One sunny Sunday morning I routinely announced to a crowded Church that nuns would be collecting money after Mass for the Foreign Missions, a rather common pious practice among Catholics. I also announced, whether through innocence or unconscious intent, that they would be wearing religious habits. There was an instant, spontaneous, huge applause which I immediately judged to be linked to my mention of how the Nuns were dressed. After Mass, an irate woman, somewhat elderly but stylishly dressed, charged me with belligerent flashing eyes and a fierce challenge. “Religious habits don’t make the nun!” She declared energetically that she, too, was a nun, just as sincerely dedicated to God and good works as these “habited” Collectors. And couldn’t I see the little cross pinned to the lapel of her designer jacket, indicating her total self donation? Once she brought my attention to it, I was able to see it as a religious symbol.
Of course, I meekly suggested that the applause probably meant that Catholic laity liked seeing their religious leaders in distinctive garb but that I was sure that this angry lady was a very good and effective person. But her reaction does cause one to ponder on such a situation. What does one make of it? Clearly, the wearing of distinctive and immediately recognizable religious garb has fallen into considerable disfavor. Priests rarely wear clerical collars, partly because of the social stress of the homosexual priest scandal and partly for personal secular motivation. Religious Brothers, of my world, have almost entirely forsaken religious garb even in the classroom. Nuns who wear traditional habits are viewed in some quarters as obscurantist and throwbacks. Recently one such Nun told me of some city workers called into the convent to correct a water defect. The workers asked the sisters: “Why are you dressed like that’?” “No one dresses like that anymore.”…..and on and on.
What does all this mean? Does it correlate with other unhappy Catholic experiences? Perhaps not at all! Yet many social commentators say that there could be a partial link (or meaning) between the discarding of religious garb and the collapse of Catholic vigor. Is moving to secular garb merely a symptom indicating something far deeper? Is it just an effect hinting at a more corrosive cause? Does the secular move to discard religious garb by Catholic leaders influence the Catholic laity to cut religious “corners” of the Catholic Faith? It deserves investigation.
I suggest that there are some assessments we can safely accept. Let me give one example which can possibly be extrapolated into a wider context. Shortly after the 9/11 horror of 2001, there was a call for national prayer by which the American people would call upon the help of the Almighty. In fact, Churches were crammed with people seeking some kind of consolation and understanding by huddling together before God. At our own church of St. Paul the Apostle, the priests stood at the Church doors and were almost mobbed by people needing to verbalize their fears and puzzlements to someone they considered to be close to the Lord. However, one of the priests who believes that priests should dress in secular garb stood alone at the door----I think somewhat forlornly. He hungered to be consulted as a priest but no one approached him. He wore a classy business suit believing this would make him more approachable as a priest. But sadly for him, the people saw him as one of them. In times like 9/11,they wanted someone not like them. His idea that his secular dress would make him more accessible and attractive to laity worked exactly in the opposite direction. They ignored him. Not intentionally but only because they had no way of knowing that he was a priest!
It was almost laughable (at least comedic) that at the next Mass that day our secular minded priest shows up—not in the business suit—but in a traditional black suit with clerical collar. Is he now being pragmatic, ruthlessly forsaking his beloved New Age kind of style? Or is it humility? Or hypocrisy? Or what? All we do know is that the laity (at that time) wanted their priests dressed as priests not as bankers or sports heroes. But perhaps the more salient factor to be probed is the possible link between discarding religious garb and the contemporary spiritual malaise.
I have visited “convents” where the “nuns” wore short shorts, tight T-shirts, smoked, drank Martinis and spoke droolingly of how edenic sex must be! This type of modern (though graying) nun is usually of the Ultra Feminist coloration who often expresses cautious and ambiguous support of artificial contraception and same sex “marriage.” She is strikingly anti-clerical and highly critical even of Pope John Paul II. She puzzles and dismays me. It is also interesting that Religious orders such as these are dying “on the vine” from a lack of recruits. Many of the single Catholic young women of my world who are daily Communicants and who have great love of the Lord show utterly no interest in joining these “liberated” religious groups. One mentioned to me that these “religious” live no differently than does she. Why should she join such worldly, jaded groups? Ironically, this may ultimately prove to be a blessing rather than a tragedy because there is surfacing a most fascinating religious or cultural phenomenon which well may mean a true revival of religious life. We are seeing the “new” Nun.
The liberal magazine Time featured an article (Nov. 20, 2006), Today’s Nun Has a Veil, on the surprising growth of new and more orthodox religious orders appearing throughout this country. The sub-title “More young women are entering convents. How they are changing the sisterhood” implies a great deal. These women are mostly in their 20’s and 30’s usually career types seeking more meaning in their lives (and are sometimes empty nest moms). Most of them have not been blighted by the wild adolescent binges we saw in the Post Vatican II period but have been invigorated by the charismatic appeal of Pope John Paul II and his interpretation of modern feminism as a way for women to express Christian values. This is the JP2 generation.
It is most interesting to note that these enthusiastic, vigorous, educated young women want a structured life centering around the Eucharist and community prayer. They value the daily Mass. They respect the priesthood (even knowing that some priests are rebels, nerds or unfaithful). They are loyal to the Teaching of the Church which is called the Magisterium. They are sincere about the Evangelical counsels. They profess their primary commitment to Jesus through vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. And they mean it! They truly believe that they are making a Radical statement cutting through the murky disorientation which confuses our “today” society. Their Counter culture Announcement is embodied by the wearing of the veil. One young nun, quoted in the Time article, says “It’s a trend with younger women wanting to wear the veil now.” And, besides, they laugh a lot, exude an unmistakable joyful spirit, roller blade and ride bikes through traffic and parks! It is also noteworthy that these new communities usually wear full habits, ankle length.
It has been my unbelievable good fortune to have been the Confessor for a convent of the Sisters of life for 5 years. I have met the new Nun close up. She is a talented, normal, vibrant young woman who makes a choice, even if culturally radical, to give her life to Jesus Christ. She is not the mythical broken-hearted damsel or the one who can’t do anything else. She is a Doctor, former Air Force nurse (Captain), psychologist, computer programmer, geologic engineer, teacher, former Marine, ex-professional opera singer, political scientist, blogger. This particular group, Sisters of Life, is a relative newcomer with a mere 15 years of existence. Yet it numbers over 50 members with prospects of many more. Its apostolate is specific. It deals with young women who reject abortion in favor of life and with any kind of attack on the sacredness of human life. Other similar groups throughout this country are experiencing even more rapid growth such as the Dominican sisters of Mary (in Ann Arbor), which, founded in 1997, already has 73 members. Their average age, incidentally, is 24! So, I tentatively suggest that there is a correlation between religious garb and active, lively Catholicism (exemplified as entering religious life), regardless of the furious insistence that the relaxed lifestyle of the dying communities is in sync with a vigorous Religious Life.. Somehow, once the Religious casts off the habit or the collar, irreligious behavior often follows. The hypothetical correlation needs to be deeply studied for some kind of objective understanding of what has happened in the last 40 years.
It is further grist for the correlation mill that male Communities are experiencing the same kind of phenomenon. The most striking one in my experience is that founded approximately 20 years ago by the brilliant and saintly Fr Benedict Groeschel and his eight companions who left a very large Order because of serious differences on fundamentals. These New Religious, called the CFRs, wear a distinctive, gray Friar’s habit complete with cowl, sandals and beard. They sleep on the floor, cook all their meals, do all their own housework and live a true community life. They wear their habits on the street, on airplanes, subways, busses, anywhere they go. They are highly visible. They insist that they make public statements by their manner of dress, namely that they believe in Catholicism. On entering any chapel or Church wherein the Blessed Eucharist is reserved, they unapologetically kneel and kiss the floor as a public act of Faith. They are fiercely loyal to Jesus, their Church and the Magisterium.
Is it surprising that their recruit numbers are astonishingly high in this alienation/ Me-first era? They are beginning to get 15 to 20 young people each year, attracted by the clarity of dedication and the holiness of the Friars. Their retention rate is good and they now number over 100 members. Like the young nun candidates, these potential Friars are looking for some sense of meaning to their lives and seem to be attracted to a life which challenges limits of their generosity. One might list the religious order known as the Legionaries of Christ to further this point. This group also has astonishingly large numbers of young men seeking admission with very large Ordination classes each year, usually at St. Peter’s in Rome. They are all dressed in black suits, have clear group identity and express explicit loyalty to the Holy Father and the Church. With a less successful rate of retention than the CFRs, they, nevertheless, do have a significant religious population.
There is a hypothesis here which, while needing research and considerable analyzable data, can be stated in research terms. Does the wearing of a habit coupled with a focused apostolate correlate positively with high recruitment? Does secular garb coupled with diffuse apostolates correlate negatively with low recruitment?
For further input of data, I offer the following. I have been further blessed to have been Professor of Human Sexuality and Counseling at two major seminaries for a total of 31 years. Over the years I have noted the clear movement toward a more traditional approach to priesthood in the Catholic Church. There seems to be a more open expression of piety and rejection of the semi-diluted theological climate of the late 20th century. It strikes me that young priests who are clerically attired, are praying more than their middle-aged, somewhat angst-driven confreres who like to dress in Levis and sport shirts. Further, it is becoming a common observation in the priest Community that the young priests are markedly more open in their loyalty to the Holy Father and less likely to have the theological hang-ups of their predecessors. Is there some kind of link here? Does wearing “clericals” indicate a more, if unconscious, commitment to priesthood?
In my last teaching years at Dunwoodie Seminary of Yonkers, a group of students began meeting quietly each afternoon at Five for an Hour of Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. The numbers increased until almost the whole student body was present at this optional devotion. A salient point of this observation is that all the students were dressed either in soutanes (cassocks) or in clerical collar. A further point is the obvious and pervasive devotion to the Catholic ethos in that theologate. Again, is there some kind of link here?
So many Catholic lay persons have expressed their pleasure at seeing their religious leaders dressed like Catholic religious Leaders. They know that the Religious habit or collar almost shrieks out in the secular Market place that God matters. So does the average Religious who has probably experienced the hostile stare or obscene remark from those who are rebuked by the Religious garb. But he also knows the friendly smile and friendly support from so many more. Beyond the effect on others, wearing religious garb reminds the religious himself/herself of the commitment one has made to God. Unbelievably, this is easy to overlook in this very secular environment. Wearing religious garb is a protection as well as a Proclamation. Let us hope that the trend continues and that it might even break through the distortions of the stiff necked earlier generation!!!! (And I am eighty-five!)
 Wearing turtle neck type garb allows priests to get “out from under” the social expectation of Catholic laypersons. It allows the priest to be “one of the boys” more easily. Some few priests feel the guilt of the pressure of priesthood and find relief in pretending to be laymen.
 In my years of teaching Graduate students (nuns brothers and priests), I was amazed at the common rationalization for sexual “acting out”. So often it was called natural behavior or necessary human development. Nowhere was there mention of the commitment of the Vows. I was told either that mortal sin was very difficult ever to commit or that our new insights of morality made such behavior “understandable.”
 Tolerance of homosexuals within the Order and departure from “care of the “Poor”were the alleged reasons to split and form a new Community.