Sr. Jean and I have been doing vocation activities at our seven Ursuline high schools in the USA. We often invite students and teachers to ask questions about religious life, promising some answers in this blog. One teacher recently asked, “Why do y’all no longer wear the habit?” The topic has been addressed before by us, but I believe it deserves repeating.
It is very important that religious give clear witness to a life lived totally for God and for promoting the gospel values of Jesus. The signs of their commitment are both external and internal. One external sign is religious garb. In the past this meant that all sisters wore the habit, which derived from peasant dress worn by women many centuries ago. Today it is left to each congregation to follow the rules for dress outlined in their Church-approved constitutions. For some, this means wearing a traditional habit. For others, it means dressing simply in contemporary dress with a crucifix or symbol of their community.
We Ursulines of the Roman Union have norms for dress that vary according to the country in which we live. Our sisters in some of the countries where we serve wear a simple habit with veil; others of us–for example in England, USA, Mexico and Australia–do not. The Ursuline cross, worn by all of us around the world, unites us and makes us easily recognized.
There is room in our world for a diversity of religious congregations and their various types of dress. It is the life of the Sister—the way she serves, speaks, relates, prays, loves— that will be the clearest sign of her consecration to God, and no habit will cover up glaring weaknesses there. What matters most is not her dress but the joyful way she lives out her response to the God who calls her.