In my childhood, I attended Catholic schools and wore the standard uniforms. Although at times I complained, in reality the uniforms were a blessing, since I didn’t have to compete with girls whose parents could afford pricier clothing.
And when we took the bus, our fellow travelers knew by our outfits that we were Catholics, which was quite a responsibility for girls like me, who were tempted to act a bit silly on public transportation.
In those same schools, there was no mistaking the women who had given up so much to follow Christ.
The St. Joseph Sisters at Immaculata High School in Miami wore long black skirts with wide white wimples that reminded me of a Communion wafer.
Many years later, I was thrilled to meet some of Mother Teresa’s sisters in Atlanta. At the Gift of Grace Home, where they minister to women with AIDS, the Missionaries of Charity wear simple white saris with a blue stripe in honor of Mary, along with veils.
I also met the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, who care for indigent cancer patients at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home in Atlanta. These ladies can be easily recognized by their long white robes and black veils, and don’t forget the rosary beads attached to their waist .
No matter where these sisters go, people know at a glance that they have given their hearts to the Lord. Their traditional habits are their calling cards.
Sadly, many religious sisters gave up wearing habits following the Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965. Many preferred the comfort of dressing in everyday garb rather than wimples and veils.
Still, it is surely telling that today when a nun makes an entrance in a movie, you can bet she’ll be wearing the traditional habit, complete with a veil. It seems many folks are confused by sisters in pantsuits and running shoes.
This makes sense because we respond emotionally to symbols. Think of all the military men and women in the airport, dressed in their uniforms, and how often a stranger will take one aside to say, “Thank you for serving.” To me, something inestimably precious is lost when religious folks abandon the clothing that has become synonymous in the eyes of the world with serving Jesus Christ.
In his recent book “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist, emphasizes that religious orders valuing traditional ways attract more novices and sustain heartier growth than orders that have become more secularized.
Tried-and-true ways include living in community, attending daily Mass, praying the Divine Office — and wearing religious habits.
This is good news indeed.
It seems that young women who are today drawn to vocations are eager to convey to the world exactly what they stand for — and whom they so dearly love.