One of the first questions people asked me, repeatedly, when I revealed the surprising news that I was making the radical choice to live a life of poverty, celibacy and obedience as a Catholic sister, was some variation on this theme: "Do you have to wear one of those things on your head?"
I will be honest. This was annoying, frustrating, and sad. Here I just shared with you a major life choice in response to God's transformative love in my life, and you want to know about my wardrobe? Stepping back with the benefit of the decade which has since passed, I recognize that there was generally no ill will on the part of the questioners, but rather a widespread lack of awareness of the contemporary reality of religious life.
This was in 2004. I did not yet know the results of the 2009 research study of recent vocations that would tell us that some 21st-century young women are attracted to communities that wear a habit, and some to communities that do not. As it happens, it is approximately a 50/50 split. I believe this reality of who God is calling, and where they are being called requires a both/and analysis regarding distinctive religious dress in today’s church, rather than a blanket judgment in favor of either direction.
I can only approach this pesky, and sometimes polarizing, question from my own experience as a younger religious. I did not enter a community that wears a habit. In fact, while the question of clothing was by no means the only factor in my discernment, it was a factor. But so too were charism, mission, joy, relevance, faithfulness, integrity and life. In the end, I made my choice based on a feeling I can only describe as being “at home.” Would I have entered if I had found all of these qualities, but in a community where they wore a modified habit? To be honest, unless God exerted some serious arm twisting, probably not.
I am not alone. About half of recent vocations of women have entered communities like mine. Yet, the dominant narrative is stuck on a broken record that focuses almost exclusively on the other group of young women who desire to enter communities with a traditional or modified habit. I want to be clear: I do not judge those religious communities who choose to wear a habit; rather, my experience causes me to view this reality as a both/and reality.
When I was a novice, I had two simultaneous ministry placements. Three days a week I worked at Catholic Charities with survivors of human trafficking. My supervisor was a sister whose community wears a modified habit. On more than one occasion, as I accompanied her on walks through inner city streets, I witnessed the power of the visible sign of the habit. I remember one particular poignant moment where a man, down on his luck, asked her to pray with him. We were on our way to an important meeting, but of course we stopped and prayed.
I spent the other days of the week in a grubby cubicle of the county courthouse assigned to a local nonprofit that helped women obtain restraining orders against abusive partners. My job was simply to explain the process, help them fill out the paper work and accompany them to court. The focus was on the women and their predicament, so I did not make it about me by sharing that I was a Catholic sister during our limited time together.
I will never forget the day when, after sitting with a young woman who had cried her way through describing the abuse she experienced from her boyfriend, my coworker popped her head in to ask if I wanted take-out for lunch. She called me Sister Susan. Immediately, the young woman froze and seemed very uncomfortable. She looked closer at me, and at the Peace Cross I always wear as a symbol of identity with my community. “If I had known you were a nun, I could not have told you all that stuff he did to me.” I had witnessed the power of being a religious in simple dress. My presence and attention alone made her comfortable. The visible sign would have been a distraction in this case.
This experience, and many others since, cemented my belief that the call of the Spirit in today’s society is a both/and call. So, it makes sense that recent vocations are attracted both to communities with a distinctive dress and to those like mine who dress simply “in keeping with our heritage and mission as religious.” By the way, that is what our (Vatican-approved) constitutions say.
I am blessed to have younger religious friends, women and men, on both sides and in the middle of the distinctive dress question. Some of my sister friends are in communities that wear a habit. Most of my sister friends are in communities like my own that transitioned to simple dress almost 50 years ago, before we were even born. And some belong to communities that wear a habit for prayer, liturgy and ministry, but dress simply the rest of the time. This seems to be an option mostly for male religious, although I know a few sisters in this category.
As younger post-Vatican II religious, we made a decision to enter communities that have already made communal decisions about this question. We go where we feel at home. But in my experience, we do not judge those who make a different choice. We do not deride our peers either for wearing an “anachronistic costume” or for being a “plain-clothes nun.” Those labels belong to other generations, or perhaps should belong to none. Our attitudes of respect and inclusion affirm the both/and nature of the question today. Left to our own devices, over time, I believe we can heal this polarized division and in turn help heal a rift in religious life and the church. We find our common ground in the habits of love we develop, which form us as religious and shape the witness of our very lives as ones who follow Jesus in a particular way.
The open question, then, seems to be whether the dominant narratives, knee-jerk reactions, and unresolved ecclesiological debates of older generations, the hierarchy and society will let us build this bridge, or instead continue to tear it, and the body of Christ, down.
[St. Joseph of Peace Sr. Susan Rose Francois is a Bernardin Scholar in Ethics at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She has ministered as a justice educator and advocate and worked in local government prior to entering religious life. Read more of her work on her blog At the Corner of Susan and St. Joseph.]
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