Sister Carmel Pilcher RSJ has a reflection in today’s Cathblog about the changes in the last 40 years or so in the title and address for religious sisters. She helpfully points out the distinction between “nun” and “religious sister” (rather like the distinction between a “monk” and a “friar”):
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.
She is quite right on the distinction, of course; and while I respect her own decision not to introduce herself as “Sister”, my own recommendation would be that we continue to show our respect and affection for all women in religious life (whether “nuns” or “religious”) by retaining the title that goes with their state in life (that goes for addressing priests too, by the way).
She goes on to discuss the matter of how “nuns” and “religious sisters” dress nowadays:
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.
Need it be “either/or”, though, Sister? The one need not be played off against the other. I was recently contacted by a Muslim young lady who wanted to meet “nuns who dress like Mary MacKillop”, as she was interested in what the full habit had to say about modesty (noting the similarity to the mode of dress of some Muslim women). The only options in Australia were to refer her to the Domincan nuns at Ganmain and Dominicans of St Cecilia.
Sister Carmel writes:
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.
Is she right about Australians? Right and wrong, I think. It is true that we are “less formal” in Australia, but the relgious habit is not really a matter of formality; it is more a matter of the second characteristic she notes, a matter of “what team” you belong to. And in Australia today, dressing to reflect belonging is as evident and as important as ever. How we dress also says a lot about our character. If you dress as I do, you are probably trying to emphasise your individuality. If, on the other hand, an aspect of your essential identity is your belonging to a particular group (eg. a religious order), then it is quite appropriate for the way you dress to reflect that.
Sister Carmel argues that “the religious habit was a simple dress of the day”, which is true. (I have always said that if I ever started a religious order, I would institute a rule saying that all their clothes must be bought from Op Shops – again, just as I currently do!) But the habit also had the purpose of clearly identifying to which order the sister or brother belonged, and of “levelling” all members of the order by the fact that they dressed alike. Simply wearing “simple” modern clothes does not exactly serve the same purpose.
Sister Carmel completes her column by saying:
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?
Well, yes, of course this is “more important”, but that doesn’t mean that the matters of “externals” are not important also (even if to a much lesser degree). Jesus was wont to speak in hyperbole about matters of importance (“For what is more important? That you enter heaven with one hand or with both hands are cast into hell?”) Again, it is the confusion that it has to be “either/or”. Is it just possible that the “strong prophetic voice” might be heard a little clearer if it is backed up not only with the “clear witness” of a distinctive mode of dress?