Each garment a sign, a statement, a reminder

Nissa LaPoint

This is an installment of an occasional series on various aspects of consecrated life during the Year of Consecrated Life, which will continue through Feb. 2, 2016. The theme of the year is “Wake Up the World.”

Religious habits are among the most recognized sacred symbols as for centuries they’ve proclaimed that the wearer is consecrated to God.

Since the early Church, men and women who want to give their lives to God have donned modest, austere clothing to reflect their spiritual commitment, notes author Elizabeth Kuhns in her book, “The Habit: The History of Clothing of Catholic Nuns.”

“Through the ages,” she writes, “the consecrated dress code has varied little from the plain, wide-sleeved tunic, belt, scapular (an apron that hangs from front and back), cloak and simple footwear, the only difference being in the style of headgear (for women).”

The donning of a religious habit signifies taking on a new life in Christ and the recipient is exhorted to “put on the new man who is created according to God’s image” (Col 3:10).

The Benedictine habit
At the Benedictine Abbey of St. Walburga in Virginia Dale, the nun’s habit consists of a tunic, belt, scapular and veil, which are all black. Under the veil is a white headdress called a coif, which frames the nun’s face. Fully professed nuns also wear a white veil under the black one.

“Every piece of garment you have is blessed,” said Mother Maria Michel Newe, 55, the abbess. The beautiful blessings, she added, explain each item’s meaning and help the nun to live her vocation as a bride of Christ.

“The belt reminds us that Christ wore chains,” she said, referring to his obedience. “The scapular represents our commitment to conversion—to take on the yoke of the Lord, which is sweet. A yoke is usually carried by two: we carry half and Christ carries the other half.”

The veil is the sign of the nun’s consecration.DC_02-07-15.indd

“You put the veil on and you know you belong to (God),” Mother Maria Michael said. “You are not your own.”

The veil and coif cover the nun’s hair, which the Scriptures call a woman’s “adornment,” to protect her from vanity and to remind her that she is given fully to God, the abbess said.

“You act as you wear,” she said. “If people wear jeans and T-shirts they act differently than if they are dressed up in a suit. There is a certain dignity that goes along with wearing the habit … a certain nobility you are expected to carry. Clothing does express your heart.”

Benedictines wear black tunics, she explained, both as a sign of penitence and because it was the cheapest fabric in the fifth century, when the Italian St. Benedict founded the order, the oldest in the Church.

“Wearing the habit is also a sign of poverty,” Mother Maria Michael said. “You get a habit and that’s all you’re wearing.”

The Capuchin habit
In 12th century Italy, when St. Francis of Assisi left his life of privilege for one of poverty and preaching and established the Order of Friars Minor, he took on the clothes of a penitent: a hooded brown robe in the shape of a cross tied with a cord around the waist.

Capuchin Franciscans who reformed the order 300 years later to return to the ideals of simplicity and prayer that had been lost over the years, continue to wear this same habit today.

“Our hood helped to give us our name,” explained Father Joseph Mary Elder, 37, local vocations director for the Capuchins. “In Italian, the word capuche means hood. People would see the giant hoods and would call them capuchins—‘the ones who wear the big hoods.’”

A Capuchin’s cord, he added, is tied with three knots that symbolize their vows to observe the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience.

“Pope John Paul II in (his 1996 post-apostolic exhortation) Vita Consecrata (strongly recommended) that religious should wear their habit, that it should be visible,” Father Joseph Mary said. “Religious life is an eschatological sign, it is pointing us to the fulfillment, the coming of the kingdom. It’s important that we make that visible by our action, our ministry, our prayer, and by what we wear.”

 

Mother Maria Michel Newe

 

BENEDICTINE NUN’S HABIT
Double veil: black on top, white underneath; represents consecration to God
Coif: frames the face for modesty
Tunic: black for poverty and penance
Scapular: hangs down the front and back as a sign of being yoked to Christ
Belt: at waist as a reminder to obedience

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brother Montie Chavez

Brother Montie Chavez

CAPUCHIN FRANCISCAN FRIAR’S HABIT
Hooded robe: brown for poverty and penance; shaped like a cross
Cord: tied at waist with three knots symbolizing vows of poverty, chastity and obedience

COMING UP: Why stay in the Church?

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There are many people who have either left the Church or are currently considering leaving because of the scandals of recent decades. We have felt pain and righteous anger at our leaders and have suffered scandal from their betrayal. For some, the grand jury reports and lack of accountability for bishops have been the last straw. It’s hard to blame people for feeling this way, but we have to ask with Peter, “to whom, Lord, shall we go?” (John 6:68).

Significantly, this question comes after many disciples walked out on Jesus for his teaching on the Eucharist, and it is the Eucharist that should be at the center of any response to the crisis. Peter answers his own question: “you have the words of everlasting life” (John 6:68). The Church is Jesus’ own body in the world, and we are members of his mystical body, given eternal life by consuming his own flesh at Mass. Without the Eucharist, Jesus’ presence in the flesh, the very heart of the Church, where would we be?

Bishop Robert Barron echoes Peter’s question in a recent pamphlet-style book, with over a million copies in print, Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis (Word on Fire, 2019). He turns to the Bible and Church history to look for perspective on the crisis. Because of the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church, the betrayal of some of our priests and bishops takes on greater significance. They act in persona Christi at Mass, offering the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross to the Father, and we depend on them for our sacramental life.

Fortunately, the validity of the sacraments does not depend upon the sinlessness of priests, but rather the holiness of God. Barron points out, however, that priests will not get off easy, given the extremely harsh words that Jesus offers to those who lead children astray: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me;  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,  it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!” (Mt 18:7-9). Barron also references the punishment of Eli, in 1 Samuel 2-4, who as priest and judge of Israel watched his own sons, who were also priests, abuse the people. Barron argues that this scene gives us the best example of God’s retribution for allowing abuse to happen and not correcting it.

Barron also looks at the tumultuous story of Church history for context on the current crisis. Although the Church is the mystical body of Christ, he references St. Paul assertion that we bear our treasure in earthen vessels, as evidenced by the human weakness of Christians throughout history. In fact, this weakness manifests the Lord’s grace guiding and preserving the Church in spite of us. Barron quotes Belloc that a proof of the Church’s divine foundation “might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight” (43). Heresies, sinful popes, and sexual perversity have not fundamentally destroyed the Lord’s work, even if they have turned many people away. God has promised to remain with his Church and his providence will guide us especially through dark moments.

The crisis challenges us and raises the question of why we are Catholic. Most of us have been born Catholic and may take our faith for granted as something we’ve inherited from our parents. We may view belonging to the Church like membership in a voluntary organization. Rather, our life as members of Christ’s Body is a gift from God that changes our identity and unites us to God and our fellow Christians. As we experience challenges to faith, it is an opportunity to embrace this identity even more strongly — not as something that depends upon myself or anyone else in the Church, but on God. We go to Church to honor and thank him and to receive his grace, not to be a part of a human organization.

The Church is a family, called together by God, but, like any family, we experience pain from our own and each other’s sinfulness. As family, we can’t give up on each other, but have to “stay and fight” as Barron exhorts us, helping each other to be faithful to the mission that Jesus gave us: to love one another as he has loved us and to share the Good News of his salvation.

Featured Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash