Saturday, August 14, 2010

Poor religious and the religious poor...

Original Habit of St. Francis of Assisi.

"Suppose there should come into your assembly a poor man in shabby clothes..." - James 2
One of the most shocking things to the friends and relatives of St. Francis of Assisi as it concerned his  conversion was his dramatic divestment of clothing before the Bishop of Assisi and the townsfolk who gathered to witness the father's case against his errant son.  As most people know, Francis removed all of his clothing, renouncing the world and his familial inheritance.  The Bishop covered him with his cloak and later clothed him in the garb of a pilgrim, or penitent.  (The original tunic is shown in the photo above.)
The original habit of the Franciscans and Poor Clares consisted of the poorest material - exactly what the poor and the peasant of the day would wear, albeit designed after the habit of the pilgrim and monastic.  The poor wore what amounted to little better than rags in some cases.  The ordinary folk wore the meanest garments, the fabric rough and course - hence the religious habit of the mendicants reflected that poverty.
Later Teresa of Avila went to great lengths laying down the regulations concerning the Discalced Carmelite habit, requiring it to be poor fabric, not extravagantly made - in other words, short cowls, tighter tunics and shorter sleeves, etc.  Likewise subsequent reforms of the Franciscan order focused upon genuine poverty of dress.  As the history of religious life demonstrates, decline and relaxation of religious observance has often been marked by refinement of religious garb and lodging. 
Contemporaneous reforms of the Franciscans have also specified frugality in clothing and life style, thus we have seen the adaptation of denim, normally associated with the work and everyday clothing of ordinary people, being used for the habits of several new foundations of Franciscans.  Interestingly enough, I know of a diocesan group of friars who changed their habit from the less attractive denim to a dressier, darker grey-heather fabric, similar to men's suiting, adding a scapular and pulled together by a white cord.  All nice and neat and respectable looking...  Their apostolate seems to have evolved into a more polished, professional organization these days as well.  Secure in a nice convent, the brothers impress me as being very much like the older institutionalized branches of the Franciscans.  The irony of which is not easily missed, since I believe this group, not unlike many similar ventures elsewhere, were founded to be a more authentic expression of primitive observance and evangelical poverty.  I digress however.

St. Clare's Habit.
My point is that eventually the concern for outward appearance and conventional clothing can infect religious life just as much as it does secular life.  I think some of the few groups who have not yet mitigated their observance of poverty would be the Missionaries of Charity and The Franciscans of the Immaculate, as well as a few other communities, not to forget the very 'little ones' of course.  (I know for sure the Missionaries of Charity do not have suits or dress up clothes, nor do they wear western, secular clothes under their habit - I never got that with other groups BTW.)  This may be good news for the poorly dressed individuals, including those who wear denim to Mass.
Others may disagree with me on this, but I think there are far more important matters to be concerned with while in church or at Mass than what other people are wearing.  Immodest clothing is another matter all together and ought to be addressed by the priest.
Remember, the mendicants and monastics dressed poorly, imitating the poor Christ while "associating themselves with the lowly" or poor - their clothing was made of the same fabric as the poor they professed to belong to.  So when you see a man dressed poorly in church, maybe he really is poor.  He's obviously religious if he is in church. 
Photo credit.


  1. OMG, Terry..did you ever "hit" upon a "sore point" with me.
    Sometimes I am so embarrassed by our "scuffy" looking's probably a "throwback" to my childhood, when I was expected to be looking "spiffy"...well polished shoes, starched shirt with tie, suitcoat and pressed pants...
    and sometimes I feel like I (we) look like something that has been tossed into the corner, wrinkled, frumpy and just gross...
    Good examen for me, here...
    I do try, I really do, to remember that we are poor...that our habit represents the "Kingdom of God" and our "Holy Mother Church" and that to belong to Jesus in our solemn vow of poverty (which we do make in our Constitutions as monastics...owning absolutely nothing for ourselves)...
    But I do struggle.
    Thank you for this reminder to thank Jesus for this wondrous gift He has given to us, as monastic religious, and that it's okay to look "frumpy" Mum would hate it, but, okay, she's not the ultimate judge here, yeah?

  2. And, as an aside, I saw St. Clare's habit in Assisi...
    the whole experience there was overwhelming...I can't really express it...but I was given a special "grace" there, both at her Basilica and at St. Francis' to accept the mission to "found" something; an experience I really did not experience before; to not be afraid anymore, to be what the Lord is asking me to be...a frightening thing in and of itself...I do not trust myself; but I am trusting Him more and more; I pray with the Rosary I received at Assisi...on the sixth and seventh decades I pray for the Holy Souls and the Holy Father.
    Ss. Francis and Clare's gift to me, I believe.

  3. Have I understood correctly that the original habit of St. Francis has been preserved? Where is it? Whose in charge of its safekeeping? I get GOOSE BUMPS.

  4. michael r.6:44 AM

    Yes, where is the habit of Francis? I have never heard of this, though I have seen Clare's.

  5. Austringer9:08 AM

    Great post. Terry,

    It's amazing that we have St. Francis' and St. Clare's tunics! Wow!

    One distinction I would make: there's a difference between being dressed casually and being dressed poorly: one is a choice, the other is not.

    I generally don't pay much attention to others in Mass, let alone what they are wearing -- my attention is elsewhere, and even though I find and fight distraction all the time, it's usually not resting on my fellow parishioners. It does become noticeable, though, when we go to different parishes where a different dress code -- casual -- prevails.

  6. paula9:19 AM

    titled: clothing the heart

  7. Anonymous9:52 AM

    The problem isn't with some wearing denim to Mass. It is the idea of wearing one's very best to honour God and to celebrate the Eucharist, like we wear our best to a wedding to celebrate the marriage and to honour the bride and groom.
    After all, God puts his very best on the altar for us!

    If one is very poor or lives a vow of poverty, and the very best that she has is denim, then fine. She is then dressing in her best.

    It isn't the fabric, it is the intent that matters.

    Of course, modesty is always to be desired.

  8. I totally agree with you, Terry. Although perhaps there is a difference between poor people coming to Mass in the only clothes they have and well-to-do, upper middle class people coming to Mass in sloppy clothes because they don't give a damn. In the poorest neighborhoods in Baltimore, it is common to see people dressed in their best on Sunday mornings, no jeans or t-shirts in sight.

  9. Francis's and Clare's habits are in assisi at the Basilica of santa Chiara. Another tunic of St. Francis is at a Franciscan shrine in Cortona - I think there are other clothing relics at Rivo Torto and Our Lady of the Angels and the Sacro Convento in Assisi as well - I can't remember.

  10. Father - I had you and Sr. Petra in mind when I mentioned groups that have not modified their habits. You're good. :)

  11. Count Dencula and Elena, I know what you mean, thanks.

  12. I believe when St Teresa of Avila proceeded to reform the Carmelite order--one of the main concerns especially among the nuns was that you had rich young noblewomen who spent "time" in the monastery awaiting to be married..they brought with them their fine clothing, jewelry and lace and fancy embroidery, along with maids and attendants. St Teresa wanted her nuns to put aside the fine clothes and have plain "poor" habits, poor as lacking in decoration, lace and embroidery, and not made of fine fabric.

    Although I do remember reading one of her writings where she did acknowledge the noblewomen and their skill with the needle in producing finely embroidered altar linens...

    I was impressed attending the Carmelite Congress this past June on how well the Carmelite friers were "put together," so to speak--habits nicely pressed, especially the hoods looking "just so", shoes or sandals in good repair, belts and rosaries in good repair, good shaves and haircuts, and those with beards were nicely trimmed and well-kept. Made a really good impression without being "overboard", also didn't look like a bunch of unwashed hippies either.. their habits were "poor" meaning "plain", but looked very nice.


  13. Well, our original medieval habit which I wear when going out - doesn't make me scuffy or shabby. And also people expect us to be spiffy while wearing the habit. Life is full of contradictions.

  14. It is Brother - I didn't mean this to offend anyone - just to make a point on "proletariat" apparel.

  15. Anonymous9:43 AM

    I once knew a diocesan priest who'd been a Franciscan. He said, "I never lived so well as I did when I was a Franciscan."


  16. What a magnificent blog! Thank you!

    Pace e bene!


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