by Guest blogger Deacon Richard Ballard
I grew up in Western North Carolina, an area dominated by Protestants and not known for having plentiful numbers of Catholics. For the first several years of my life I had never met a Catholic and didn’t even know what one was. My first brush with the Catholic Church occurred late in 1965, when I was seven years old. This encounter is stamped indelibly on my memory because it was the most unusual sight that I had ever witnessed to that point in my life. It happened in the lobby of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. I had gone to the hospital with relatives to visit my grandfather who was recuperating from surgery.
At that time, children were not allowed to visit the rooms of patients, so I was relegated to the lobby with strict instructions to behave myself and not get into trouble. It was a different age then, when parental worries centered much more around what mischief one’s child might perpetrate, rather than what mischief some perpetrator might make with one’s child. So, with a variety of comic books in hand, I was ensconced in the corner of the lobby to idle away the time awaiting the return of my family. It was then that I saw her: Sister Mary Regina Harriss, RSM. She was a religious, a Sister of Mercy, and I was astonished.
To comprehend why seeing a sister would have elicited such wonder, it is helpful to understand that this happened just at the close of Vatican Council II. The upheaval that was to shake the Catholic Church during the years immediately following had not yet achieved its momentum. The Sisters of Mercy had not yet abandoned their traditional habit. Sister Mary Regina still looked like what a person of that time might have expected a sister to look like.
Rounding the corner, and coming to stand in front of me, was this tall woman of patrician bearing and indeterminate age. She was costumed in a long, black dress with long black sleeves. Her dress fell in a simple straight line from her neck to below her knees, reaching almost to her ankles. She wore a long, black, flowing veil that seemed to sail behind her as she walked. Under the veil she wore a white cap that outlined her head and face, and let just a bit of hair from the front of her brow show through. Her neck and the top of her shoulders were similarly outlined with a corresponding white collar. She had a thin waist girdled about with a leather belt. A long, ebony rosary hung at her side from this cincture, with the beads making a gentle clicking sound as she glided along. Here this woman, of what exotic origin I knew not, had positioned herself mere inches from me.
My mouth must have been hanging open, and no doubt I was scared stiff, possibly expecting something like the wrath of God to shower down upon me from this figure whom, I imagined, might take great exception to having a child with comic books in her lobby. That was when she beamed a very bright and friendly smile, and asked me my name. When I summoned the courage to tell her, she sat down beside me and asked what comic book I was reading. After a discussion of the merits of that particular edition of Superman, she asked why I was sitting in the lobby. When I told her, she seemed very concerned about my grandfather and told me that she would visit him later that day. She also said that she would like to pray for him, and she did, right then and there!
I couldn’t possibly tell you the content of her prayer, but the spirit of that prayer remains with me still. It was kind, and loving, and full of hope and care. It expressed what I would now call abandonment to the Divine Mercy. After her intercession, Sister Mary Regina rose and told me that she hoped she would see me again. And then she was gone, gliding down the hallway and out of sight. This was the image that first represented to me the Catholic Church.
That was not the last time that I was to see Sister Mary Regina. My grandfather’s recuperation was a lengthy one that would often bring us back to the Hospital. Over the course of those trips, I was able to spend some time with Sister Mary Regina and become familiar with some very rudimentary aspects of Catholic faith and practice. Important seeds were being sown from the pockets of Sister’s habit, seeds that would take root and come to fruition many years after the time of their planting.
The Church instructs us about just how important – even necessary – the religious habit really is, a teaching that remains of great consequence even though it may today be widely ignored. In Canon 669, from the 1983 Code of Canon Law, we read: “Religious are to wear the habit of the institute made according to the norm of proper law as a sign of their consecration and as a testimony of poverty.” What does it mean that the habit is a “sign?” A “sign” is an outward and visible something that points away from itself and towards another idea or reality that is not directly or immediately evident. The sign value of the religious habit is that it points not to itself or really to the person who is wearing it, but to the Church and ultimately to God. When we see a religious wearing a habit or a priest in clerical garb, we perceive that they are different, and that is a good thing. The habit shows their liminality, which is to say their “otherness.” It manifests their calling and consecration, that they have been set apart from the mass of humanity and the ordinary values of secular society for total service to God and His Church. The habit thus becomes a sign of contradiction to the world. Moreover, it makes the wearer visibly available to others as a representative of the Church and of the Lord of the Church. If something is to serve as a sign in this way, it must be seen. And that is precisely my point!
If Sister Mary Regina hadn’t been dressed the way she was, I probably wouldn’t have given her a second look, nor would I have carried this seminal memory with me for so many years. The habit she wore was a signpost along my journey, a special witness to a greater actuality that was beckoning and inviting. This “Reality” would always be there when I was ready to answer the invitation, even if that took awhile. I can testify that this valuable witness certainly played a role in my own eventual conversion and entry into the Catholic Church.
All of this is to ask, to implore, those religious women who today go about incognito, indistinguishable from any other lady you might meet on the street: Sisters, please once again take up and wear your distinctive religious dress! For, as has been demonstrated in my own life, you may never know what a difference a habit can make.
Deacon Richard Ballard is a former Lutheran pastor. He is the co-author with his wife Ruth and Ronda Chervin of What the Saints Said About Heaven. He serves as Pastoral Associate at Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, SC.