Bring back men in black

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Religious clothing allows Catholics to make a fashion statement about their faith, says a young priest who sports the look that a previous generation put away.

Like it or not, religious garb and clerical dress are making a comeback. This phenomenon can be hard to swallow for a certain generation of Catholics. It may seem that younger Catholics are attempting to undo their hard work and move backward into a church that placed a greater emphasis on distinctions between the clergy and the laity rather than celebrating the common priesthood of the baptized. Some have even accused wearers of religious garb of being insecure, out-of-touch, and intellectually second-rate. But today I find the youngest, brightest, healthiest, and most joyful consecrated religious and clergy seem perfectly at home in religious garb. What happened?

When asked how she reconciled her Catholicism with using violent, grotesque imagery, the great fiction writer Flannery O'Connor, herself a young Catholic who was often misunderstood, said: "To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large startling figures." It seems that the same philosophy is at work in the minds of young Catholics who are drawn to religious garb; they desire to communicate the gospel through sign and symbol to a world whose senses have been dulled. And if their clothing can help people to hear and see Christ, then it's a no-brainer.

The history of religious garb directs our attention to two important elements: identity and simplicity. Some religious orders pattern their habit on the garb of St. Anthony of Egypt (251-356), who most often prayed and worked in the desert and wore a simple robe with a thick leather belt. St. Francis of Assisi's garb looked like the cross when a friar stretched out his arms, and he added sandals and a cord with knots symbolizing the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Mother Teresa adopted the sari, the traditional dress of Indian women, for the Missionaries of Charity. These three prominent examples were easily identifiable by their dress, which also pointed to the simplicity and poverty of Jesus.

Clerics, too, could be identified by their garb. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, the cassock and collar were responses to clerical extravagance. In the 13th century many priests were dressing like knights, with bright colors and ornate embroidery, so a mandate was issued that the cope of a cleric would be simple, ankle length, and buttoned in front. Thus the cassock was born. In the 17th century clerics would cover beautifully decorated collars with a white band to prevent wear and tear. The ornate collars caused scandal and were eventually forbidden, but the white protective band remained and became the Roman collar. For clerics and religious, garb marked a person as a disciple of Christ.

The pastor at my first parish assignment was ordained in 1968, and he used to tell me stories over dinner of life before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council. In his seminary years the cassock was the dress code, and with the exception of recreation, the seminarian was expected to be in it. He resented having to put his cassock on to use the restroom in the middle of the night. I don't think he's worn a cassock since his seminary days, and I understand why.

The Second Vatican Council stated that the religious habit was an outward mark of consecration to God and that it should be simple, modest, and poor. The habit was to meet the requirements suited to the time and place and to the needs of the ministry involved, and, moreover, habits that did not conform to these norms were to be changed.

For women's orders, some needed no changes. Others simplified their garb; many modernized by sporting a simple veil, blouse, and skirt; and others opted to dress like the laity, as was the practice of their founder. Many of those orders that did away with religious garb argued they were following the gospel mandate of not bringing attention to oneself. They also hoped that abandoning the habit would lead to greater approachability and help the religious focus on the internal life rather than being distracted by externals.

The years immediately following a church council tend to be disorienting. The post-Vatican II years were no exception. In the '60s even Father Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was wearing a tie, if that gives any indication.

In a U.S. Catholic interview last year, Father Ronald Rolheiser, O.M.I. said, "I don't think wearing a collar in public converts anybody. A lot of people in my generation don't feel that public witness should be in anyone's face." Reflecting on all that Rolheiser's generation has gone through, such a reaction is predictable. But it has been more than 40 years since Vatican II. Now is the time for memories to be healed, purified, and reconciled, to move into the future with a fresh perspective. As Pope Benedict XVI said in his first homily as pope, "The church is alive and the church is young!"

Generation X and millennial Catholics have never experienced a pre-Vatican II church and don't carry around the baggage of the previous generation when dealing with the issue of religious garb. Habits and collars are not oppressive or clerical but courageous, especially in light of the sex-abuse scandal. The first time I ever wore my cassock at a youth gathering at my first parish, the young people thought I looked like Neo from The Matrix. Rigid seminary formation was the last thing on their minds.

A great blessing of Vatican II was a greater awareness of the importance of sign and symbol. Miniature baptistries have been replaced by large baptismal pools, the holy oils have been given a more prominent place in glass ambries, paschal candles are to fit the size of the church, and even the principal host consecrated at Mass is to be big enough so that all can see it.

If being a visible, sacramental, and incarnational church is so important, doesn't it follow that religious garb has an important contribution to make as well? Young people think so. (And so do the folks who create the annual poster promoting the religious retirement fund, which consistently depicts elderly sisters in religious garb.) Unfortunately, many religious communities miss this crucial point, and they are going extinct in part because of it.

Today's youth live in a culture that forces them to say something about who they are and what they believe. The tattoo and body-piercing craze gives perfect witness to this condition. It's even hard to find a young person wearing a T-shirt that doesn't have words, numbers, or images on it. This is why more Catholic youth are wearing crosses, medals, and devotional bracelets. It should come as no surprise that younger Catholics would rather see priests in clerics than clothes from J. Crew and would rather see sisters in habits than pantsuits with lapel pins.

They want priests and religious to be recognizable, just as police officers and firefighters are recognizable by their uniforms.

Now I'm not suggesting that every priest and religious must live in their religious garb, although I have great respect for those who do. I dress down when I am in the rectory, on my day away, as well as when I exercise, but I have never seen the need to change out of my clerics when I am engaged in an activity that isn't strictly pastoral.

I am never embarrassed to be recognized as a Roman Catholic priest. Sure, I have been persecuted at times because of my clothing, but the gospel tells us that such is to be expected. I can't begin to count the number of times I have heard Confessions, anointed the sick, or simply reminded someone that God is not dead precisely because I was wearing my clerics.

The John Paul II and Benedict XVI generations have been accused of wearing religious garb to bring attention to themselves. Unfortunately, in every way of life there are folks who love attention, honor, and power. For the majority of young Catholics, however, this simply isn't the case.

They desire to bring attention to Christ with their whole lives, including their wardrobe. These young people want to be part of something greater than themselves. And they are willing to give up their lives to do so. They want to imitate saints like Anthony, Francis, and Mother Teresa in their love of Jesus and service to the community-even in their dress.

So, in the spirit of the late Flannery O'Connor, the next time you see a young priest dressed in his Roman collar and you feel that he is shouting at you, or you judge a religious in her medieval habit to be a large startling figure, well, maybe that's the point. A thank you may be in order.

This article appearedin the May 2008 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 73, No. 5, page 30-35).