Glenmarians' Presence Among the People Is Our 'Habit' and Way of Life

Brother David Henley, Glenmary vocation directorNovember 2011

"He instructed them to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick—no food, no sack, no money in their belts."—Mk 6:8

A recent study of young people who have entered into religious life looked at what attracted them to the communities they chose. One aspect of the study showed that many young people today are attracted to communities because of their habits or some distinctive clothing they wear most or all of the time. For the same reason, I am sometimes asked why Glenmary priests and brothers do not wear a distinctive habit.

Pope John Paul II said in his post-apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata in 1996 concerning the religious habits of consecrated persons: "Where valid reasons of their apostolate call for it, Religious, in conformity with the norms of their Institute, may also dress in a simple and modest manner, with an appropriate symbol, in such a way that their consecration is recognizable. Institutes which from their not have a specific habit should ensure that the dress of their members corresponds in dignity and simplicity to the nature of their vocation."

The word habit comes from the Latin word habitus, which means "way of life." We Glenmarians dedicate ourselves to a way of life that—although it does not require a specific type of clothing—is centered on evangelizing the unchurched, serving the poor in the mission areas, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and preaching the Gospel values through our presence, words and actions.

When Glenmary Home Missioners was founded in 1939, Father Bishop did not mandate a specific habit, because it was a clerical society and the clerics and seminarians at that time wore cassocks. Father Bishop saw his community more as a band of diocesan priests serving in the mission areas than as a religious order; therefore, he did not see the need to have them wear a specific habit. As brothers entered the society, they wore gray shirts and pants when they were engaged in work duties, but they too were given cassocks to wear during times of prayer and other church ministries.

There was never a set moment when Glenmary made a policy to do away with cassocks, but the change grew out of lived experience in the 1950s and early 1960s. Serving in mission areas where the vast majority of people were not Catholic, Glenmary priests and brothers realized that wearing cassocks oftentimes was more of a barrier to communication with non-Catholics in the mission areas than an invitation to get to know them and the Church.

Traditionally, habits were not designed to make the individual look different from the rest of society. For instance, the tunic of St. Francis was the common dress of his time. Glenmary Father Frank Ruff says Glenmarians stopped wearing cassocks because "we realized it made sense for us to try and fit in with the culture and not stand apart from it."

In the days of wearing cassocks, Glenmarians may have been easily recognized on the street corners of small towns. But some Glenmarians concluded that wearing a clerical collar sometimes sent a negative message to mission area residents, who were often not Catholic. One of the first times Father Frank realized it was a barrier was when he walked into a cafeteria at Baptist College in Georgia with a couple of Catholic students he was visiting at that school. As they entered the room, it went deafeningly silent, and three-quarters of the people stopped eating mid-bite. Eventually sound did return to the room, but Father Frank learned that his clerical collar turned some people off before they could get to know him.

Glenmary Father Dennis Holly learned the same lesson in one of his first mission assignments, when a parishioner asked him about his collar: "You don't intend to wear that in public, do you? People around here won't accept you if you have it on." In a culture that is not traditionally Catholic and is sometimes anti-Catholic, the symbols Glenmarians wear need to be inviting to the people they meet.

Although Glenmarians do not wear a specific habit today, many members do wear identifying symbols of some kind. Some Glenmary priests still wear clerical collars every day, while others do so only when they are performing official church functions. According to Father Dennis, a good rule of thumb for him has been "to wear clothes like the other ministers serving in that area," which might at times mean an open collar and blue jeans. When Glenmarians go out on home visits, they might be better advised to wear polo or sport shirts because "dressing this way allows people to get to know us as real persons." And since some Glenmary brothers engage in physical labor or construction jobs on their regular days in the missions, jeans or work clothes are more appropriate for them in those situations.

A few Glenmary priests and brothers wear crosses to identify themselves. Brother Larry noted that "symbols are important because they touch people's subconscious." For him, the cross that he wears "is just as much for me, as it is for others who might see it, a sign of who I strive to be. Better yet, it helps me to behave in public."

Sandals have also been a symbol that some Glenmarians wear on a regular basis. One Glenmary priest mentioned that while once attending a diocesan function, he stood in a receiving line with many of the diocesan priests to greet the new bishop of their diocese. As the bishop walked down the line to greet each one of the priests, he noticed that this one priest was wearing sandals and not black shoes like everyone else. His immediate comment was, "You must be a Glenmarian."

The Glenmary habit may be thought of as clothing similar to that of the people around us in the mission areas that we serve. Our rewards as Glenmarians do not come from the clothes we put on, but rather from the joy we find in being with the people in the missions.

Joy also comes from being part of the Glenmary community, praying together, sharing together and being rooted in Glenmary's goal of building up the Church in the rural United States. Even those of us serving in the smallest and most distant missions still know that we are part of something larger and that we all share in a common life and mission. We do not share a habit, but we believe we are responding to God's call and following God's will for them.

Glenmary's presence among the people—in our actions of reaching out to neglected areas of this country, and in our words of preaching the Good News in the rural mission land of America—is our habit and way of life.

Pope John Paul II said "the Church must always seek to make her presence visible in everyday life, especially in contemporary culture, which is often very secularized and yet sensitive to the language of signs. In this regard the Church has a right to expect a significant contribution from consecrated persons, called as they are in every situation to bear clear witness that they belong to Christ."

Glenmary continues to witness as a visible sign to the unchurched, the poor, and the neglected and forgotten through our presence with and among the people in Mission Land, USA.

Read previous articles by Brother David about Glenmary, missionary life, discernment, vocations and formation.