I joined the Sisters of St Joseph in the sixties, along with forty nine others in my year. And yes, I wore the ‘old’ full habit for a short period – and loved wearing it! Some years later when our uniform had changed to a simple brown dress with veil, my young nieces and nephews were trawling through some old photos. One of them found a picture of me as a young novice and asked if that is what I looked like when I was a nun! I felt disinclined to confuse them entirely by telling them that I never really was a nun and that even though my outward appearance had changed radically, that I was actually still a ‘Religious Sister’. Now that they are adults with children of their own they still introduce me to their friends as their aunt, the nun!
Attention to language does really matter. Vatican officials know that, otherwise they would not be meticulously pondering every word and phrase of the latest English translation of the Roman Missal. Technically, a ‘nun’ is a woman who has publicly pronounced solemn vows in the church while a ‘religious sister’ takes simple vows. While I and most ‘religious women’ belong to the second category, more often than not we will be referred to as ‘nuns’, and society, or the church for that matter, rarely makes the distinction. Then there is the question of titles. When I introduce myself, I rarely prefix it with the title ‘Sister,’ although I never disguise the fact that I am a religious.
Do we need to use the language of the past or dress like the ‘nuns’ of old to maintain our Catholic identity as religious? Some would argue that ‘if only the Sisters looked like Sisters and lived in convents, they would gain more respect and women would again join them as of old!’ I would argue the opposite. I believe we need to earn respect by the witness of our lives. Many of us no longer have a distinctive dress but we do dress distinctively – simply and suitably according to our current ministry; and all of us wear the distinctive badges of our community and most a ring that symbolises our commitment. True, we no longer call them mother superiors, but we do still have leaders. These women are elected by us after prayer and discernment, hold the vision of our congregation and assist us to follow our rule faithfully. Few of us live in large convents anymore. Our place of living is determined by our ministry and we are always accountable to one another as community even though many of us might now live alone. But then is that so different from the original daughters of Mary MacKillop who lived in twos in the outback, wore a simple dress and inhabited shanties similar to their neighbours?
The religious habit was a simple dress of the day. But over time fashions changed and the religious dress did not, so it took on an ‘other worldly’ feel that people interpreted in various ways. Vatican II asked religious to review their rule of life and return to the radical spirit of their founders. If the careful and prayerful reinterpretations of the original intentions of our congregations have made us appear less distinguished in dress from our sisters and brothers then there might be a good reason for this change. The habit had become so strange and ethereal that it was a barrier to genuine interaction with others, and therefore a barrier to effective Christian discipleship.
Do religious women need to look different from the rest of society? Perhaps there is a need if we live in Asia where a uniform is a strong sign of belonging. But in Australia we are much less formal. We are more likely to dress to identify ourselves with a sporting team rather than at any other time. While in other societies place much emphasis on class and social stratus, our nation is more egalitarian. People rarely use titles – even prime ministers are addressed by their first names.
In the present time our church is besieged by many scandals and excessively preoccupied with internal politics. As a result it is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the society it serves. Surely it is more important for religious to be distinguished by a strong prophetic voice that speaks out on behalf of refugees, the homeless and any other of societies’ powerless, rather than by the way we dress or where we live. What was it that Jesus said about those who are preoccupied with externals? Is it not by the fruit of our labours as genuine disciples of Christ that we will be remembered?
Carmel Pilcher is a Sister of St Joseph based in Sydney.
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