Getting Into the Habit

The other week we had a meeting at the local Catholic hospital to discuss its Catholic identity. In the present climate when the Catholic haters are in full swing and “Catholic” for many people means “sour, sexually repressed, legalistic, ignorant, fundamentalist, misogynistic, homophobic, dangerous child abuser” we can use all the positive PR possible.

Our local Catholic hospital is not only top notch, but they are located in the heart of the financially and socially disadvantaged part of town. They’re doing a fantastic job ministering to the sick and needy, putting in place preventative health care and doing the work of Christ in the community. However, their public communications don’t mention Jesus Christ and don’t mention the Catholic Church at all. There are some sisters there, but they’re indistinguishable from any other kindly old lady who volunteers at a hospital.

The local Franciscans, on the other hand, who minister in the nearby parish, wear their habits every day. Their tireless work for the poor and their cheerful spirit is immediately associated with the fact that they are Franciscans and that they’re Catholic. The habit speaks.

I’m the first one to praise the work of our Catholic sisters across the nation. They are devoted to the poor, they still staff a good number of our schools, they’re committed to justice for the oppressed. I’m glad they’re out there and wouldn’t want to knock their good work, but why won’t they wear a recognizable habit? Their good work should be a billboard for the vitality and goodness of the Catholic faith. Sisters who do wear the habit (like our local Nashville Dominicans) say people love seeing them in their full habit. It’s great PR for the church and inspires people of all faiths.

I wear my clerical black shirt and collar, and I’m tempted now the cold weather’s arriving to start wearing my cassock again every day. It makes a statement. As a fellow priest said when he asked why he wears his cassock every day, “This way nobody mistakes me for a Methodist.” He has a point. Protestant clergy wear clerical collars, but the Catholic brothers and monks wear a habit. Maybe more priests should wear cassocks for the same reason. Maybe the sisters should wear veils again. It marks us out.

I’m cooking up this new character called Father Maximillian Fisher. He’s a true grit priest–a bit of a scoundrel and grump, but also faithful and true. Fr Max would growl, “I wear this cassock to be an easy target.”

With increasing hatred of the church maybe we ought to fly the flag a bit more and get back into the habit of getting back into the habit.

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  • JACK

    Spot on, Father!
    There’s a reason why police officers and members of the military wear uniforms.
    It minimizes the “self” and is a tribute to the mission, which is larger than any one person.
    If there is any organization more fitting to pay tribute to “The Mission” than members of the Catholic religious, I don’t know what it is.

  • Damien

    I wish there was something lay people could wear! I’ve been toying with the idea of shirts or sweaters with religious symbols on them: tasteful yet Catholic. I love being able to identify Catholic religious in public by what they wear.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    There are plenty of ‘message’ T shirts for Catholics out there…

  • Jane

    Great article….and as one who is blessed to have the Nashville Dominicans teaching in our school in Cincinati, I proud they are in their habits and so recognizable….along with our Dominican Friars and Novice Brothers….they are unique, special, and proud of their Dominican Order. I am so grateful they share their Catholic vocation and witness by wearing the habit. There is no mistaking Who and what they profess. God bless.

  • Vincent

    Bravo, Father!

  • Wills

    Wear a BIG miraculous medal….

  • Deacon Tom Lang

    You nailed as usual Father! And I love all of the comments so far. Now, if only we permanent Deacons would be permitted by all Bishops in unison across the entire Catholic Church to wear the Roman collar, we could really help to give the Church a face once again in this damaged world! It would serve as a constant reminder to us of the giving over of ourselves to ordained service to Holy Mother Church. It would serve as a witness to the world. It would humble us as the secular world looks down upon clergy in general! It would permit us to be visible to those who are in need of prayer, who have questions about the faith, or who simply need a shoulder to lean on. As Jack indicated, it would be a sign to others that we are part of something much greater than us individually. As ordained members of the clergy, are we not also a “billboard for the vitality and goodness of the Catholic faith”? When I was in Rome and wore my Roman collar with the express permission of our Secretary for Clergy and the priests with whom I was traveling, the lay people in our group asked me repeatedly why we were not permitted to wear the Roman collar “back home,” and that they really hoped that we would be allowed to do so. It could add to the “good PR for the Church,” for the visibility of the Church in our modern world, and hopefully as an inspiration or at least a reminder of the faith to others. My pastor just started to wear his cassock regularly and told me that he decided to do so for many of the reasons I just set forth above and as mentioned by Father Longenecker. I’m all for “flying the flag” of our faith, and my fellow Deacon in my Diocese and I would love to be permitted to join in this habit! So far we’ve been told it will not be permitted. Seems to be contrary to what the Church is trying to accomplish in the world today on virtually every other front. And so we pray.

  • AnneG

    How about a Miraculous Medal? Or St Jude?

  • Deacon Tom Lang

    A follow-up to my earlier post – Keep in mind that there are approx. 40,000 permanent Deacons in the world, over 17,000 of them in the U.S. alone. And who wants their clergy to look like insurance salesmen, lawyers, or undertakers? Ha! (Not that there’s anything wrong with all of those wonderful professions!) When people come to the Church for sacramental prep, for pastoral counseling, for spiritual counseling, etc., they expect to “see” a member of the clergy assisting them. We get some awkward looks for sure!

    As a side note, I am aware that Canon Law indicates only that permanent Deacons are “excused” from the obligation to wear clerical attire since it is recognized that most of us have “paying jobs” outside of our Diaconal Ministry. It has been told to me that a bishop may preclude us from wearing clerics ONLY as a form of sanction where appropriate. If that’s true, then I guess that a whole bunch of permanent Deacons around the country are under sanction for some super-secret reason! Ha!

    In reality however, there are many, many Dioceses in our surrounding area and across the country where it is left up to the adult, ordained man to make a reasoned decision as to when it would be appropriate for him to wear his clerics or not. After all, we are educated enough, responsible enough, formed enough to have been deemed by the Church as ready to be ordained. So many of us have raised families responsibly, run businesses, served on Boards, etc. It’s kind of a smack in the face to then be told in essence that we are not trusted to be able make the decision on our own as to when it is appropriate to wear the Roman collar depending upon whether we are engaged in Ministry and/or representing the Church at any given time. But . . . non-ordained college kids who are simply DISCERNING a vocation are fully capable of making that decision!

    That leads me to recall a permanent Deacon who once told me how sad it is that when he was very young, non-ordained, and in the seminary discerning a vocation to the priesthood, he wore the Roman collar regularly, but now that he is an ordained member of the clergy of the Church, he is not permitted to wear the dress of the clergy of the Church! Something isn’t right!

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    There would be nothing to stop a deacon from wearing a cassock would there?

  • Deacon Tom Lang

    No. I wear one when I MC for the Bishop, for baptisms, weddings, Benediction, Stations of the Cross, prayer services, etc. I’d probably be shot if I wore one away from the Church.

    Funny that when I wore it to MC Midnight Mass at the Cathedral a couple years back, a transitional Deacon asked me, “Where is your collar? You should wear one whenever you wear your cassock.” I replied, “I know, but we’re not allowed.” The next morning I was MC for the Bishop again for Christmas morning Mass, and was directing a first year college seminarian as an altar server. He was wearing the Roman collar, but I wasn’t allowed. Strange looks all around!

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    I sympathize. In this diocese deacons may wear clerical dress while on official duties in the community, but are to be distinguished by a grey or blue shirt. In my parish I ask them to wear clerical collar and cassock as their ‘work clothes’.

  • Charles E. Mac Kay

    As we say here you need to see Christ in the streets and that’s the value of the habit

  • Frank

    Losing the nun’s habit and priests and going incognito seemed to be marching orders not choice. I was in 6th grade in a small Catholic parochial grammar school when Sister Catherine Arthur came in sans habit and in a blue woman’s business suite and her name was Sister Eileen. She introduced the whole deal to us and then asked for a show of hands how many liked it. Of my class of 50 or 52, I forget, approximately 6 people liked it. We were told we would get used to it. I never did. I read your comment on T shirts. T shirts are rarely serious and when they are they are often scary. Habits are always serious and always mean something. To blend in, means to having no special meaning. That has been achieved. But I still don’t understand why that is a good thing. Our sisters and brothers (and priests) who give their life openly to Jesus Christ and his Church deserve nothing but respect, courtesy, our prayers and our help. Achieving anonymity is a strange goal. Each year our RCIA candidates appear at various masses in front of the congregations and perform a rite. IT is wonderful for them, the added blessing is what it does for the congregation. They are a sign of faith. The price for anonymity has been dear.

  • Bill Staub

    Thanks for the article Father. I totally agree with you. I did hear Cardinal Dolan say the Catholic Bishops were voting on re-instating meatless Fridays and also calling for clear outward signs of our faith being worn by all according to their life vocaiton. I also support the comments above about deacons wearing a sign of their office. However, the clerical collar stands as a sign of celebacy and deacons do not take this promise. The deacon who served with a seminarian must remember that that seminarian was under obligation to be celibate although not yet ordained.
    In my sociology classes in the ’80′s I remember reading how the importance and expressions of faith tend to deminish at the end of each century and then take an upswing. Hopefully this is the case today and we will see our faith once again as a badge of honor and sign of the Truth being lived out in the world.

  • lethargic

    How about a big ol’ wooden crucifix.

  • SteveD

    One British bishop does not usually wear clerical garb because of occasions when it has resulted in unwelcome and even appeared on TV during the Pope’s visit in open necked shirt. I wrote to him pointing out that Bl. Dominic Barberi used to wear his (very obviously religious) Passionist habit in 19th century England though regularly attacked by groups of stone throwers when on his way to say Mass, I also pointed out that a few of the stone throwers were so impressed by his bravery and good nature that they became Catholics. I didn’t receive a reply and didn’t expect one. Bl. Dominic’s example goes unimitated by the bishop but I hope that many priests and religious who have rejected clerical garb/habits will come to follow his example.

  • Tim S.

    I wonder what permanent deacons in the Orthodox Churches wear? If clericals, has that ever been a problem? Also, I’ve always thought it odd that Catholic deacons having received the Sacrament of Holy Orders from a bishop in Apostolic Succession are already one giant step above protesant ministers who often wear clericals and go by the title, “Reverend” and yet are not allowed the honors they deserve.

  • Deacon Tom

    In my archdiocese there is no official policy, but there are some who discourage deacons from wearing clerical garb outside of Mass so as not to be confused with priests. I wear a clerical collar with a shirt and sport coat at funerals away from the Church (e.g., funeral homes) and at grave site services. I would like the US Bishops to decide a policy in the US that permits a collar, at least, when on Church business. An added requirement for a grey or blue shirt would be fine with me. But I like Father Dwight’s main point of standing out front as a representative of the Catholic Church, as opposed to hiding our identity.

  • Deacon Jim Stokes

    That is not only an incorrect interpretation of what the Roman Collar stands for, it is also somewhat ironic when posting on the blog site of a married Catholic priest. LOL I guess Fr. Longenecker needs to cease wearing his Roman Collar … as do all the eastern rite priests and the priests of the new Anglican Ordinariates.

  • Deacon Jim Stokes

    Also… regarding the Seminarian’s call to celibacy: if that is what qualifies him to wear the Roman Collar, then all unmarried persons in the world would be so qualified, as all unmarried persons are called to celibacy. Another analysis fail.

  • Raymond Gueret

    In our diocese the deacons are allowed to wear clerics while on Church business. While there is no rule against wearing a black shirt with roman collar, they do not normally wear them. The preferences is usually white, grey, or blue shirts with a jacket and a deacon’s cross on the lapel. Cassocks and surplices are standard for master of ceremonies.
    Our class is scheduled to be ordained to the diaconate this June and these are the type of questions we have raised ourselves. It’s good to hear how others are coping.

  • njl

    Did the not Sacred Congregation for Religious ask that ALL religious wear a distinguishable habit, albeit more modern than pre-vatican too? Where is the obedience!!! Uniforms make a statement. Catholic schools still have students wear some type of uniform, but not the religious?????

  • Deacon Nick

    Hopefully to contribute to a little clarity on the subject of the deacons and clerical dress. All deacons need to do is look at the law of the church. When a man is ordained deacon, not transitional not permanent, as Fr Z says a deacon is a deacon is a deacon. So too he becomes a cleric. He is bound under canon law to wear clerical dress in whatever form the episcopal conference has decided clerical dress is. The deacons are excused if they so wish, simply because they have secular occupations that often don’t lend themselves to clerical dress. I have a couple of brother deacons who are deisel fitters imagine doing that work in a cassock. If the law gives clerics (bishops, priest, deacons) a priviledge no one is allowed to take such a priviledge away in a way in which it becomes an unfair penalty against the cleric(s). So some deacon’s need to ask their judicial vicar who made such a “rule” in their diocese and why? Also to address the authorities on the subject.

  • JD Miner

    Correction – all unmarried persons are called to continence, not celibacy. Celibacy is the state of being unmarried.