Secrets of the Habit – A Fascinating Video and Reflection on the Wearing of the Habit

The video at the bottom of this post is a fascinating little exploration of the traditional habit of Religious Sisters. The video does not make it clear as  to what Order the Habit belonged. There are many things I learned about a habit I never knew. Things like hidden “saddle bag” pockets, opening crucifixes, symbolism in the pleats, and the purpose of the outer veil. I hope you’ll take time an view a fascinating video.

Sadly,  the sister who recounts the hidden and beautiful secrets of the habit does not herself wear one any longer. The abandonment of the habit by many orders has always puzzled me. Recent Popes have requested that priests and religious wear their distinctive garb. Further, I think any survey of the people of God would indicate an overwhelming preference that priests and religious wear a distinctive garb or habit. Lastly, from the standpoint of vocations it would seem that any order that has set aside the habit is doomed to eventual extinction. It is clear that the orders that preserve the wearing of the habit along with common life, common prayer, and a focused apostolate are doing better, some quite well, with vocations.  Orders that have set aside the habit are largely dying out. It is not the habit alone, I am sure, but the habit (or lack thereof) does signify something important about the health of the religious community.

What is the purpose of a religious habit? Religious life is not hidden, neither is it occasional. To enter the priesthood or religious life is to publicly accept the consecration of one’s whole self to the service of God and neighbor. That is why the most traditional religious garb covers the whole body. It is more than a tee-shirt, a hat or an emblem of some sort. It is a covering of the whole body to indicate the entirety of the consecration.

Further, each habit is distinctive since each religious community has a particular charism or gift by which they collectively serve the Church. Religious and priests do not merely consecrate themselves for their own agenda. Rather they join others with a similar and proven charisms in communities recognized by the Church.

The word “habit” also suggests that religious life and priesthood are not an occasional activity, or even a 9 to 5 job. The are the habitual identity and life of the one who receives the call. That is also why the habit is usually worn at all times.

The widespread disappearance of clerical garb and religious habits back in the 1970s was a disturbing trend. Many religious and priests no longer saw themselves as set apart, as distinctive. Many wanted to blend in and also lost a sense of the charism of their order. Many also preferred anonymity since it made them less busy and they no longer had to live as “public” people. However, many newer orders have emerged which once again wear the habit faithfully. Further, many older orders either never wholly abandoned it or have re-emphasized its importance. This is praiseworthy. If you are a lay person, encourage priests and religious as you see them about bearing witness to the their consecration by the way they dress and reminding others of God and the Kingdom of God.

In my own parish we have 25 sisters in the convent. The order is the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara. An order founded in Argentina in the 1980s but now worldwide and growing dramatically. They wear a long blue and gray habit with a long veil (see photo, upper right). They make for quite a beautiful vision of the kingdom as they walk through the neighborhood praying the rosary!

Here is a site which shows photos of the traditional habits of women’s religious orders:

Enjoy this video of the secrets of the habit:

30 Replies to “Secrets of the Habit – A Fascinating Video and Reflection on the Wearing of the Habit”

  1. “The abandonment of the habit by many orders has always puzzled me.”

    Me too. I always knew that a nuns and brothers and priests were safe people to go to back in India. Although Christians are a minority there (1%) they do great works taking care of the poor and sick. I was quite surprised to discover that we had a Sister in our Church. Sometimes I wonder how anybody on the street would ever know to go to her if they needed her. There is nothing to distinguish her from the ordinary people.

    I enjoyed the video … very interesting.

  2. Never underestimate the influence on a young child of seeing a sister in a habit on a regular basis. It preaches Christ to them without saying a word.

    And never underestimate the effect of seeing a sister or priest who refuses dress like one, or who even forego using the name “Sister” or “Father.” If I didn’t know that “Prof. Richard McBrien” was a priest, you certainly wouldn’t know it by how he presents himself (or by the things he says and writes).

  3. They are Sisters of St Joseph of Carondelet. Their website at says: Our Ministries

    We initiate and participate in community organizations and are advocates for peace, justice and systemic change. We are social and parish workers, counselors, educators, pastoral ministers, chaplains, spiritual directors, administrators, bereavement specialists, nurses, authors, environmentalists, artists, musicians, etc.

  4. My mistake…they are the Sisters of St. Joseph. Carondelet was one of the towns they had a community in.

  5. St. Benedicts Hospital here in Ogden, Utah, used to have an Order of Sisters who could be seen in their brown Habits, and big Rosarys. Now in the same hospital, renamed as the Ogden Regional, the ‘sisters’ still work at the hospital but incognito wearing scrubs and other hospital clothing. One nurse who was talking to my wife after a surgery claimed to be a ‘Nun’ from the local Monastary. Who would have known. At a funeral viewing last year a lady dressed in civilian clothes led us in saying the Rosary, she wore civilian clothes, but claimed to be from the local Monastary. Last year I saw our Priest from St. Mary’s Chruch downtown dressed in a tee-shirt. I was going to approach him to say ‘Hello,’ but realized he did not want to be recongized as “Father.”

    I believe that one reason the ‘Nuns’ at the hospital no longer wear the identifying religious sack cloth, is fear of offending people in the secular world (I thought prejudice stopped at the operating table). In the case of the Father being incognito, I would like to think he was simply trying to assimilate into the world, otherwise, he would have drawn both good and bad attention to himself where he was simply out conducting his personal business. The only Nun my family sees is Mother Angelica, and the Nuns on EWTN. If I see a Nun in person dressed in her habit, I will kiss her hand in public, then again, maybe that is what they are trying to avoid.

    1. The habit, the veil, the collar, etc. all say “Jesus” to a world desparately in need of hearing Him.

      To me, this all comes tenuously close to Matthew 10:32-33 — “Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.”

      1. I love that verse–and it applies to all of us not just the religious. I wish more religious followed it by donning their habits. I get many requests for donations from various religious orders–I never donate to orders that wear no habit, nor to my school that dropped it long ago.
        My nephew is a Franciscan who wears a grey habit. When he comes to visit his habit makes a statement of who he serves without saying a word. It is an impressive sight and makes people think, children love it. I deeply respect all religious that are not ashamed to be seen in the habit. God bless them–and yes those orders will flourish, not our free spirited, feminist, social worker communities that have abandoned this beautiful sign.

    1. Yes, they are moving into our neighborhood soon! My mother prior to her death, worked with the Nashville Dominicans, another solid and growing by leaps and bounds branch of the Dominicans

  6. Bender said-
    “Never underestimate the influence on a young child of seeing a sister in a habit on a regular basis. It preaches Christ to them without saying a word.”

    So true!! Listen the video above, and sure enough the good sister tells a story where merely seeing the sisters in their habit, caused a young aspirant to follow them to their convent. …. all without saying a word.

    Priests can learn from this too. Wear your cassock in public. It is a powerful evangelizing tool.

  7. When I was in the Marine Corp. I loved to wear my uniform because I believed in its mission and I believed it was a force for good in the world. How much more so to be part of the Church Militant. If you are a priest or religious… be proud to be that public sign of Christ by your dress. Especially now when you are most despised and yet needed.

  8. I’m not sure if anyone has mentioned this ..but isn’t it ironic that “Sister Elizabeth” TALKS about the habit…but wouldn’t it be a better witness to just WEAR IT?????????? It’s sad that she talks in the past tense…….

  9. Hey Grandpa Tom – all this time and I never knew you were a fellow Utahn! 🙂

    Monsignor, if I may say so, it makes me very uncomfortable that the priests in my parish, right up to the current one, refuse to wear not only their blacks, but also their collars. It’s especially uncomfortable when I have business with them that takes place in public.

    And not only is it uncomfortable, there is also a sense of reverence that is wanting. It’s easy to feel like he is just another man, as opposed to a man of God who is supposed to be looking out for my soul while I am in his charge.

    Don’t even get me started on nuns. But let me say this – I grew up near Benedictine nuns and always loved to see them in their habits. Many of today’s nuns have simply traded the wonderful habits for a ‘new’ habit consisting of a dress or skirt covered with a while blazer, usually with a little religious lapel pin. Same thing with them – hard to really give them the deference and respect due to them when they look like everyone else.

  10. Confessor: “Bless me,Father..for I have sinned,”
    Priest: “What is your sin,my son?”
    Confessor: “I kissed a nun,Father,”
    Priest: “Well,one kiss is no sin,my son…just don’t get in the habit”

  11. By the way, LOVE this blog. Thank you for taking the time to write it! It’s one of my “regulars” 🙂

  12. Msgr. Pope, I love your blog but I actually had to write in about this one. I know many people complain about the fact that many religious are not in their habits but I have heard from a vowed religous that the people that wish members of these communities to go back to the ideals and habits of their founders need to be careful what they wish for. Many orders changed their habits out of necessity, for example the Daughters of Charity taking on a distinctive look more resembling traditional Indian garb. Others changed them due to the Vatican’s wish that many religious orders supliment the diocesan clergy and start taking on parishes. As this person said, if you want religious Order members to re-embrace the ideals of their founders (including the habits) that may also have repercussions like Franciscan priests leaving middle/upper class parishes, schools, etc. for the original Franciscan calling of serving primarily the poor and marginalized. Several religious Orders (or just members of their Orders) have started to re-embrace the ideals of their founders, but there can be side-effects that may hurt your average parishoner.

  13. I appreciate that you brought this topic up. I agree 100%–Our last Pope told the nuns to put their habits back on–but the feminist ones refuse to this day. At least they show us who they serve and we know what their thinking will be. The “nun” at the abortion clinic encouraging women to enter, the “nun” that went against the bishops and supported Obamacare– neither wears a habit. On Sunday in my class I encouraged the students to start wearing their Faith like a badge–say your blessing at resturants, make the sign of the cross, wear a religious medal, don’t eat meat on Fridays, tell them you are Catholic–use these freedoms and symbols before they are taken away by this pagan world. Practice them while we still have them and remember that in many parts of the world we cannot do this. I believe that the nuns in Mexico were not allowed to wear habits, and I don’t know if that is still the case.

  14. How ironic, the orders that still wear habits are growing in numbers. The ones that abolished their habits seem to be shrinking and losing new members to more traditional communities. I agree, in a world that is looking for Christ, a person in a habit is an oasis for help, without trying to guess if this individual is a religious or not.

  15. Religious life was always meant to be counter-cultural. A slow errosion of identity that was distinct from the values of the world has left religious communities of men AND women dwindling. History will judge it accurately but right now many of the non-habited Sisters cannot admit that they have lost something very vital to their lives. The lack of public witness and the erosion of the common life has simply allowed the gradual decline of the membership and most cannot see that they also bear a responsibility as to why some of this has happened.
    They are good women and they have played a vital role in the church – but only those who are willing to boldly witness to a life different from the rest of us – will survive. And some priests are no different. In our parish no priest ever wears his collar and most never want to be called “Father” The new pastor came and wore his clerics and asked to be addressed as “Father”. Some people were angry and thought he was setting himself up as “superior” to everyone else. But now we have our first vocation too the seminary from this parish – is there a connection? I think so! Be who you are supposed to be inside and out!

  16. A woman had a problem on the subway and a police officer escorted her home for her safety. When they arrived at her home, he commented on the fact that it was a convent. She said that she was a nun and he said, “Well, aren’t you glad that I wore my uniform today.”

    Even ushers in a movie theater wear a vest or something that lets you know that you can go to them for assistance. I never understood why nuns are so anxious to “hide their light under a bushel basket.”

  17. religious liife is certainly not what it was when I was growing up as a catholic school boy, nuns wore habits, priests wore collars & cassocks, laity always dressed for sunday mass. The reason these women religous orders have shrunk is because many who were nuns did not like the idea of dressing in street clothes, the pastor of my church comes to say mass wearing a TShip and khaikais, the congregration looks like they are going to a picnic. The noise in the church before mass is ridiculous, sounds more like a bingo hall. The entire church needs to be readjusted, you can’t tell the clergy from the laity. I also note that the priests today do not have the reverence the priests had when I was an altar boy.

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