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: The Pell case: Developments down under

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In three weeks, a panel of senior judges will hear Cardinal George Pell’s appeal of the unjust verdict rendered against him at his retrial in March, when he was convicted of “historical sexual abuse.” That conviction did not come close to meeting the criterion of guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is fundamental to criminal law in any rightly-ordered society. The prosecution offered no corroborating evidence sustaining the complainant’s charge. The defense demolished the prosecution’s case, as witness after witness testified that the alleged abuse simply could not have happened under the circumstances charged — in a busy cathedral after Mass, in a secured space.

Yet the jury, which may have ignored instructions from the trial judge as to how evidence should be construed, returned a unanimous verdict of guilty. At the cardinal’s sentencing, the trial judge never once said that he agreed with the jury’s verdict; he did say, multiple times, that he was simply doing what the law required him to do. Cardinal Pell’s appeal will be just as devastating to the prosecution’s case as was his defense at both his first trial (which ended with a hung jury, believed to have favored acquittal) and the retrial. What friends of the cardinal, friends of Australia, and friends of justice must hope is that the appellate judges will get right what the retrial jury manifestly got wrong.

That will not be easy, for the appellate judges will have been subjected to the same public and media hysteria over Cardinal Pell that was indisputably a factor in his conviction on charges demonstrated to be, literally, incredible. Those appellate judges will also know, however, that the reputation of the Australian criminal justice system is at stake in this appeal. And it may be hoped that those judges will display the courage and grit in the face of incoming fire that the rest of the Anglosphere has associated with “Australia” since the Gallipoli campaign in World War I.

In jail for two months now, the cardinal has displayed a remarkable equanimity and good cheer that can only come from a clear conscience. The Melbourne Assessment Prison allows its distinguished prisoner few visitors, beyond his legal team; but those who have gone to the prison intending to cheer up a friend have, in correspondence with me, testified to having found themselves cheered and consoled by Cardinal Pell — a man whose spiritual life was deeply influenced by the examples of Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More during Henry VIII’s persecution of the Church in 16th-century England. The impact of over a half-century of reflection on those epic figures is now being displayed to Cardinal Pell’s visitors and jailers, during what he describes as his extended “retreat.”

Around the world, and in Australia itself, calmer spirits than those baying for George Pell’s blood (and behaving precisely like the deranged French bigots who cheered when the innocent Captain Alfred Dreyfus was condemned to a living death on Devil’s Island) have surfaced new oddities — to put it gently — surrounding the Pell Case.

How is it, for example, that the complainant’s description of the sexual assault he alleges Cardinal Pell committed bears a striking resemblance — to put it gently, again — to an incident of clerical sexual abuse described in Rolling Stone in 2011? How is it that edited transcripts of a post-conviction phone conversation between the cardinal and his cathedral master of ceremonies (who had testified to the sheer physical impossibility of the charges against Pell being true) got into the hands (and thence into the newspaper writing) of a reporter with a history of anti-Pell bias and polemic? What is the web of relationships among the virulently anti-Pell sectors of the Australian media, the police in the state of Victoria, and senior Australian political figures with longstanding grievances against the politically incorrect George Pell? What is the relationship between the local Get Pell gang and those with much to lose from his efforts to clean up the Vatican’s finances?

And what is the state of serious investigative journalism in Australia, when these matters are only investigated by small-circulation journals and independent researchers?

An “unsafe” verdict in Australia is one a jury could not rationally have reached. Friends of truth must hope that the appellate judges, tuning out the mob, will begin to restore safety and rationality to public life Down Under in June.

Featured image by CON CHRONIS/AFP/Getty Images