The title of this post would seem more appropriate for some type of joke but, truth be told, it's a reflection of my evening last night. There is a seminary here at Saint Meinrad and there is an on-campus bar called the Un-Stable. After compline last night, one of the Dominican priests who is here making a retreat invited me to join him and his Dominican brother for a drink. Never one to pass up an opportunity for fellowship, or a beer, I gladly accepted.
I really enjoyed the evening. I even remarked to them that, were I not a Jesuit, I would want to be a member of the English Dominicans. Not that I have anything at all against the American Dominicans, but I have a certain penchant for the thinking of the British members of the Order of Preachers, men such as Fergus Kerr, Timothy Radcliffe, Brian Davies, Gareth Moore, James Alison, and Herbert McCabe. I also think their habits are pretty cool, too, although I'm afraid that my intrinsic clumsiness would render the white habit many other shades due to spills.
One segment of our conversation last night has remained with me: why do the Jesuits lack a distinctive habit? I wear clerical attire every day in the class (well, almost every day: if there is a spirit day, I am glad to wear jeans and a polo shirt) and basically any time I function in a capacity related to the school or the Society. When I go out to dinner with friends, I wear normal clothes. When I go for a run, I wear running gear (now, if Under Armor put out a clerical running shirt, I might reconsider). For all intents and purposes, though, I wear black each day.
As I have prayed this week, I have been struck by the distinctiveness of the dress both of the Benedictines and the Dominicans who are here on retreat. "Why," I have asked myself, "do we Jesuits not have such a 'look' as they do?" Sometimes I find that wearing a clerical shirt is confusing to parents and to students alike, many of whom don't quite grasp the stages of Jesuit formation. Would it not be easier, I have often wondered, if there were something else we could wear? Would it be so bad to back to the cassock, at least in the classroom?
Now, let me be clear: I do not make this suggestion out of some bizzarre nostalgia for a Church I don't even remember. Some people seem to think that if we went back to wearing cassocks and praying in Latin that we'd return to the golden era of American Catholicism. I disagree wholeheartedly: I think clerical culture is pretty well toxic and that we are currently reaping what those years of clerical elitism sowed.
Rather, I am beginning to think that wearing a cassock might be more of an expedient to ministry. When I see a brown robe, I think "Franciscan" and I run to hide my potted fern before it gets hugged. When I see a white robe with a rosary, I think "Dominican" and I conceal the fact that I have Albigensian leanings. When I see French cuffs and perfectly coiffed hair, I think Legionary of Christ. When I see a black habit with a belt, I know better than to have my favorite incense out because the Benedictines seem able to incense anyone and anything. But how can I tell if I'm in a room with a Jesuit? Sadly, it's sometimes pretty hard if we are wearing just a Roman collar...we sort of blend in with our diocesan brothers.
I suspect some people have strong feelings about this, and I'd love to hear from them. I'm particularly committed in any way, but I am growing in an awareness that we Jesuits need to be more visible. There are probably any number of ways this can happen but, perhaps, it would be good to recognize the power of public witness and of standing out in some way...to my mind, the distinctive garb of a Jesuit cassock might be one step in that direction, one way of reminding people who we are so that we can share with them what we are about: the Kingdom of God.
Truthfully, I'd appreciate any comments on this topic, either for or against the donning of cassocks. I post this more as an invitation to help me think through the issue and I'm grateful for any assistance in this endeavor. Father James Martin has a piece on it over at America Magazine's Blog if you want to check it out.