The Witness of Religious Habits and Cassocks

The devil hates the religious habit and the cassock.

For one day a year, some of the most faithful religious orders gather under one roof in the Midwest: Benedictines, Carmelites, Dominicans, Franciscans, Sisters of Life, and many more. Consisting of both male and female religious orders (though mostly sisters), these religious do not congregate to protest climate change, the death penalty, LGBTQ+ rights, or women priests. They have far more important work to do—like the salvation of souls. 

And so, every year, Franciscan University of Steubenville hosts an annual vocations fair in their Finnegan Fieldhouse. The sisters’ flowing habits, rosaries dangling from their side, and joyful smiles are present. One almost feels like you are in Heaven with so much joy, and rightly so. The religious habit communicates a bride of Christ’s commitment to Christ and His Church. 

Franciscan University does not discriminate against religious orders, so every year some less traditional orders venture into the fieldhouse, a group of four or five nuns without their habits. In this environment, these nuns will have difficulty attracting vocations. After all, little girls dream of wearing the traditional habit. 

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One story is worth telling. As I was entering the fieldhouse male locker room after working out (I was a graduate student at Franciscan at the time), one of the sisters without a habit began to venture into the women’s locker room. As she was about to enter the bathroom, an innocent freshman male student said somewhat frantically, “You are going in the wrong bathroom.” This college student could only see the back of the nun’s head, that is, her butch haircut and suit coat. In a deep, somewhat manly voice, the sister turned around and said, “That’s okay” as she proceeded into the bathroom. The freshman boy’s cheeks became red; he felt so embarrassed because he thought the sister was a man.

I reassured the young man that it was an accident and that God’s justice had allowed this humiliation. In reality, had sister worn a religious habit, this awkward exchange would have never occurred. This hearkens back to the Saturday Night Live skit revolving around the character “Pat,” whose sex is unidentified. Pat is a posterchild for those who claim to be “non-binary.” But you probably won’t see that skit anymore. 

As long as this sister and others like her continue to jettison their religious habits, they risk being confused as men. Furthermore, the lapel pin is not recognizable by everyone, nor the short haircut. 

What is recognizable is the traditional habit, especially one with a veil that covers a nun’s hair. Does not the habit resemble a wedding garment? Does it not show forth the splendor of the brides of Christ and who they are espoused to: Christ Himself? Just as a married man does not leave home without his wedding ring, so ought the brides of Christ not leave the convent without their habit. The habit is also a sign of hope, especially hope in the Resurrection. It literally points to Heaven, where we “shall neither marry nor be married; but be as the angels of God” (Matthew 22:30). 

The recent headlines of Sr. Wilhelmina’s incorrupt body and intact traditional Benedictine habit ought to cause every nun to pause and reflect. Here is a woman who loved and fought for the traditional habit. How fitting that God also preserved her habit.  

The devil hates the religious habit and the cassock. The blasphemous LGBTQ+ group, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, would not attack such a holy habit if it didn’t mean anything. You don’t see these impostors wearing lapel pins. No, the devil knows the power of the habit. 

Sadly, several religious orders, including male orders, rarely wear their habits for all their prayer times. Many also refrain from wearing their habit or cassock in public. It is almost as if they are “embarrassed to belong to Christ.” Let all religious heed these words from Our Lord, “For he that shall be ashamed of me, and of my words, in this adulterous and sinful generation: the Son of man also will be ashamed of him, when he shall come in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).

Sadly, many of us, myself included, spent years in Catholic schools without seeing a nun in a traditional habit. For the first nine years of my Catholic education, I was deprived of a sister’s beautiful habit. Instead, I was taught by “undercover nuns” with short gray hair and suit coats. And we wonder why vocations to consecrated life continue to plummet each year compared to before the Second Vatican Council. Young girls do not want to walk around a labyrinth, worshiping mother earth in secular clothes. No, they want to be conformed to Christ Crucified, adoring their Eucharistic Lord all the days of their lives in a traditional religious habit.  Sadly, many of us, myself included, spent years in Catholic schools without seeing a nun in a traditional habit. Tweet This

This leads me to my final story, concerning a priest friend’s encounter with Pope Benedict XVI. As my friend (a seminarian at the time) was studying in Rome, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once visited his seminary. Seeing my friend in his cassock, Cardinal Ratzinger declared in his striking German accent, “I see you must be a good seminarian. You are wearing the cassock.” For those pursuing the priesthood and for those who are ordained, the black cassock symbolizes poverty and death. And thus, wearing the cassock is a constant reminder to them that they must no longer live for themselves but die daily for their bride, the Church, like Christ. 

It is true that the habit and cassock are an external sign, while virtue is the most important “habit.” But at the same time, our actions and outward appearances flow from our interior dispositions. 

To belong to Christ is a choice that involves everything, including one’s garb. Just as we become what we eat, so we also become what we wear or don’t wear: either brides of Christ or brides of the world, or for The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, brides of Satan. For those nuns who wear the traditional habit and belong to Christ, there is no mistaking their identity and who they are espoused to: Jesus Himself. And it is one of the key reasons why vocations are bursting at the seams for religious orders like the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles…thanks to Sister Wilhelmina. 


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