THE RELIGIOUS HABIT
by Fr. Jay A. Finelli
Not too long ago it was a normal occurrence see a Religious man or woman in their distinctive Religious habit anywhere you went. In the recent years since the Second Vatican Council we have seen a widespread abandonment of is practice. In the current time, we rarely see Religious wearing a distinctive form of dress. What is the reason for this change? Is it still mandated by the Church for Religious to wear clothing which is distinct from the ‘world, ” and if so, should this be worn in public? What exactly does the Church teach with regards to the dress of Religious?
Many Religious have abandoned their distinctive Religious dress, or wear it for Religious functions alone. Some of the reasons they give for this are: “We can better approach people when we are like them; We will not offend people who are not of our Faith; it is very uncomfortable to wear a habit because it is cumbersome; You should not wear the habit to certain places or the people who see you will be scandalized. ” These are among many of the reasons that I have heard personally from many different Religious.
It is important to examine Church guidelines on this issue. In the 1983 Code of Canon Law, there is a specific section concerning the Religious habit which is entitled, ‘The Obligations And Rights Of Institutes And Their Members.’ St. Thomas, talking about obligation says, “all positive law, if it be just and prudently made, whether civil or ecclesiastical or religious, binds in conscience and must be observed UT IN PLURIBUS (see ST la 2ae, 96.1 ad3; la 2ae, 96.6 and passium) under pain of sin and corresponding punishment as laid down in the law itself.” In Can. 669 section §1 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.” And in section §2 we read: “Clerical religious of an institute which does not have its own habit are to wear clerical dress according to the norm of can. 284. ” The second part of the same canon pertains to those clerical Religious who do not have a specific habit and not those who do. The Code of Canon Law makes it clear that the dress of Religious is the habit, and those clerical Religious who do not have a habit are to wear clerical dress. In this case, when should the Religious habit be worn? Should the habit be worn in public or only in the Religious house?
The document, “Essential Elements in the Church’s Teaching On Religious Life,” by the Sacred Congregation for Religious and for Secular Institutes, of May 31, 1983, states, “The witness of religious is public. This public witness to Christ and to the Church implies separation from the world. “No one lights a lamp to put it under a tub they put it on the lamp-stand where it shines for everyone in the house to see (Mt 5:15). ” How can the sign value of the habit touch people outside the religious house if it is not worn outside the religious house? “In fact, if it is not public, it is not witness,” says Fr. John Hardon in Religious Life: What the Church Teaches.
Pope Paul VI knew the great responsibility of Religious to be witnesses. In his document “Ecclesiae Sancte,” he pointed out the obligation of wearing the habit at all times, and that it should be removed only in very serious situations. He stated that Religious are to obey the local ordinary and episcopal conference who, “to prevent scandal to the faithful can prevent clerics, even exempt religious from wearing lay dress in public.”
Pope John Paul II in a letter to the Bishops of the United States, dated April 3, 1983, listed among the Essential Elements of religious life, “public witness.”
The habit is not just for the good of the Religious, but it is for the good of the people of God and for those who do not know, or refuse to know, God. As stated in canon 669, the habit is a “sign.” For something to be a sign it must be seen The sign does not point to itself but in the sign one sees something else.
The habit as a sign points primarily to God and also that the person who is wearing it is the sole property and possession of God. The person bearing the sign attests to his or her being consecrated. Consecration means to be totally set apart and for the use of God alone.
Cardinal Jean Danilou in his book, Why The Church? stated that we are, “Behind the times.” We can all attest to the fact that many cults and religions wear a distinctive form of dress and they are not ashamed. We who have the fullness of truth as Roman Catholics are afraid to let people know it.
The Holy Father is not afraid to stand up for this. In one of his talks in 1979, Pope John Paul II stated, “I say: rejoice to be witnesses to Christ in the modern world. Do not hesitate to be recognizable, identifiable in the streets as men and women who have consecrated their lives to God and who have given up everything worldly to follow Christ. Believe that contemporary men and women set value on visible signs of consecration of your lives. People need signs and reminders of God in the modern secular city, which has few reminders of God left. So do not help the trend towards ‘taking God off the streets by adapting secular modes of dress and behavior yourselves!” This desire to have Religious wear their habits at all times is not only the desire of the Holy Father, if that is not enough, “but the desire of the Church often expressed by so many of the faithful (Pope John Paul 11, 10/7/78).”
By careful study of Church documents and talks of the Holy Father it is clear what the mind and will of the Church is. The mind and will of the Church is that religious have a distinctive habit and wear it wherever they may go.
The wearing of the habit then is the outward sign of a Religious’ total consecration to God; a witness to holy poverty; a kind of armor or protection; and it is the visible sign of union with the Holy Father, who is the Vicar of Christ and the visible head of the Church.
October 16, 1987
Dear Brother Bernardo,
I congratulate you on the clear and convincing exposition about “The Religious Habit.” It is completely conformed to the doctrine and wishes of Popes Paul VI and John Paul II.
I hope that many priests and religious, if they shall read your defense of the Catholic discipline, shall be more obedient to the ecclesiastical Authority and proud to dress in the religious habit, as a sign of consecration to God and conformity to Jesus Christ, Who, as the Word of the Father, did humble Himself, dressing in human nature.
Sincerely your brother in Jesus Christ,
Mario Luigi Cardinal Ciappi, O.P.
(Cardinal Ciappi was the personal theologian of Popes John Paul II, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul I)
*** Please note: I wrote this article when I was a Franciscan. This is the reason Cardinal Ciappi addressed me as Brother Bernardo.