cassocksThere 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.

6a00e551f8c13088330148c73568c4970cOne 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?

Photo: Wire


  1. I love your posts and today’s post brought back a funny memory from childhood. My Aunt Grace was a Dominican and taught and later headed the Art Department of a Catholic College. She and the other nuns were always amazed that when they went out to dinner someone, usually a Jewish man in their community would pick up the tab. Things changed after they stopped wearing their habits and they couldn’t understand why no one ever offered to pay for their meal. When she told us this at dinner, I remember laughing when someone at the table said, “How would they know your nuns you don’t wear your habits anymore.” Aunt Grace then laughed the loudest because she had never thought of that.
    You gave a chuckle remembering a wonderful memory from my childhood.
    One other thought I had was how I feel when driving behind someone with the Christian fish on the back of their car and then see them do something so unchristian. I have seen clerics in habit be rude to people who try to talk to them. I often think it would been far better had they not been wearing their habit.

  2. There are elements of his article that I do agree with, however there are some over-simplifications. Just because I wear an amice sometimes doesn’t make me align with a particular ecclesiology. I am simply covering my every day clothes from being visible during the liturgy (as called for in the G.I.R.M) In summer I am also practically protecting myself from the stains of sweat. Such judgements may say more about the projections of the people making them. The article would be far more balanced if it also relayed the shock of many to see members of religious communities who take vows of poverty wearing name-brands of clothes such as Nike, Ralph Lauren and Bananna Republic -none of which are accessible to members of the working poor.

    1. You bring up some good points, thanks! The amice example isn’t very good — I, for one, always vest according to the GIRM, yet still believe that O’Meara’s points are 100% correct. There will be exceptions on both ends (warm, approachable, full-length-cassock-wearing ministers on one end and distant, elitist, poshly dressed ministers on the other). As a general rule, and based on my experience in several settings, I think O’Meara’s points are good. Thanks for the comment!

  3. I was ordained to the Permanent Diaconate this past June and our bishop has said that we cannot wear a collar, so not confuse us with priests. After reading this post, it helps to remind myself that I will always need to take care of my “internal wardrobe” rather than external.

    1. Why are there quotation marks around words that appear in neither the NCR article nor the post here?

      The sin isn’t in the liturgy. It’s in the heart of those who seek superficial grandeur over inner conversion. There’s no way to tell who has this sin within his heart. But an indication of it might be the use of certain accoutrements without any context other than that it looks really holy because it’s old.

      There’s also the false belief that somehow the world, the Church, or human beings in general were somehow holier in the past than they are now. Thus, we should dress, act, and speak like them. This belief, while not necessarily sinful, is a distraction from the truth and the Word of God and is akin to ancestor worship and idolatry rather than Christianity. But these are questions for religious to ask themselves about why they do what they do.

      Long ago St. Augustine of Hippo fought against Donatism and established that the grace of the sacraments comes from God, regardless of the spiritual condition of the priest. I’m pretty sure that it would be fair to extend this to the way that the priest happened to be dressed. Neither this post, not the NCR post, are claiming anything to the contrary of Augustine. I would argue that it is the other side of this argument that seems to feel that the validity of a liturgy is somehow based on the clothes worn by the priest and the parishioners, whether the hymns were from the propers, and other such aesthetic preferences.

  4. I actually could not disagree more with the article. It’s interesting to me that Buddhist wear their traditional robes and society seems to acknowledge that is their “uniform”. Ditto for when I see a Hindu priest or a Muslim Imam. I’m far from a right winger but this article seems to stir the pot for the sake of stirring the pot.

    1. Those are dead religions. The Buddha’s revelation occurred ages ago. Muhammed is the Last Prophet. Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, is a living religion. The Church is a living body. This is why we have a hierarchy to help direct us as revelation continues to unfold across history.

      In light of this, I think it’s fair to question attachment to certain forms of medieval garb as contrary to the spirit of our faith.

  5. Thanks, Dan, for another intelligent and educational post -encouraging thoughtful reflection and discussion. Interesting to be reminded, if I ever really knew, why Francis wore a habit. Indeed- Habitus non facit friar!

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