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: Nothing about us without us

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The slogan “Nothing about us without us” was used by Solidarity in the 1980s in Poland, borrowing a royal motto from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-second millennium. Then, it was expressed in Latin: Nihil de nobis sine nobis. Later, it appeared in Polish on the banners of 19th-century Poles fighting their country’s partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria: Nic o Nas bez Nas. Today, it’s often used by disability activists asserting their claim to be fully participant in society.

“Nothing about us without us” also applies to the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, which will meet in Rome in October.

That Synod will involve seven bishops’ conferences from nine Latin American countries who will consider their pastoral situation under the theme, “Amazonia: new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.” As is usually the case in these meetings, the bishops at the Synod will work with materials drafted in Rome. Early indicators from the Synod’s preparatory document suggest that the Amazonian Synod will be longer on environmentalism than on theology. International media attention will doubtless focus on the Synod’s discussion of climate change and its relationship to Amazonian deforestation.

Recent synodal history suggests, however, that more will be afoot at the Amazonian Synod than what its announced theme suggests.

The 2014 and 2015 Synods were called to consider the crisis of marriage and the family throughout the world. Yet they became the occasion for powerful churchmen to try to deconstruct Catholic moral theology and sacramental discipline, according to the tried-and-failed theologies and pastoral practices of the 1970s. The 2018 Synod, summoned to discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment, began with an effort by the Synod general secretariat to enshrine the world’s language of sexual plasticity (and the lame understandings of happiness that underwrite that language) into an official Church document. When that failed, Synod-2018 became the occasion for the Synod general secretariat to promote an ill-defined notion of “synodality” that struck more than a few bishops present as a prescription for local-option, choose-your-own-doctrine Catholicism on the model of the (imploding) Anglican Communion.

This pattern seems likely to continue at the Amazonian Synod. There, the deeper agenda will be the ordination of mature married men — viri probati — to the priesthood. Proponents will argue that this dramatic change in the Church’s longstanding tradition of a celibate priesthood (which, contrary to much misinformation, antedates the early Middle Ages by hundreds of years) is necessary because Amazonia is a Catholic area deprived of the Eucharist by a lack of priests. One hopes that the counterclaims — that Amazonia is mission territory requiring wholesale evangelization, and that Amazonia’s lack of priests reflects racial and class divisions in Latin American Catholicism that discourage priests of European pedigree from working with indigenous peoples — get a serious hearing.

Proponents of ordaining viri probati in Amazonia, including retired Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, have insisted that any such concession there would have no implications for the universal Church. That cannot be, however. Should the Amazonian Synod request the Pope to grant a dispensation from the discipline of celibacy for that region, and should he grant it, it will be just a matter of time before bishops conferences elsewhere — Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Austria come immediately to mind — make similar requests, citing pressing pastoral needs. On what ground would those requests be denied?

In a year-end interview with Vatican News, the Synod’s general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, insisted that the Amazonian Synod would not discuss environmental issues only, but would also confront “ecclesial themes” — and would do so in a way that Amazonia could be “a model for the whole world.”

We can be grateful to the cardinal for his candor in, however unintentionally, letting the celibacy cat out of the synodal bag. Any decision to ordain viri probati in Amazonia would inevitably have major consequences for the entire Church. A decision of this magnitude cannot be taken by an unrepresentative segment of the Church and then turned into a “model” for everyone else.

That is why the principle of “Nothing about us without us” must apply here. Whatever else “synodality” may mean, it surely must mean that decisions bearing on everyone should involve as broad a consultation and as global a reflection as possible. Bishops who agree should make their concerns known now, not after the Amazonian synod meets.

Featured image by Vatican Media | CNA