Franciscan Formation – Inspirations (Part 3)
“The friars are to wear the habit of the Order”.
At the beginning of these reflections, I will share a story with you from my own life. When I look back on my youth, full of diverse experiences and pursuits, I am reminded of times when I met religious men and women. Their religious habits always made a great impression on me. To me, they were a sign that there were still places in the world where people lived as though they were part of another dimension, people who were focused on being close to God.
We use signs all the time in daily life. They are part of how we communicate. They allow us to convey our thoughts or our will and, at the same time, understand someone else’s. Therefore, it is important to understand the current meaning of signs. Besides using them in our daily lives, we also use signs in our spiritual lives. God himself places signs before us and offers them to us in order to save us.
We use many different signs in our lives. Being so commonplace, signs may influence us on an unconscious level, or their meaning may shift for us. Some signs, however, are always fresh and their effect on us remains powerful. Others may become mundane and lose their strength. We also have a hierarchy of signs: some are more important to us than others. Like their meaning, the hierarchy of signs is also subject to change. What was important in the past may be less important today, and vice versa. Even the sign of the religious habit is subject to such patterns.
There is no doubt the religious habit is an expressive sign. Church documents emphasize that, “the [religious] habit is a sign of consecration, poverty and membership in a particular Religious family”. We are used to wearing the habit as an external sign, as if it were for others. This may be familiar to those of us who have gone hitchhiking. When we are on the side of the road, trying to get a car to stop for us, in many parts of the world, that task is made easier when we are dressed in the habit. Some people find they work more efficiently if they wear their habit in the workplace. Some say wearing the habit functions like a hook for catching fish, to use a fishing term. In this case, wearing the habit can bring real benefits. We wear the habit to carry out pastoral ministry, or to evangelize, or when we want show people who we are. We are well aware, however, that wearing the habit also has its down side. It can be awkward when it comes to taking part in certain activities. Some people have an adverse reaction to the habit and this can discourage them. There are also those who lack the proper understanding of what the habit means. In some circles, wearing the habit exposes us to ridicule or persecution..
However, it is worth remembering that above all else, our religious habit has an inner meaning: it is a sign for us. St. Francis of Assisi is our inspiration in this. Let’s remember the episode in his life when, after having heard the Gospel passage about sending forth the disciples, he made himself a tunic and belted it with a cord. The tunic showed the image of the cross so that he could be protected in his spiritual struggle, so that he would be more motivated to do penance and work on his conversion. He also made the tunic rough in order to help him maintain a simple and poor lifestyle.
If today we examine what the Church and the whole experience of Franciscan spirituality have to say about the religious habit, we would see that the habit is an external and an internal sign. When we wear the habit, we remind ourselves, and others, that we have consecrated our life to God and want to be united with Christ Crucified. It shows that we wish to be faithful to the Church and to the successor of St. Peter; that we commit ourselves to carrying out the mission to which the Lord calls us. It shows that we have decided to live according to the Gospel and that we do so through our vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. It shows we do penance, that we embrace the spiritual struggle and that we belong to the Franciscan community.
We know that in some congregations, not wearing the religious habit is a very complicated issue; you have to get permission from your superiors. Many consecrated persons cannot allow themselves to take a break, to go to the mountains or play sports in more informal clothing. There are also communities that have never worn a habit and thus lead a hidden life. We Franciscans have the gift of this sign of the habit and at the same time we have great freedom in using it. On one hand, it is worth remembering that “the beard does not make the philosopher, and the habit does not make the monk”; it is not the habit that makes us who we really are. On the other hand, we ourselves, and perhaps others even more, should see what I witnessed in my youth. In most cases, we decide for ourselves, if, where and when we wear the habit. Sometimes the wearing of the habit defines the lifestyle adopted in various communities. However, we may easily lose our way in this freedom. It is certainly not good to let the issue of wearing or not wearing the habit in our communities become a basis for judging and evaluating one another.
I remember how it was during my novitiate, how we all impatiently awaited being vested in the habit. What do I think of wearing the habit now? How, when and why do I wear it? Is there something I should change here? I invite you to conduct your own reflection on this topic.
Friar Piotr STANISŁAWCZYK
Delegate General for Formation
 Friars Minor Conventual, Constitutions, Rome 2019, art. 67 §2.
 Cf. Leon-Dufor X., Słownik teologii biblijnej, Poznań 1994, p. 1143.
 John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consecrata, Vatican City 1996, no. 25.
 Cf. Andrzej Derdziuk, OFM Cap., Szata świadectwa, Cracow 2003, pp. 23-26.
 Cf. 1 Cel 9: 22; FF 356.
 Cf. Adam Mączka, OFM Conv., “Habit Franciszka stanowił tunikę wyobrażającą krzyż” – studium historyczno-teologiczne na temat habitu franciszkańskiego, in “Nurcie Franciszkańskim” 26 (2019), pp. 14-25.