The other week we had a meeting at the local Catholic hospital to discuss its Catholic identity. In the present climate when the Catholic haters are in full swing and “Catholic” for many people means “sour, sexually repressed, legalistic, ignorant, fundamentalist, misogynistic, homophobic, dangerous child abuser” we can use all the positive PR possible.
Our local Catholic hospital is not only top notch, but they are located in the heart of the financially and socially disadvantaged part of town. They’re doing a fantastic job ministering to the sick and needy, putting in place preventative health care and doing the work of Christ in the community. However, their public communications don’t mention Jesus Christ and don’t mention the Catholic Church at all. There are some sisters there, but they’re indistinguishable from any other kindly old lady who volunteers at a hospital.
The local Franciscans, on the other hand, who minister in the nearby parish, wear their habits every day. Their tireless work for the poor and their cheerful spirit is immediately associated with the fact that they are Franciscans and that they’re Catholic. The habit speaks.
I’m the first one to praise the work of our Catholic sisters across the nation. They are devoted to the poor, they still staff a good number of our schools, they’re committed to justice for the oppressed. I’m glad they’re out there and wouldn’t want to knock their good work, but why won’t they wear a recognizable habit? Their good work should be a billboard for the vitality and goodness of the Catholic faith. Sisters who do wear the habit (like our local Nashville Dominicans) say people love seeing them in their full habit. It’s great PR for the church and inspires people of all faiths.
I wear my clerical black shirt and collar, and I’m tempted now the cold weather’s arriving to start wearing my cassock again every day. It makes a statement. As a fellow priest said when he asked why he wears his cassock every day, “This way nobody mistakes me for a Methodist.” He has a point. Protestant clergy wear clerical collars, but the Catholic brothers and monks wear a habit. Maybe more priests should wear cassocks for the same reason. Maybe the sisters should wear veils again. It marks us out.
I’m cooking up this new character called Father Maximillian Fisher. He’s a true grit priest–a bit of a scoundrel and grump, but also faithful and true. Fr Max would growl, “I wear this cassock to be an easy target.”
With increasing hatred of the church maybe we ought to fly the flag a bit more and get back into the habit of getting back into the habit.