Is There a Vocation to the Single Life? I Think Not and Here’s Why

There are some today who think that the Church should give greater recognition to the “call” to the single life. And therefore when we pray for  vocations to the priesthood, religious life, and marriage in the Prayer of the Faithful (or at other times) some will say, “Why don’t you ever pray for those called to the single life or mention the vocation to the single life?” Here in the blog, too, when I write about vocations there are usually some who comment and ask why I do not mention the vocation to the single life.

The answer is that I don’t think there is a call (or vocation) to the single life per se. I can see how we might speak of a single person who commits to being a lay missionary as having a call, whether permanent or temporary. Perhaps, too, a person who stays single in order to be wholly dedicated to a work of charity or justice could be said to have a vocation, again either permanent or temporary. However, in these cases the vocation is the work itself, not the single state.

Simply being single does not seem to qualify for what we have traditionally termed vocations. Consider first some basic differences.

1. Those who marry as well as those who enter religious life or the priesthood make promises and vows. What promises and vows do those who are single make? To whom? For what purpose? Unless they become consecrated virgins or hermits, do singles make such vows and promises? No.

2. Those who marry as well as those who enter religious life or the priesthood commit to live the life they enter stably, i.e., consistently. They do not make their promises only until something better comes along, or until something changes. Can this be said of the single? Are they not single only until something better comes along? Until they meet someone whom they will marry? Are singles really bound to live their current status stably? No.

3. Those who marry as well as those who enter religious life or the priesthood are not permitted to date others or enter into romantic and particular relationships with others. Priests and religious are celibate and the married are chaste and faithful to their spouse. Single people can date and enter into and out of romantic (though chaste) relationships at will. Are singles in a permanent and exclusive relationship? No.

4. Those who marry as well as those who enter religious life or the priesthood enter into a communal relationship, whether in a religious community, a diocese, or a third order. The single may belong to a parish, live in a certain locale, or even belong to a group like Opus Dei. But they are free to move away or cease membership at a moment’s notice if an attractive job offer comes along or some family commitment or just preference intervenes. Are singles really tied by lasting bonds to a community? No.

5. Those who marry as well as those who enter religious life or the priesthood (especially religious) live within a regula (rule), which lays out the required structure of their day, regulates relationships, and clarifies rights, duties, lines of authority, etc. What sort of “rule” do those in the single “vocation” follow? If they follow a structured life at all, is it given to them by others, or do they establish it for themselves? Are they perpetually bound or only for as long as they please? Even married people cannot date or relate to anyone they wish; they cannot simply decide to go on a tour of Europe without consulting their spouse and considering their family duties. Are the single really bound in these ways? No.

6. Those who marry as well as those who enter religious life or the priesthood are either under the authority of or answer to others. Spouses must be accountable to each other; priests and religious are answerable to their superiors and cannot simply do as they please or go where they want. Is this the case with those who are single? Do they answer or report to anyone on this earth? No.

So there are a lot of practical differences that rather strongly distinguish being single from being in a promised (or vowed), permanent, regulated state under authority. It is true that some live today as consecrated virgins or hermits. But here, too, they are under the authority of the bishop and make permanent or semi-permanent promises of some sort in a way that single people do not.

Then there is the more theological reason called the nuptial meaning of the body. The nuptial meaning of the body is that within its physical structure is inscribed the truth that we are made for others. Our body says, “I was made for a spouse of the opposite sex to complete me and render me fertile.” Speaking of a human being as single, and certainly speaking of there being a call to be “single,” would tend to violate this understanding of the human person.

And thus, even for celibate priests and religious, we cannot consider ourselves “single.” While we do not express the nuptial meaning of our bodies through sexual intercourse, we do wed and maintain a spousal relationship with the Church. Religious women are Brides of Christ. Religious men and priests see the Church as our Bride. We do not live apart from our spouse, the Church (understood as the Bride of Christ or the Body of Christ). We live for the other (the Church) and are expected to remain faithful and fulfill our commitments and be accountable to her. This would also be true for some in the Church who are consecrated virgins or hermits.

There are some religious communities that do not take perpetual vows, but only yearly ones. However, this is more for canonical reasons; those who take yearly vows understand their vows to be ultimately perpetual and they maintain that notion spiritually if not juridically.

I do not see any of these structures or notions in the “single” life as such. It is true that some never marry, for a variety of reasons including same-sex attraction, not finding the “right person,” physical or mental health issues, etc. Perhaps in such cases single people of this sort who doubt they will ever marry can undertake some work or enter some relationship with the Church that is both regulated, of some extended duration, and involves work for others. But it would be the work or the consecrated virginity that would be honored as a vocation, not the single state itself.

Thus, for these reasons and tradition, I do not think we can or should speak of the single life as a vocation in the sense that we normally use that word with regard to the priesthood and the religious life.

Why is this request to include the single life as a vocation common today? First, there are a lot of people who are single today. While I do not think this bespeaks a healthy culture, it is a fact, and there is some legitimate concern as to how to include such a large group in our prayers and our pastoral concern.

Second, though, I wonder if this isn’t another example of the tendency today toward “identity politics.” Many today in our culture want their lived experience and views to receive recognition and approval from the wider culture. And if such recognition (and at least tacit approval) is found lacking, offense is taken and pressure is exerted for the “granting body” to give this recognition and approval.

This second aspect may explain why some (though not all) I have met get rather angry when I don’t simply agree that there is a call (vocation) to the single life.

Of course I am not the final word on this matter in the Church. But it seems to me that words have meaning and we ought not simply cede to the pressure to use words so widely that they no longer have their stricter—and I would argue proper—meaning.

So have at this topic. I would appreciate comments not being directed to me, but rather to the issue and the reasons I have put forth. Feel free to agree or disagree with the overall point or to particular points I have made. If you disagree, consider saying why and what principles you think should apply.

As these videos show, the single life presents many challenges and often summons many to heroic sacrifice as our culture becomes increasingly hostile. All of us, single, married, priest, or religious are summoned to the call of martyrdom, spiritual or physical.

A Brief Meditation on”Other Duties as Assigned.”

121813-PopeI think all of us who embark on a certain career path, or status or vocation have a certain file in our life called “other duties as assigned.” Priests, and especially pastors are no exception. Since most of us live on site, there are many custodial duties that often find their way into our “other duties as assigned” file.

Often for example since we do live on site, (I affectionately refer to it as “living above the store”) we are the failsafe when keys are forgotten and doors must be opened. So it’s 6:00 AM, and the youth group is off to an early morning bus trip. But three of the kids and two adults must get into the school to use the bathroom.  “Well just call Father, and have him come down and unlock the building!”  So that goes into the “other duties as assigned file” and is  subfiled under “keeper the keys,” “opener of the doors,” and “the failsafe.”

The Picture at the upper right is me in 2005 in the parish play, “Purlie Victorius” where I played the part of “Old Captain Cotchipee”  Filed under “other duties as assigned.”

This weekend, I realized how much I miss our maintenance man, who recently had a stroke. And though we have some part-time help, recent snows meant that the leaves went unraked out front.   So there I was, before the next snow comes raking the leaves cassock  and all. Neighbors walking by wistfully asked,  “Msgr., don’t you have anyone else to help you with that?” “Ah!,” said I, “A little exercise is good for the soul and the body!” And I filed it under “other duties as assigned.”

But perhaps one of the wildest examples of other duties as assigned happened this weekend also, in the middle of our main Mass. Just at the end of the homily, terrible sounds began coming out of the basement boiler room. I knew it once what was happening. The bearings on the flywheel of the blower have come loose recently, and parts for the old mechanism have been ordered. But meantime, the friction burns up the grease,and the screeching sound signals that the flange is eating itself up, send sparks out and all. Not good, I thought.

It may or may not surprise you to know that pastors, especially those with older churches are skilled  boiler mechanics! Usually it results from living above the store and being the one on-site when the boiler does bad stuff. For some reason, boilers like to act up at 2:00 AM in the morning. And so we learn a lot the hard way, on the phone to the HVAC people: “OK Father, it sounds like the pneumatic system, so reset the compressor and tell me if that helps….Alright Father, try bleeding down the boiler to blow the sludge…its the valve on the right….etc” Along the way, we just learn a lot by osmosis and probably know just enough to be dangerous.

So there I was, at mid Mass, and the prayers of the faithful have just concluded. The Church is already growing cold and the grinding sounds are worse.  A quick word to the nearest choir member: “Sing some extra verses!”  and off I dash down the back stairs to the basement, vestments and all, grabbing the grease gun from the tool room as I go!

The blower housing and coil are the size of a truck trailer and it took a moment for the vacuum seal to let loose. But then, in I went. Now that’s a sight! Inside the blower housing, greasing the flywheel and motor, in full vestments, which are swaying in the wind from the fan still slowly turning at the back of the unit.

Back out, seal the door, fire up the unit! She ought to be good now, at least for the next few hours, “Hang in there baby!” Up the steps, tripping as I go, into the sanctuary, the cross and candles are just now leading the bearers of bread and wine up the aisle. “Thank you Jesus!…right on time!” The MC whispered, “Msgr. we were worried, thought we’d lost you.” “No concerns,” I said, “Just, other duties as assigned.”

Ah yes, we all have them, those things never appeared in the job description and will never go on our resumé or curriculum vitae, but there they are, other duties as assigned.

The Lord says, He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much (Lk 16:11). Please Lord, keep faithful in the lesser things, the unexpected things, so that one day I may be found worthy of the greater things too.  Help me never to begrudge “other duties as assigned.”

Somehow I am mindful that the Lord also had “other duties as assigned.” One of the most touching and moving scenes in the Gospels is on a certain resurrection morning, at the lakeside in Galilee. Peter is eagerly swimming ashore to see the Risen Lord. And there is Jesus, the very Son of God and Lord of all, cooking breakfast for them (Jn 21:7). Yes, Jesus Christ, Eternal Son of the Father, Divine Logos, Universal King, Savior of the Nations, and breakfast chef….”Other duties as assigned.”

Welcome to 1950! A Surprising Statistic About the Number of Priests per parish

It is a common notion that the number of priests has plummeted in this country. Many speak of the halcyon days when there were four and five priests per parish, and the seminaries were packed. And while some of these memories are accurate, they are drawn from a time in this country that was very brief.

The fact is, the number of priests per parish spiked sharply after 1950 and has now leveled back to the levels of 1950 and before.

Note the graph at the upper right from the Center for Research in the Apostolate (CARA). It depicts the number of priests per parish. In 1950 there was an average of one priest per parish. Last year there was an average of one priest per parish. Welcome to 1950.

Mark Gray, writing at the CARA blog says:

There was about one active diocesan priest per parish then as there is now. The late 1950s into the 1970s represent an exceptional period in American history when there were significantly more active diocesan priests available than there were parishes. Age and mortality has and continues to diminish the size of the diocesan clergy population. Although ordinations have remained stable for decades, these are not sufficient to make up for the number of priests lost each year to retirement or death. [1]

Frankly, even in the glory days, America did not produce the number of priests we need to fill our needs. Back in the 1950s through the 1970s a tremendous number of FBI (foreign born Irish) priests were enlisted to meet American needs. My own diocese had a large number of them brought in, beginning in the 1950s.

Many ethnic groups in the Urban North also brought large numbers of priests to serve them from overseas. Today there are many dioceses that rely on Nigeria and other booming Catholic countries to supply extra priests.

It is true, most American Seminaries were bursting at the seams especially after World War II. But that boom would seem to be as short as it was impressive. Here on the East Coast, Roland Park in Baltimore and St. Charles Borromeo in Philadelphia had more than 500 seminarians in mammoth buildings that looked like Versailles as you drove up.

But as the graph shows, the spike was sudden and has settled back to the more common US experience of about one priest per parish. Again, according to the CARA study:

Nearly one in five U.S. parishes do not have a resident priest pastor. Seven in ten have a diocesan priest serving in this capacity and religious priests serve as resident pastors in 11% of parishes. In 17% of parishes a priest is serving as a non-resident pastor…in 2.5% of all parishes, due to a shortage of priests, a deacon or lay person is entrusted with the pastoral care of a parish…[who]….must still do their best to arrange for priests to be available for Masses and other sacraments.

Priests cannot be in two places at once and there are only so many hours in a Sunday. We have a good understanding of how many parishes there are in the United States and how many priests are available. The map below (click for full size) shows the number of active diocesan priests subtracted from number of parishes in each diocese…. In 60% of dioceses, those marked in yellow and red, there is no surplus of diocesan priests active in ministry relative to the number of parishes in the diocese. The green areas on the map have more active diocesan priests than parishes. [2]

There is more that can be read at the CARA blog that analyzes these numbers more deeply. But data like this reminds us that our knowledge of history is at time inaccurate since it is based on a rather narrow sliver of our own experience. That the Catholic Church in America grew enormously in the first half of the 20th century is indisputable. This was due to large waves of immigrants from Catholic Countries in Europe that were in one crisis after another. But even at the center point of that remarkable period of Catholic growth, the number of priests per parish was not so high as we remember, and even after it spiked (nearly doubled) between 1950 and 1960, it did not last, and a long leveling back to our current numbers has restored us to the mid century mark.

And yet, 1950, would be a year most Catholics think of being a high water mark. It was not, at least in terms of the number of priests per parish. Yes, welcome to 1950.

Of Vocations and Victory: Some Good Reasons to Take Heart That the Lord is Blessing His Church

043013While some dioceses in the US have been closing and consolidating seminaries, here in Washington DC we recently opened a new one: The Blessed John Paul II Seminary. And things are going so well, we are now adding a new three-floor wing to accommodate more men. (See a wonderful video below on the Seminary)

Currently 30 men are in formation at Blessed John Paul II. Altogether Washington has just over 70 men studying for the priesthood.

This new seminary is unique in that it enrolls men who are still in college, or need to do pre-theology studies, prior to undertaking post-Graduate Theology studies. It was the concern of Cardinal Wuerl that in the years prior to entering Major Seminary and theological studies it was important to form the men and let them live in community in the Washington area where they will serve in future years.

Back in 2005 we also opened a Missionary Seminary for thirty seminarians of this Archdiocese in the Neocatechumenal Way to study. We also send men to the North American College in Rome, Mount St. Marys Seminary in Emmitsburg MD, Theological College in Washington, and Blessed John XXIII in Boston.

The Lord is turning out some very good men. I remain impressed with the caliber, devotion and orthodoxy of the men who are in our seminaries. I recently preached a retreat for 30 of them at Blessed John Paul II here in DC. I also work with them in both summer assignments here in the parish and have at least three at a time working here throughout the academic year. They are prayerful and intelligent men who have a heart for the Church, and a love and reverence for God.

Internationally the number of seminarians has increased an astonishing 86.3% since 1978. in 2010 there 118,990 seminarians worldwide, whereas in 1978 there were just  63,882 major seminarians. All this according to the Annuario Pontificio

U.S. Catholic seminary enrollment in theology this past year year (2012) is the highest in almost a quarter-century, according to the  Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). Last year’s total of 3,723 is the highest enrollment since the 3,788 reported for 1988-89.

The average rate of retention for seminarians entering theology to being ordained has remained  consistent at about 75 percent.

Younger trend –Slightly more than a quarter of today’s major seminarians are 35 or older, and more than half are under 30, representing a possibly significant shift back toward youth after a couple of decades in which newly ordained priests tended to be much older.

So, there is a lot to be grateful for. It is true we must work harder, and there is much about which to be sober. The reported growth in seminarians does not match what we need to fill the gaps. Ordinations are still only about a third of the number that are needed to compensate for those priests who are retiring, or dying.

Yet still we have more than bottomed out and are now heading in the right direction. Continue to pray for many vocations.

Great Laity too – Pray too for continued reform and zeal among the lay faithful. So many good signs exist there too, I meet so many dedicated and zealous laity every day. A growing remnant of clergy and laity are getting clearer and more focused, day by day.

Take this to heart, beloved readers. I think it is easy for us to get discouraged today and we see so much confusion and decay in our culture. But God is raising up a faithful remnant. He is purifying the Church in so may ways, with good vocations, but also many wonderful lay movements and Catholics in fire for the Lord.

Yes, He has been pruning his Church, to be sure, and our overall numbers at Mass may continue to go down for a while. But pruning has a purpose, and the Church that remains may be overall smaller, but she is going to need to be strong to endure and overcome the days that get ever darker. Like Gideon’s army that was too large, God is thinning but purifying his ranks. A smaller but clearer army that is united will win the day.

Like Noah’s Ark! It may take time but it is clear that God is preparing, pruning and purifying the Church for something very great. It may well be that the Church will once again have to be a kind of Noah’s ark which will preserve the vestiges of life from a dying culture, only to replant them when the flood waters subside. And thus, the Lord is strengthening the Ark, the Barque of Peter. In the Words of an old spiritual: Get on board Children, there’s room for many-a-more.

Yes! Take heart and be of good courage. Jesus says, In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world. (Jn 16:33)

Here’s a video of our newest Seminary at which we are needing to add a new wing to accommodate “many-a-more.”

The Priest as Soldier in the Army of the Lord

Back in the early 1980s I was in college, majoring in computer science, and dating a beautiful young woman. An older priest, Msgr. Curlin told me that he thought I was called to be a priest. I was puzzled as to how to react. No one had ever said this to me before. So I asked him if he’d like to meet my girlfriend. He was unfazed and told me stories of other men, now priests, who had said the same. In some ways he spoke like a military recruiter: “The Church needs good men, Chuck. God needs good, strong men.”

I was surprised to hear a priest speak this way. I was born in 1961 but came of age in the Church of the 1970s. It was a time of crossless Christianity. Crosses had literally been removed from my parish church and replaced by a “resurrection Jesus.” Notions of sacrifice and fighting against sin had largely been replaced by a kind of “God is Love, self-acceptance” emphasis. Not wrong, but wholly emphasized. It was a time of “beige Catholicism” which demanded little and saw its main task to be as non-offensive as possible.

As a young man, none of this appealed much to me. I think most young men are “up for a battle.” They want to change the world, or at least make a key difference. Now suddenly a priest was summoning me to manhood and to something sacrificial, something that would take a “strong” man. And my services were needed, God and the Church depended on men like me saying yes. Imagine that!

I didn’t say yes that day. I continued to date and worked toward finishing my Computer Science Degree. But I had heard a summons to a great battle, the ancient battle between Christ and our adversary the Devil. And the call grew. For various reasons my steady girl and I broke up. Saddened though I was, I saw an opened door before me and the call quickened. I walked through and began a process of discernment with the Archdiocese that led to my Ordination to the Priesthood in 1989.

I suppose there are many ways of seeing my priesthood. But one powerful way is that I see myself as a soldier in the army of the Lord. The battle today is fierce. We live in a world increasingly hostile to our holy faith and the teachings of the Church. And the call must go out as never before: The Church needs good men to be priests, strong and courageous. Men who will speak the truth in love, clearly and without compromise and celebrate the sacraments with devotion and faith. Men who know that the eternal salvation of many is dependent on them being zealous priests after God’s own heart. Men who by the grace of God are willing to fight for souls in the battle that matters most.

So there it is men. The Lord is looking for good men to engage the great battle for souls. And there’s an old saying, “If you find a good fight…get in it!”

Vocations for Men: Fr. Carter Griffin 301-853-4580

Here’s a video I stitched together with scenes from Fishers of Men and set to Lyle Lovett’s “I’m A Soldier in the Army of the Lord”

What’s a Woman to Do in a Culture Gone Mad? Perhaps "Good Girls DC" has an Idea

We have discussed at length on this blog the sad state of our culture, particularly when it comes to questions of dating, sexuality, faith and marriage.

For example, huge numbers of Americans, are postponing marriage, or never marrying at all. A recent article in Our Sunday Visitor presents stunning statistics about marriage:

The number of marriages celebrated in the Church has fallen from 415,487 in 1972 to 168,400 in 2010 — a decrease of nearly 60 percent — while the U.S. Catholic population has increased by almost 17 million. To put this another way, this is a shift from 8.6 marriages per 1,000 U.S. Catholics in 1972 to 2.6 marriages per 1,000 Catholics in 2010…

[In this Catholics reflect the general social trend]. In 2010, 53 percent of Catholics surveyed in the General Social Survey (GSS) indicated that they were currently married. By comparison, 51 percent of non-Catholics surveyed were married. [But this an astonishing drop from 1972 when 79% of Catholics were married. Among younger adults 18-40 the number is even more shocking: Only 38% are married]!

Some of [the low numbers]  can be explained by Catholics waiting longer to marry, but the shift here has been slight. In 1972, the average age at first marriage reported in the GSS for Catholics ages 18 to 40 was 20.9. In 2006 (the last time this question was asked), it was 23.9.

Thus, the decline in Church marriages is more about not marrying at all than marrying older. [Our Sunday Visitor 6/26/2011]

Of course, despite this, most younger adults are quite sexually active. And the lack of marriage, and promiscuous sexual activity is a very poisonous environment for you people. There is no need to here recite all the terrible statistics of STDs, abortion, teenage pregnancy, single motherhood (absent fatherhood), cohabitation, poverty, broken hearts, broken homes, and children raised in less than ideal situations, with often terrible conflicts they have to grow up in.

And in these promiscuous conditions, and conditions of low marriage rates, women suffer a lot more than men, since (fair or not) the consequences of the sexual revolution have fallen much harder on them. Too often men “play the field” with few social consequences, while women end up used and abused, often pregnant and with little support. Many end up unmarried with children to raise or, tragically, haunted by the aftermath of abortions.

One may ask, “In this poisonous climate, what is a woman to do?” It is easy to say that women, who usually set the limits and boundaries in a relationship, should just be chaste. But the expectations on women to be unchaste are very strong. Further women are not a monolith and there are many different points of view among them as to questions of sexuality, family, priorities, careers, faith, and any number of other issues. Women who do seek to remain chaste and also to live an active Catholic life face many challenges in doing so.

So again the question, in a culture gone mad and dysfunctional, “What is a woman to do?”

One answer is given by a new group here in Washington DC called “Good Girls DC.” These women, most of them college graduates, most of them single, but some married, have gathered to support and encourage one another in living their Catholic faith in a world often poisonous to it. At their website, their vision is stated as follows:

We are a network of trendy young adult Catholic women who welcome all woman of faith. We seek to renew society through living out our dignity as daughters of God. We aim to create a place where like minded women can find fellowship, friends, and networking opportunities while encouraging each other to live up to their God-given potential.

The group sponsors luncheons, rosary and holy hours, book clubs, and other social functions in which women gather to give each other support in living their Catholic faith and to not give way to the often poisonous social culture of today. They also sponsor co-ed events that encourage Catholics and others of like mind to meet. Their website and Facebook page feature encouraging articles, of many topics focused on faith, uplifting stories, significant events, and helpful links. In the video box below is a Radio interview with Jessica Lanza, the founder of Good Girls DC that supplies a lot more information.

In effect, what are these women doing? They are, by God’s grace, forming a faithful remnant and seeking to become a leaven in society; or, if you will, a spark that will ignite a refining fire. This is, most often, how God reforms his Church and the world. It usually begins with small groups of the faithful, the spark God ignites. And fanned by the Spirit of God’s love, the spark becomes a fire, a refining fire that begins a purifying process in the Church and the world.

Something tells me that Good Girls DC is a spark of God and He wants to fan it into flame. Why not become part of it? While the group is for women only, Men to ought to form similar groups. (Here in DC I am aware of the St. Lawrence Society, a men’s group with a similar purpose). And men ought to support groups like Good Girls DC and encourage women to join. There is a hope that other chapters will begin soon in other cites.

We all need to be strong in a culture gone mad. To use a gloss on a scriptural text we might say Woe to the solitary woman! For if she should fall, she has no one to lift her up. (cf Ecclesiastes 4:10). The same scripture also says, Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. (Ecc 4:12).  Here are strong women, unwilling to compromise with the madness of modern times. Here are women who are standing together and insisting on what is right. Here are women who seek others of like mind. Here are women who seek their vocation, whether to marriage or religious life and want to seek it untainted by the often bitter waters of modern culture.

To remain chaste, faithful and focused, we need as Catholics to support and encourage one another. Thank God for Good Girls DC.

What is a woman to do? Find other women and stand together, grow in numbers and through this spark, let God send a purifying fire upon the Church and the whole earth.

Photo above: A recent gathering of some members of Good Girls DC.

Here’s an interview with founder Jessica Lanza on the Sonrise Morning Show:

Secrets 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.

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

If this post seems familiar, it is, I have re-posted it from about a year ago since I had no time to write a blog for today. I also suppose some newer readers may have missed it.

Enjoy this video of the secrets of the habit:

On The Power of Personal Witness in the Priestly Proclamation

I was at a meeting of the Seminary Council  today for one of our diocesan seminaries. It is the Redemptoris Mater Seminary of the Neocatechumenal Way that is currently training almost thirty of our Washington men for priestly Ministry.  Four men are currently stepping forward for Holy Orders this Spring and they each spoke to the Council, seeking our prayers and recommendation to the Cardinal.

They are all fine men. But what most impressed me is that, when they were asked to tell us a little something about themselves, they went beyond the mere, date of birth, country of origin, basic course of studies, sort of answer. Rather, they each gave personal testimony of how the Lord has both ministered to them and transformed them. These men were witnesses of the Lord and his power.

Each of them spoke of how the Lord rescued them from various afflictions, family and personal struggles, and agnostic and/or ambivalent tendencies. They spoke of how the Lord called them and made a way for them, how He has transformed their lives.

I told each of them how important it is for them to share this personal witness with the people they serve. They really did not need for me to say this, since the Neocatechumenal Way has personal witness and testimony as an important hallmark of their formation and liturgical experience.

I too have discovered the importance of the priest bearing personal witness to the gospel in his preaching, teaching and daily life. I have discovered that our people need, and are hungry for, those of us who preach to move beyond mere slogans, information and abstract homilies, to a personal witness of the truth. We cannot simply proclaim the truth, we have to know, to experience that it is true. We have to be first hand witnesses and to be able to say how we have personally experienced the power of of the Cross of Jesus Christ to put sin to death and bring newness of life to us.

St. Paul wrote, If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). The danger for a bishop, priest or deacon who preaches, is that we just quote the Scripture more as a slogan or handy phrase. But what is supposed to happen is that the preacher is able to say:

Yes, if anyone is in Christ he IS a new creation, and I can personally say to you, my people, that this is true not only because it is in the Bible, but because it is happening in my life. I, am a new creation. I am seeing my life changed and transformed by the cross of Jesus Christ. Through the sacraments, his Word, prayer and the ministry of the Church, Jesus Christ is setting me free from sin and every negative thing in my life. He is breaking the chains of the things which held me in bondage. He is giving me a new mind, and new heart. I love people I never thought I could love! I am more chaste than I ever thought possible.  Serenity and joy are replacing fear and depression. I am more and more a man of hope, confidence and courage. Yes, I AM a new creation. What the Lord says is true, and I am a witness. I’m not what I want to be, but I’m not what I used to be. A wonderful change has come over me.

I am convinced that many Catholics long to hear their clergy speak with conviction and like men who have actually met Jesus Christ. Of course, before they speak  such things, they  actually have to be true.

I am glad that the men who testified today have actually met Jesus Christ and experienced his power. They have something to say because something real has happened to them. And herein lies the necessity not only for clergy, but for parents and all Christians who are called to evangelize. It is absolutely critical that we personally know the Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of his Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. It is essential that, in the laboratory of our own lives, we have tested the Word of God and found it to be true. And from these experiences we can preach, speak and witness with authority.

We preach with authority only if we have met the “Author” and felt his power to transform our lives. Otherwise we risk giving information, but without the conviction or personal witness that helps people to transformation. We can say all the right an orthodox things, but then comes the ultimate question: “That’s all very nice, but how do I know it is true?” And the preacher, the teacher the parent, the catechist, the evangelizer, has got to be able to say in response, “Look at me….I promise you it is true because it is happening in my life. I promise you in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ that a completely new life is available to you, and I am a first hand witness of it.”

Of course to be able to say all this requires that it is actually happening. That’s why it is so important for the priest, parent and any Church leader to tend to their own spiritual life. To study the Word of God and see its truth in the laboratory of their own life, to consider well the evidence and gather their own testimony.

Fulton Sheen once remarked something to the effect that we have tried every other way to evangelize and grow the Church: seminars, workshops, committees, new  music, liturgical creativity. All to little avail. But one thing only has not been tried: holiness. Yes, authentic transformation that comes, only when we finally take the Lord up on his offer, and take his word seriously that we are, and can become, a new creation.

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. St. Paul couldn’t look this up and quote it like a slogan. He had to write it. And before he wrote it he actually experienced it. So when Paul says this, its not a slogan, it is a surety, it is an experienced truth.

This is what the Church needs, humble but strong preachers who have confirmed the Word of God in their own life. Men who can boast, not of what they have done, but what the Lord has done for them through the power of his cross to put sin to death and bring grace alive.  And from experience comes authority, for they have met the Author of their salvation.

Thanks be to God for these men at the seminary today, and for their witness, their testimony, their “boasting” in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (cf Gal 6:14).

Photo Above right is of Redemptoris Mater Seminary, Wash. DC and was taken by me

This Songs says, You Should be Witness…..Why don’t you testify? Don’t be afraid to be a witness for the Lord….Stand up and be a witness!