A new exhibition at The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Canada, focuses on the artistic contributions of the Sisters of St. Anne, who first arrived in the province from Quebec back in 1858, to the local community they served for over a century. While the show itself is a testament to the historic educational efforts of the sisters in this part of the world, sadly, over time this order began to fade away, falling from around 4,000 members at their height to less than 1/4 of that today. Perhaps in the focus on the art objects created by the sisters and their pupils during their time in British Columbia, one is missing how the sisters themselves visibly changed, and like many other religious orders likely hastened their own decline.
It is hard today for many younger people in the Western world to imagine what it was like when there were male and female religious everywhere. Working in places like schools and hospitals, they helped to make civilization not only possible, but expansive. They were an integral part of both urban and rural life, as they had been for centuries, a fixture on the landscape of Western civilization.
Of course, times have (sadly) changed. Just this past weekend on the most recent episode of the Catholic Weekend show, our guest described how surprised he was to meet a nun for the first time, as a convert from Evangelical Protestantism, and to learn that there were still religious orders around outside of what he had seen in films like “The Sound of Music”. The invisibility of the orders has led to the classic conundrum of: out of sight, out of mind.
There are many reasons why this happened, too many to cover in a single blog post. There was confusion and poor leadership after the Second Vatican Council, as well as a whole host of societal ills which came to be defined as “rights”, that led to a great deal of conflict both within and without the Church. Yet however unpopular it may be for me to say so, one cannot see it as purely coincidental that many of the orders which suffered the most precipitous declines during these years were the ones who decided to abandon the wearing of the religious habit.
The rejection of the more cumbersome habits of course was understandable, since some of them were rather outlandish indeed, to a degree. However not all of the orders were wearing headgear like “The Flying Nun”. For of course, in response to this tired argument from the “Me” generation, one could point to the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta. These women do not exactly work in safe and clean conditions, and yet manage to do so in a full-length white sari complete with headcovering.
Similarly, the Eastern Province of the Dominican Order here in the U.S. is bursting at the seams from new vocations, as they have been for several years now. Yet the friars go about everywhere in their traditional, medieval white habits, topped off by a black hooded cape on special occasions. These garments do not seem to be holding these orders back in any way from preaching, teaching, and serving people across the country. Thus, arguments of practicality are valid, to a very limited degree, but after a certain point one must call them purely a red herring.
In fact, in a number of instances it is regrettable to point out that when the abandoning of the habit – an outward, visual sign of religious vows – occurred, there was a concomitant putting aside of taking the vow of obedience seriously. Over time this led to such travesties as the “Nuns on a Bus”, and the at-best-heterodox Jesuits at my undergraduate alma mater. In the same way that the world of work became more casual in its attitude to what is appropriate for the office, or society became lackadaisical regarding what is appropriate for a church wedding or dinner in a good restaurant, there could not but be a reflection of this shift in the religious world. It has not all been for ill, but often it reflects a lack of respect for the very institutions which we claim with our lips to support.
The end result is that people are often surprised to encounter a brother or sister in a habit, or to learn that someone dressed in regular street clothes is, in fact, a member of religious order. The world simply assumes that these things died off in Catholicism, or that Catholics have grown so lax in their systems and practices that they are little more than secular humanists with a lingering guilt complex. In some cases the latter is unfortunately all too true, as I have heard and witnessed first-hand from a number of religious of a certain generation.
In pointing all of this out I am by no means suggesting that every religious who does not wear a habit is some sort of an apostate. However in deciding not to look like what they in fact are, those who eschew the habit often seem to forget that they are putting aside one of the most powerful tools that they possess for evangelization. The habit, it must be said, is not simply a garment, but rather a public sign of self-sacrifice on behalf of Christ and His Church. In donning it, the religious loses the outward individuality of material self-identification, as the world defines it, in order to become more fully the self they were created to be.
Human beings are creatures highly attuned to mental stimuli from imagery; objects like paintings, sculpture, and clothing can trigger a world of meanings for us. Part of the decline in the visibility of the religious orders led to the deterioration in their cultural relevance not just for Catholics, but to those outside of the Church. It is part and parcel with building churches that do not look like churches, or hiding the Tabernacle within those churches so that no one can see it. It is sometimes as if those making such decisions are a little embarrassed of being Catholic.
The truth is, to be a Catholic means to be a perennial contradiction to the times in which we live, even while we must live in the age in which God has seen fit to place us.
Therefore let us encourage those whom we see, on the street, on public transportation, etc., who continue to wear their religious habit with grace and humility. They go out into the world in ways which we lay Catholics usually do not, often performing tasks which we ourselves would not care to perform. Their visual reminder to the world that there is a greater good than mere finite materialism, is a type of evangelization which ought to receive greater encouragement from the rest of us.
Missionaries of Charity at work in Calcutta