The distinctive external symbol of Franciscans friars is the iconic brown habit – the tunic, hood and white cord with three knots. When someone sees someone in the habit, they know immediately that that person is a Franciscan friar.
After the Second Vatican Council, many orders and congregations – particularly the women’s ones – modified or abandoned their habits. The religious who continued with a traditional habit were generally seen as more conservative and against the reforms of the council. The more liberal religious minimized or dropped the use of a habit to more closely identify with secular people.
When I joined the friars twenty years ago, the habit stilled played that role. If one saw a friar wearing his habit – particularly a habit with a Franciscan Crown (rosary) attached to his cord – they could be pretty certain that the friar was a conservative one. The more liberal friars rarely wore their habits and even attended formal events in coat and tie. I even know one friar who no longer owns a habit!
After the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, many left religious life. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were as many as 1,100 friars in my province. When I entered as a postulant close to the end of the last century, there were almost 500; today there are 291 of us.
All the Friars shall wear coarse garments, and they may mend them with sacking and other pieces of cloth, with the blessings of God.
Since I entered the order, I have heard an almost constant refrain from the older friars about how we’re shrinking, how we’re getting older, how we have to close parishes as the numbers fall.
But, for me and the men who have entered during the last 30 years, this has always been our reality. Provinces shrink. Some parishes are closed and some new ministries open. We see nothing different now than that we have always experienced and ask the older friars to think of our shared experience in a new way.
I have noticed that the younger friars wear the habit frequently: to class, to ministry, at home, and while out shopping, etc. Initially, this took me by surprise because I saw it through the liberal/conservative lens that was common in the 20th Century.
After talking with many of these young friars, I now see that they don’t have this lens. Most of the men who resisted the reforms of the Second Vatican Council have now passed on. The men entering today don’t know that wearing the habit was at one time indicated how one felt about the council. They see it as a under-used symbol of religious life.
Just as I kiddingly tell the older guys to stop moaning about the diminishing numbers, I realize now that I have to start to see the habit in a new way. I have to see it now as a public sign of consecrated life – a sign that, sadly, has largely disappeared from life in the United States.