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The Cowl Doesn’t Make the Monk

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Image: Wikipedia

Habits and Clergy Garb

Q: Who decreed that all clergy and the majority of the many orders of brothers and sisters must wear black? I can understand how there might be a practical reason, but it seems unfair to take the stand that clothing makes the religious better people because they wear a certain habit or a priest more holy because he wears black every minute.

Is it not true that in their beginnings most religious leaders wore the contemporary clothing of their day? Then why is it wrong to wear (modesty and good taste being observed, of course) contemporary clothing?

A: I speak here of home and street clothing, not liturgical vestments. According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, special clerical dress outside of church did not exist much before the sixth century. Special clothing seemed to evolve because clergy drew from philosophers and ascetics and they already had distinctive clothing.

Even then, centuries passed without any definite regulations. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) merely urged dress conformable to the cleric’s order and propriety. Nothing was specified in regard to color. Apparently, black did not take over until the 17th century.

Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590) ordered the cassock for sacred and public functions. In the United States the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884) determined that clerics were to wear the Roman collar and cassock at home and in the church.

Outside, the Roman collar and a coat of black or somber color reaching to the knees were to be worn. J.A. Shields, in this New Catholic Encyclopedia account, says this prescription was never formally revoked, but it has always been interpreted to mean clerics should conform to the style of conservative laymen.

The present Code of Canon Law (promulgated in 1983) simply says clerics are to wear suitable ecclesiastical garb in accord with the norms issued by the conference of bishops and in accord with legitimate local custom (#284).

In The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary, John E. Lynch, C.S.P., informs us that on January 27, 1976, the prefect of the Sacred Congregation for Bishops recognized that it is proper for clergy and religious to wear clothing suitable to the occupations in which they are engaged, for example, recreation.

Lynch also states, “It would certainly be within the spirit of the law in the United States today to limit the use of clerical attire to situations in which the cleric is on duty, actually functioning as a cleric, or attending formal gatherings in the diocese. He could, for example, wear sport clothes while traveling or attending class.”

In many instances religious habits and dress reflect the common clothing of people in the founder’s time. The current Code of Canon Law rules, “Religious are to wear the habit of the institute made according to the norm of proper law as a sign of their consecration and as a testimony of poverty” (#669). Each order’s constitution or rule approved by Rome will describe that order’s habit.

In 1972 a letter from the Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes said secular clothes are permitted when wearing a habit would impede the normal activities of the religious.

There are, of course, good reasons that can be offered for clerical and religious garb. But you are correct that, though religious dress may identify the wearer as a priest or religious, it isn’t clothing that confers virtue and holiness. If I remember my Shakespeare correctly, he says in Measure for Measure, “Cucullus non facit monachum” (“The cowl doesn’t make the monk”).

Is the Candy Cane a Religious Symbol?

Q: Last year I went into a restaurant during Christmastime, and on a wall next to the Christmas tree was a story written about the candy cane’s red and white stripes. To the best of my memory, I think I read something about the red signifying the blood of Christ and the white signifying the tears of Mary. Can you provide a story about the candy cane and its colors?

A: In “surfing the Net,” the Wise Man’s assistant found two versions of the candy cane’s origin.

According to one legend, the choirmaster of the Cologne Cathedral gave his young singers sugar sticks in 1670 to keep them quiet during a long creche ceremony. He bent them in the shape of shepherds’ crooks.

The same source says that in 1847 a German-Swedish immigrant named August Imgard decorated a small tree in Wooster, Ohio, with candy canes.

Another Web site explains that an Indiana candymaker wanted to make a Christmas witness. He began with a stick of pure white hard candy to symbolize the virgin birth and sinless character of Jesus. Hard candy symbolized the Church’s rock foundation. Upright, the staff-like shape represented Jesus the Good Shepherd. Upside down, the cane became the letter J for “Jesus.”

The candymaker added one broad red stripe and three narrow ones. The broad stripe calls to mind the blood of Jesus that was shed on the cross. The narrow ones represent the stripes of his scourging.

Peppermint, like hyssop, belongs to the mint family. It reminds us of the hyssop used in the Old Testament for purification and sacrifice.

Still another Web site attributes the present-day candy cane to one Bob McCormick in the 1920’s.

Was St. Nicholas Real?

Q: I’m doing a study on the Feast of St. Nicholas. Books say Nicholas died in 342 A.D., but they don’t say when he became a saint. They also say that, while many miracles were performed, they were not recognized by the Catholic Church and he was dropped from the Roman liturgical calendar in 1969. Why?

A: St. Nicholas of Myra lived and acquired his reputation for sanctity long before the Church began its formal process of beatification. He became recognized as a saint by a kind of popular acceptance.

Historians and hagiographers generally write that much of what is said about Nicholas is legend. Again, remember that at Nicholas’s time there were no investigation and authentication of claimed miracles before canonization took place. Attributing miracles and wonders to a person was an ancient way of expressing people’s conviction about the holiness of the person.

You will still find Nicholas listed in the various dictionaries of saints, for example, Dictionary of Saints, by John Delaney (Doubleday). And you will still find Nicholas listed in the Roman Calendar on December 6. There he is assigned an optional memorial. In other words, churches and communities on that day may choose to celebrate either the liturgy in honor of St. Nicholas or the liturgy for a weekday in Advent.

The December volume of the new 12-volume set of Butler’s Lives of the Saints has not been published yet, but when it is, I’m sure you will want to consult it.

Can We Hope?

Q: I am an elderly widow concerned about the fate of a friend’s son. Raised as a Catholic, he divorced and remarried—twice. After his divorce he had little contact with the Church.

Recently he had need of bypass surgery and died on the table. No priest was called before or after the surgery. The whole situation left me unsettled and somewhat at a loss concerning what to say to my friend.

What is your take on situations where Catholics drop their faith and die without receiving the sacraments? Can you say anything to ease my mind?

A: Three things came to mind as I read your letter. One was a scene in Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh. An elderly family member lies dying. He has lived a life without God for many years. But just before he dies, he is seen making the Sign of the Cross.

Waugh’s point is, of course, we must never give up on the mercy and grace of God. We do not know what God does in the last moments of a person’s life. We should trust and go on praying for those near and dear to us.

The second was a story about St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, which I have previously mentioned in this column. A friend had consulted him about a dear one who had jumped off a bridge and committed suicide. The curé responded that between the bridge and the water God overtook the man.

As a young priest, I too was called to a suicide scene. It was clear the woman had changed her mind after cutting her wrists and throat. She was sprawled outside the kitchen doorway after crawling for help—too late for help but not for grace and forgiveness.

My point is simply that we must not despair. God is wonderfully good and merciful. With hope and love we can place those who seem removed from God in his caring hands.

To Concerned in Pittsburgh: I’ve written about the Sunday Mass obligation many times. Send me a self-addressed, stamped envelope and I’ll send you copies of those columns. In the meantime, did you think you were committing a grave sin when you missed Mass? If so, you need to go to Confession. If you do not believe you were guilty of grave sin, you need not confess it.