Turning a corner in town earlier this week, I saw a man in a long gray robe, with a sash and a hood, and a string of beads in his hand, crossing the street while headed north on Old Highway 99. It was hard to tell, but I think his haircut was short, almost bald - definitely monkish. An hour later, I drove up the same highway and kept an eye out for him, but he was nowhere in sight.
What are the options? I asked myself. He could be a real, genuine monastic from far away, on a pilgrimage of penance. (You never know.) He could belong to a new religious order in town. (Fat chance, that.) He could be an imposter, one of an endless variety of religious nuts. (Most likely, this being California.) There is a Trappist monastery some 45 miles from here, and they make excellent wine, but they're cloistered monks who don't get out much, and their habits look different.
In any case, the sight of him got me thinking. I've never, ever before seen anyone wearing a religious habit in this town, but I have seen old photographs. There were, apparently, nuns here at one time, the kind with the wide pointy hats worn by Saint Catherine Laboure's Sisters of Charity. There have been very infrequent nun-sightings in nearby Chico, but the nuns who once taught at the Catholic school in that city, and who made their residence downtown, have long since departed, never to be replaced.
Increasingly, for me, the absence of men and women of religion is keenly felt. I don't understand laying in a hospital bed without a crucifix on the wall, without a statue of the Holy Virgin on the shelf, without those angels of mercy called "sisters" walking the halls, without a priest checking in from time to time. Today, the most fortunate of hospital patients and nursing home residents might be blessed, instead, with a devout Vietnamese or Filipino nurse, with a compassionate smile and a medallion on her neck - also an angel of mercy but an angel who must operate by stealth.
Well, it's late, and I won't get into the whole story of the decline of religious life since the Second Vatican Council, nor will I bemoan the tendency of those few remaining nuns to go without habits, or bewail the many priests who go about without collars, etc., depriving the rest of us of symbols of a life consecrated to God. I will just note that a society in which the sight of cassocked priests and consecrated religious is simply normal, and not the least bit suspicious, is among those things I never knew, and never knew I missed.
“We order, therefore, that every priest shall wear the Roman collar not only when he exercises the sacred ministry, but at all times, so that he may be known by all to be a priest. We decree also that the usage of Rome be observed by all ecclesiastics – that is, of not wearing the hair either on the cheeks or as a beard.
And if any priest shall wear the clerical dress so changed – save in the rarest case to be approved by the Ordinary – that he cannot be known by all to be a priest belonging to the clergy of this Province, or so as to fall under the suspicion of the faithful or notoriously give them scandal, let them not be admitted to say Mass, nor in assisting at the divine offices, into the sanctuary.
Our forefathers, assembled in the Council of London in the year 1248, declared that to put off the clerical dress is a very grave and wanton abuse, by which God is said to be mocked, the honour of the Church obscured, the dignity of the clerical order degraded; Christ, when His soldiers wear other uniforms, is deserted; the honour and dignity of the Church is stained when the beholder cannot distinguish a cleric from a laic at a glance, and so the priest becomes a scandal and despised by all who are truly faithful.”
- Council of Trent