Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Habit for Sharing the Gospel

About ten years ago, my sister and I, both Daughters of St. Paul, had gone to visit our parents, who lived in the Sacramento area. One weekday morning they took us to a church other than their usual and ushered us into the Eucharistic chapel for Mass. A mere two seconds before Father appeared at the altar, an elderly woman tapped one of us on the shoulder and in a stage whisper gushed, “It’s so nice to see the nuns with their clothes on!”

The habit. One of the most tempestuous issues that swirled around the changes in religious life a few decades ago wasn’t even a fundamental one. But because of its visibility and what it represented for many, including religious themselves, it dominated news articles and broadcasts, family table conversations, and community meetings everywhere. It found its way into every major Church document on consecrated life and plenty of congregational Chapter documents. It sparked lightning bolts of ire in its day, and even now you can hear distant rumbles of a storm that is moving on. The online chats fer or agin, or the occasional remark born of either nostalgia or bitterness resuscitates more than just memories. In addition, a growing number of newer religious communities opt for religious dress, and recent national vocation reports point to its importance for young people in discernment, indicating that the phenomenon, though less intense, won’t die soon.

Clearly Hollywood hasn’t gotten its fill of icons “of the cloth”—women and men. Without words, fabric speaks volumes, symbol of either the sacred or perverted. The Sound of Music, Trouble With Angels, Sister Act, The Da Vinci Code, Doubt—here, robes are front and center. Keep your eyes open, though. Even on the periphery, in film or on TV, you’ll see garb and its accompanying attitudes and lifestyle more or less authentically portrayed. Those of us who’ve been “in” for a few years readily spot the directors who’ve done their homework.

So a few weeks ago in Boston, when we were asked for an interview for an online fashion magazine, we grinned and groaned. As you can see from the video and the accompanying article on, these fashionistas, a journalist and photographers from New York, wanted us to share the meaning of our “uniform” and what it says about our life. The Sisters of St. John the Baptist in Staten Island, the first community they interviewed, suggested that we might have a fashion statement to make too, since the heart of our mission is, of all things, media. The team joined us for Mass and lunch to learn more about us.

One of our sisters in Chicago was in the library last Thursday when a man in his thirties approached her to ask a question. “What’s this about the world coming to an end in a couple of days?”

“It’s a good thing I read the Internet,” she told me afterward, tongue-in-cheek. “I saw that morning that the world was going to end on Saturday. So I had my digital prompting.”

“First of all,” she answered him, “I feel sorry for all those people who sold everything in view of the end of the world, something that’s not even going to happen this weekend.”

“I know what you mean,” he agreed. “But what do you think about that?”

“Well, it’s not a new concept; it’s been around for 2,000 years. Even St. Paul had to deal with it. You remember his letter to the Thessalonians, the people who stopped working because they thought the end of the world was coming? And St. Paul told them to get back to work. That was 2,000 years ago, and this world is still around. Actually even if we knew the world was going to end in two days, I feel God would want us to continue living as human beings since that’s how God is glorified—by living as the human beings God wants us to be.”

That seemed to satisfy him. It was her clothing that told him that here was someone who just might be able to untangle a thorny question…and even go beyond what he had expected, happy to oblige.

The emblem worn by every
Daughter of St. Paul: the Word of
God we share, along with the
means we use--book, radio tower,
and film reel, symbols of all media.
So, besides its ability to simplify our lives, the Daughters of St. Paul have a unique motive for wearing an identifiable sign of our consecration. In an image-oriented culture, it seems to us entirely appropriate for women who are consecrated for a media-related mission to evangelize even by the way we dress. When they see us, people think of God, whether they love him or not, whether they’re Catholic or not. Especially in recent years, I’ve been mistaken for a Muslim wearing a hijab. In the Atlanta Airport, a beautiful woman from the Middle East fingered my veil with admiration, saying that her friend had been looking for something similar and could I tell her where I got mine. Such encounters can jumpstart a sharing of faith.

One of the sisters in the video above mentioned “respect.” How often I’ve heard people invoke that as a reason for us to wear a habit! While no doubt, Sister wasn’t thinking quite along that line, it does recall that far too many have missed the whole servant aspect of religious life, whether we’re in direct ministry or not. The habit should remind people that we have dedicated ourselves, not to privilege, (though God knows we’re grateful for every seemingly small kindness!) but to witness.

FSPs from Ivory Coast
and Congo

Besides, the kind of “respect” that Sister referred to is not characteristic of all North America. In huge swaths of it, indifference and even occasional verbal abuse, pertaining to our life-choice or to the Church, are not unknown, even in so-called “liberal,” tolerant regions. Secularism exacts a toll in unfamiliarity with, and certainly ambivalence toward, the meaning or value of any religious symbol. Relentlessly, though, the habit or uniform of religious reminds people who are inured to the divine—yet who long for their own personal relationship with it—that such a relationship is possible. Indeed, it is the goal of every human life.
An Indian Daughter
of St. Paul

In habit or out of it, a life of vowed poverty, chastity, and obedience is a sign of the transcendent, of what begins here for us all and continues without end. The garb is a startling symbol of such a sign.

Why so many different kinds of habits? Some short, some long, some trim, some full…not to mention the colors and styles. The habit of monastic and cloistered religious lingered long past the emergence of apostolic, or active, religious communities. Since these latter had no other model on which to base their lives until Canon Law changed to accommodate the evolution in consecrated life, they often followed the rules, practices, and styles that preceded them, and in matters of clothing, integrated elements of lay dress common at the time of their founding. We have only to think of Mother Seton with her widow’s cap.
Then Vatican II called for religious to modify their garb, to continue being for our times the signs of distinction they were meant to be, rather than of the separation they had often turned out to be. So religious discarded outmoded styles, and picking up on the lay motifs of their founding years, often donned secular dress—not exactly what the Council seemed to intend. One of the marvels of life in the Church is the multiform way in which the Spirit of God graces the Body of Christ, bringing life to the world through it. Time will tell where wisdom lies.

One of Jehovah’s Witnesses once plucked at my sleeve, chiding me for wearing something that would not save me. Obviously she assumed that I had placed my trust in a piece of cloth, but she was a good reminder to me of the One I do believe in. How often this “simple, modest, and poor” attire does just that, not only for others, but also for us. There’s a kind of cyclic flow to it. What I wear expresses who I am and what I value, then returns to reinforce the dynamic within me that dares to express itself.

Not a bad fashion statement, after all.


  1. Religious in my view should never wear secular dress. Wearing of such dress breeds confusion in some circumstances. It is sad to see priests not wearing a collar.

  2. Well, well, well . . . Sister Margaret has done it again. What a fantastic writer she is! Since she and my wife are first cousins, we have had several discussions around our dinner table. Some time ago, during one of her visits, I asked her why the Daughters were growing while many orders were almost disappearing. One of her answers was, "Our habit." Well done, Margaret! See you online - till next visit, that is. Romie

  3. Stumbled upon this article. The habit is always an issue i've struggled with.. Thank you for explaining it well! =)

  4. I think priests/religious should wear their 'uniforms' to all official functions; however I can easily understand that street clothes goes best for ball games, the beach, picnics and the like.


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