Over the years, I’ve served a number of religious communities, made up of both men and women, in a variety of capacities. I’ve also studied the charism and history of many communities in my work as a journalist and for my own edification.
A key fact I have learned about the “older” orders of religious, such as the Benedictines or the Franciscans, is that when the founding members came together, they didn’t have any special garb or “habits”: they wore castoff or simple clothes, like the poor of that era. The intent was to live in solidarity with those who suffered hunger, homelessness, and privation, not stand out as something “special.”
Fast forward a few hundred years, the era prior to the Second Vatican Council. Women religious are burdened down by heavy, uncomfortable floor-length habits, ungainly starched collars, wimples that bite at the neck and block the ears from hearing properly, and veils.
In the document Perfectae Caritatis, dated October 28, 1965, the Council advocated that members of the respective religious communities recapture their founders’ “spirit and special aims.” Awareness was raised for women and men alike that the confining habits of yore were not really a reflection of their purpose.
It took years, even decades, for some communities to move from the habit to basic secular garb. The changes didn’t end there, though. For both laity and religious alike, the alteration of perception became a major issue that continues to this day.
As a bit of a humorous example, there was a movie released in 1969 titled A Change of Habit. The stars were Elvis Presley and Mary Tyler Moore. Elvis portrayed a doctor in a poor neighborhood—who sings and plays guitar, naturally—with his leading lady one of three sisters assigned to staff the clinic.
When the sisters arrive, they are dressed in traditional-style habits—with Hollywood taking some creative license. They have been instructed by their superior, however, to wear lay clothes when they report for work.
Their neighbors treat the women with deference and respect while in their habits. Once they change into dresses, hose, and heels, they are seen as ordinary, unworthy of special privileges or even common courtesy. They become victims of crime, vandalism, and discrimination.
The sisters must assert themselves, speaking the Good News of Jesus with more than just their attire and working to assist those who need their help in tangible ways.
And that’s the point. Women religious who, more than 20 years into the 21st century, wear secular clothes show each person they encounter the light of Christian love with their actions, not their appearance.
Still, there are those who, seeing photos of these sisters on social media, will post nasty comments about the lack of a habit. The claim that there is no purpose to professing vows unless a woman wears a habit is not only ignorant, but rude.
Such statements reflect back on the person who posts them a shallowness of their faith. If a person needs to see someone in a habit in order to be inspired, they are missing out on a lot of inspiration!
As a journalist, I keep my eyes and ears open out of necessity—and have, as a result, found many leads for articles on interesting and talented people, spontaneous events, and so forth. I always encourage others to do likewise, because the most casual encounter or chance remark could make a world of difference in a person’s life.
It shouldn’t matter if that encounter is with someone wearing a habit or not.
All people are capable of sharing God’s love, not only those in certain clothes. If the potential recipient of that enrichment judges individuals by how they look, they lose out on numerous opportunities for spiritual and personal growth.
Conversely, some men’s and women’s religious communities—and I’ve witnessed this firsthand—that moved away from wearing habits in the late 1960s and ’70s realized how the change in perception was impacting the number of new members and the community’s social standing. They reversed the earlier decision and resumed wearing habits, some modified, others almost excessively traditional.
New religious communities founded over the past 20 or 30 years prefer habits primarily because of the recognition and perception value.
It’s sad, really.
If a person’s perception—or a society’s as a whole—of another’s value is based upon their clothes, no religious community should cater to that shortcoming, that flaw, by wearing habits. Every human being can share divine love and inspiration, whether in shorts and a tank top or priestly vestments. It is the people who must grow beyond their limitations in thinking to grasp how religious are stepping forward in the fields of Catholic social justice, education, medicine and other areas to bring equity and justice.
And for Catholics especially, the last thing anyone should be doing is ridiculing and insulting those religious who have spent decades in God’s service on the basis of how they dress. ♦
Julie A. Ferraro has been a journalist for over 30 years, covering diverse beats for secular newspapers as well as writing for many Catholic publications. A mother and grandmother, she currently lives in Atchison, Kansas. Her column, “God ‘n Life,” appears regularly in Today’s American Catholic.