish. They have chosen a life that sets them apart from single or married women and they are also role models for young girls.

    This newer generation who are entering religious life are usually better educated, have worked in the world and understand clearly what they are giving up and what they are receiving in return. For them, it’s all about Christ unlike the religious from the 60’s and 70’s where it was all about THEM!

    I pray each day for women and men religious who could do other good things with their lives and yet freely chose to follow the call of Christ into their religious communities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.