When Style Trumps Spirit: Ministry and Clothing
There is a very interesting and lengthy piece of commentary recently published in the National Catholic Reporter by the well-known theologian Thomas O’Meara, OP, a dominican friar and emeritus professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. His piece “calls out” some ecclesiastical leaders of the church who appear more interested in Baroque finery of centuries past than the contemporary concerns of pastoral ministry. His almost-humorous (it would be funny if it weren’t so true) lambaste of younger clerics and religious is, in my opinion, spot-on. Here’s an excerpt:
New religious groups in the United States, along with some young members of older orders seem eager to wear a religious habit in public, not just on the grounds around a school but at airports or on the subway. What does a monastic habit or a cassock in public say to Americans at the beginning of the 21st century? It is not at all evident that the general public knows who this strangely dressed person is or even connects the clothes to religion. The symbolism is not clear and a message is not evident. The person does stand out, but as a kind of public oddity. Eccentric clothes instill separation. While some argue that odd clothes attract people, the fact is that more often than not they repel. Normal people are not attracted by the antique or bizarre costume, and ordinary Christians are not drawn to those whose special costume implies that others are inferior. Sometimes wearing clothes seems to be a substitute for real ministry.
It is not clear how men wearing dresses and capes proclaim God’s transcendence or the Gospel’s love. A man’s identity is something complex; the search for it lasts a lifetime. A celibate cleric gives up things that form male identity, like being a husband and a father. One cannot overlook possible links between unusual clothes and celibacy. Does the celibate male have a neutral or third sexuality that can put on unusual clothes? Are special clothes a protection of celibacy? Or are they a neutralization of maleness? Why would a man want to wear a long dress or a cape in public? Are spiritual reasons the true motivation?
I have often had conversations around this precise subject with a variety of people about my own clothing — when I will or won’t wear my Franciscan habit; when I will or won’t wear a roman collar; when I will or won’t wear ordinary and appropriate clothes of our age.
One of the things that O’Meara points out well is that, although not necessarily causal, there is a correlative relationship between those whose ministerial/personal identities are more likely to emphasize distinctness, cultic clericalism, and an over-against relationship and those who are more likely to wear a full cassock to Trader Joe’s to pick up some groceries.
This is a continuing debate among members of religious orders of all stripes. I believe, as O’Meara — a fellow friar, although a Dominican not a Franciscan — seems to suggest, that there are indeed times when wearing one’s religious habit is appropriate, even necessary or expected.
For example, engaging in active pastoral ministry or presiding over the Eucharistic liturgy are times when one might expect a Franciscan or Benedictine or Dominican to wear his habit. This was the case when I taught at Siena College in the department of religious studies. When I was in the classroom, the environment of my day-to-day pastoral ministry, I — along with the other friars on campus in similar contexts — wore my habit. However, when I was not scheduled to teach or attend a public campus event, such as during my office hours or when I was researching and writing in the library or grading papers at a campus cafe, I would wear normal clothes. I did not, nor do I now, feel that I need to wear my habit to feel distinct or different, a frequent consequence (or desired effect by some) of such apparel in odd contexts.
I remind people, including other friars, that the origin of our habit was Francis’s effort to be in solidarity with the poor and “working-class” of his day. The son of a medieval cloth merchant, Francis knew a lot about high fashion and clothing in his time. The rough un-dyed wool and practical cord (in contrast to the relatively luxurious leather belts of other religious orders) was a deliberate statement against looking different, of being set apart, of pretentious self-identity. If Francis were born in the late 1900s and started his Order in our time, chances are it would consist of friars wearing T-Shirts and bluejeans.
There is a valuable corporate identity that is presented when the brothers are in habit together, and an institutional memory and association with our eight-hundred-year history continues. However, women and men in religious life or diocesan priesthood and formation for such should really ask themselves the questions O’Meara raises in his article: are you dressing this way to be close to people, to relate and serve them? or, are you dressing this way for yourself, to feel special, distinct, different, and important?
It’s very important to remember: Habitus non facit friar!
To read the full-text of O’Meara’s piece, go to: “What’s the Message on the Runway for Baroque Fasions?“