Over the past couple of years, Evan has become a savvy traveller. He skips packing a suitcase and manages with a carry-on and “personal item” as defined by the airlines. This suits him well — of course — except when he needs something special like a suit.
Which he wanted for the 11:00 p.m. Mass on Christmas Eve. Fortunately he and I are about the same size. Well, to be honest, he’s a bit taller and thinner, but I have a couple of suits which fit him not-too-terribly. It’s a “make do” sort of situation.
He’d chosen a blue wool suit of mine and was muttering a bit about what shirt and tie to wear. Cathy drew me aside and said, “We’ve given him shirts and ties for Christmas. Should we have him open them early?”
We discussed it and decided against the idea, I had shirts and ties enough and surely he could find something among them.
Around 9:15 he disappeared into the guest room to get dressed.
And emerged wearing his habit.
What’s a habit, you ask? Let me show you a picture.
That sharp-dressed fellow on the left of that picture over there is Fr. Thomas Ryan. He is the Director of Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations for the Paulists and he’s dressed in the high-collared, five button habit that has marked the order since the 1800s.
When Evan completed his First Promises this past summer, he earned the right to put CSP (Congregation of St. Paul) behind his name and the privilege of wearing the habit.
I can tell you this. When you go to Mass with a guy in a habit, you get all the looks. That suggests to me that people — even practicing Catholics — may not be overly familiar with the history or function of the habit.
So…a short summary with an interesting side note from St. Pope John Paul II.
The Wikipedia article lays it pretty well when it notes that “A religious habit is a distinctive set of garments worn by members of a religious order.” Most folks, if they think about habits at all, identify the with religious sisters. Aside from the sisters, you’ll often see Franciscan priests in their distinctive hooded robes with their triple-knotted rope belts. (Bonus internet points for anyone who knows the meaning of the three knots…or just keep reading.) Or you might be a fan of Thomas Merton and remember pictures of him in his Trappist habit.
That’s as good a place as any to start with the question of why anyone would want to wear something so unusual.
Msrg. Charles Pope from the Archdiocese of DC puts it beautifully when he says:
Religious life is not hidden, neither is it occasional. To enter the priesthood or religious life is to publicly accept the consecration of one’s whole self to the service of God and neighbor. That is why the most traditional religious garb covers the whole body. It is more than a tee-shirt, a hat or an emblem of some sort. It is a covering of the whole body to indicate the entirety of the consecration.
Further, each habit is distinctive since each religious community has a particular charism or gift by which they collectively serve the Church. Religious and priests do not merely consecrate themselves for their own agenda. Rather they join others with a similar and proven charisms in communities recognized by the Church.
The word “habit” also suggests that religious life and priesthood are not an occasional activity, or even a 9 to 5 job. The are the habitual identity and life of the one who receives the call. That is also why the habit is usually worn at all times.
As Catholics we embrace the idea of visible signs of things which cannot otherwise be seen. Habits make vocations visible to the world. They remind the world that there are people who are dedicating themselves to the faith.
And the reminder the wearer of their own vocation.
Remember the question about the three knots of the Franciscans’ rope belt? The obvious answer is that they stand for the Trinity — the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That was my guess, anyway. And I was wrong. They stand for the three vows of the Franciscans — Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. A constant reminder of the promises they have made to God.
In a 1996 Post-Apostolic Exhortation called Vita consecrata, St. Pope John Paul II encouraged the wearing of habits by saying:
§25 … Since the habit is a sign of consecration, poverty and membership in a particular Religious family, I join the Fathers of the Synod in strongly recommending to men and women religious that they wear their proper habit, suitably adapted to the conditions of time and place. Where valid reasons of their apostolate call for it, Religious, in conformity with the norms of their Institute, may also dress in a simple and modest manner, with an appropriate symbol, in such a way that their consecration is recognizable.
As I said, when you’re with a man in a habit, you get all of the looks.
Which got me thinking. Although not all of us are consecrated, we all have a vocation — a call to live as God wills and to carry out our Baptismal mission. What habits — or at least outward signs — do we show to let the world know that we are living out the identity of our faith?