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Shouldn’t all sisters wear habits?

This article is reprinted from the fall 2010 issue of HOPE.

We can guess that some long-time Catholics, feeling great fondness in their hearts for the women religious who have graced their lives as teachers and friends, will respond to this question with a strong “Yes!” They often believe that a return to the habit by all sisters would resolve the current vocation crisis. Perhaps, in light of the many feelings surrounding the habit, it may be helpful to examine the long history of religious life.

Religious life as a vocation choice has been part of the spiritual tradition of every culture and predates Christianity (e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, etc.). The oldest and best known form of religious life is monasticism, a way of life commonly recognized by characteristics such as: the wearing of a culturally conspicuous form of dress (habit); a permanent dwelling place with restricted access (monastery/enclosure/cloister); a fixed schedule (horarium) dictating times when members rise, retire, come together for common meals, to chant or recite vocal prayers, to study the scriptures or to spend time in manual labor.

Some Christian forms of monasticism began to emerge in the fourth century. In the sixth century St. Benedict wrote his Great Rule which still continues to influence Christian monastic life in the West. The stability and ever-sameness surrounding monasticism gives witness to the world of God’s abiding presence in our midst.

Monasticism remained the predominant form of Christian religious life in the West until the 16th century when new forms of religious life began to appear. Charismatic leaders emerged and began to attract others to join them in this new form of religious life. These men (and later, women) had the same desire as monastics to live a life totally consecrated to God, but they also felt called to express their commitment to God in a life of service to their neighbor. As a result they began to modify the monastic lifestyle to accommodate it to their needs. They wanted to live near the people they served rather than in enclosed monasteries. Sometimes, so as not to be set apart from the people to whom they ministered, they opted to wear the clothing of the people rather than a uniform habit. In order to be more available to the needs of the people, they were allowed greater freedom in choosing times for personal prayer (rather than observing a fixed, common schedule). It is in these small beginnings that we find the origins of what we now call apostolic or ministerial religious life.

Over the years this form of religious life has evolved as an alternative to, not as a replacement for, monastic religious life. The apostolic/ministerial lifestyle is modeled on the life of the itinerant preacher, Jesus. It gives witness to God’s love which we share by loving others and serving their needs.

The Catholic Church was slow to officially recognize this apostolic lifestyle as an authentic form of religious life, but in 1900 Pope Leo XIII gave the official approbation of the Church to this non-cloistered, apostolic form of religious life. It needs to be said, however, that even after giving approval, the Church, through its 1917 Code of Canon Law, still required members of apostolic congregations to live a monastic lifestyle within their convents even as they lived an apostolic lifestyle outside of their convents. This created a kind of “hybrid” form of religious life, which prevailed in congregations of women religious founded to be apostolic, until the 1950s. At this time, Pope Pius XII directed the world’s religious superiors to begin the modernization of their congregations. He specifically urged simplification of habits, laying aside of outmoded customs, and the ongoing education of members.

These beginnings of renewal and adaptation of religious life culminated in Vatican Council II, called by Pope John XXIII in 1962. One of the 16 documents, Perfectae Caritatis, specifically addressed the world’s religious congregations. In this 1965 document, religious were directed to revisit the roots of their congregations and to study the charism (gift) of their founder/foundress in order to be re-energized for ministry in the modern world. Each congregation of religious was directed to meet in a General Chapter (an official congregation meeting) within one year of the Council’s ending to set into motion the Congregation’s plan for adaptation and renewal. (Adaptation referred to external change; renewal to interior change.)

The Council called for a 10-year period of experimentation during which congregations were directed to search for the most appropriate ways to achieve their goals for renewal and adaptation. In response to this mandate of the Church, the Sisters of Providence met in a Special Chapter in 1969 to initiate the process of adaptation and renewal. In the years since, the Congregation has met in a General Chapter to evaluate progress, set goals and elect new leaders.

A congregation’s way of life is preserved over time through its Constitutions (Rule of Life). At various times during our 170-year history in the United States, changing circumstances have required changes in our Constitutions in order to adapt them to life in this culture. The latest revision of our Constitutions approved by the membership and by Church authority in 1995 identifies the Sisters of Providence as an apostolic institute with its original purpose “to honor Divine Providence and to further God’s loving plans by devoting itself to works of love, mercy and justice in service among God’s people.” Its chapter on Common Witness addresses our manner of dress and also states, “Signifying their common call to share in the work of Jesus Christ in the world, the distinctive symbol of the Sisters of Providence is a white enamel cross with the Greek letters for Christ superimposed upon a circle. This common sign of their religious witness and consecration is worn by the professed members.”

As a Congregation the Sisters of Providence continue to walk in the footsteps of our foundress, Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, trusting that the God of Providence who “thus far has never failed us,” will continue to guide our steps as we move into an unknown future.

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Sister Bernice Kuper

Sister Bernice Kuper was an experienced spiritual director. Her ministry had been broadened by her education which included a master's degree in education from Notre Dame and post-graduate work in counseling, the Art of Spiritual Direction, Clinical Pastoral Education in a hospital setting and parish ministry. Sister Bernice passed away in November 2013. Read Sister Bernice’s Obituary here.

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