The Franciscans of Life embrace the holy habit. Aware that clothes do not make the man and habits do not make the monk, there is something to be said about the way we dress. Our clothes remind us of our place in society. Remembering our place in society helps us to remember what our relationship to others should be.
When a police officer puts on a uniform, he knows that he’s a law enforcement official and that his relationship to others in the community should be one of authority, service and role model. A flight attendant knows that his place in the cabin is also one of authority, service and safety. People look to him for security, especially people like me who are afraid of flying. It’s the same for nurses, doctors, auto technicians, even employees at McDonald’s. The uniform communicates something to those who see it and it sets boundaries for those who wear it.
Before going further on the merits of the habit or uniform of the Franciscans of Life, let’s make sure that we know what it is. The aspirants wear grey slacks, a blue or white polo in honor of Our Lady or a white button down shirt, tucked inside their pants. They are to wear a Tau pin on the left wing of the collar, not a pendant. The superior can allow a pendant for other forms of dress where it would be more appropriate than a pin.
Postulants are to wear a white Havanera shirt, also known as a Guayavera. It must be solid white, in honor of the purity of the Immaculate Mother of the Lord and patroness of our family. Every brother who wears it must keep in mind that he must be a living witness to the beatitude that says, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8) and that other passage that says, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice,” (Lk 8:21).
The white garment reminds us that we must be like Mary who practiced what the Lord revealed to her with great purity of heart. There was no agenda, no selfishness, no resentment, and no search for control, profit or pleasure in Our Lady. There was only one thought, to fulfill what God had asked of her. This is true purity. It goes beyond physical chastity. One can abstain from sins of the flesh, but easily fall into other sins that are equally damning. The shirt is worn over grey slacks and finally a Tau pendant must be worn by the brother postulant. We will address the grey further down.
There are two kinds of novices. There are novices who are called to remain in the world as secular laymen. We call them secular brothers. Then there are novices who wish to consecrate their life to Christ living celibate, poor and obedient in a stable family of brothers. We call them consecrated brothers or regular brothers, because their daily life is far more regulated than that of the secular brothers. The novice wears the white Havanera, grey slacks and the Tau pendant.
If the novice is a regular brother, he will also wear the medieval habit when not wearing the shirt and slacks. The medieval habit consists of a grey tunic with a cowl, a cord and Tau cross over his heart. Because we aspire to capture the life and spirit of the early brothers who followed Francis of Assisi, the tunic is to be the dress of the working peasant of that day. It is worn over grey slacks. All of the brothers are to wear shoes, black or brown. Sport shoes are not worn with the uniforms or habits. They must wear a belt and a white under t-shirt with sleeves.
Our clothing must be simple enough to avoid all appearances of extravagance, wealth or luxury. It should be practical according to culture and climate. Subdued enough so as not to call negative attention to the brother.
There are times when other forms of dress are more appropriate. The rules remain the same. These clothes must be simple, avoid any hint of affluence and be subdued. The Tau must be worn at all times. If for some reason the pendant is not practical for the work that a brother does or for the event, the brother may opt to keep a Tau pin handy to wear in such cases. Wherever the brother goes, it should be evident that he belongs to a Franciscan brotherhood. The general rule is to wear the Franciscan uniform as often as possible, without causing discomfort to others, especially spouses and children.
We have already stated that the white is worn in honor of the purity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a purity of heart and action to which Christ calls us. The story behind the grey goes back to the Middle Ages. Most clothing was made of wool. Poor people did not have the means to buy expensive dyes. The wool was often worn without the benefit of dye. Therefore, it was brown, off-white, or grey depending on the color of the sheep. The early brothers made their habits out of grey wool. Brown wool was later adopted, but grey also remained. The Conventual friars adopted the custom of dying their habit black like that of the Benedictine monks. This practice lasted until the 1990s. Today, they wear grey. Because there are more brown sheep than grey, brown wool was easier to find, hence the custom of brown among many religious communities.
We no longer have to find a sheep, sheer it and weave cloth in order to make clothes. Thanks to modern technology, we can buy our clothing off the rack or have it made by a tailor. In choosing the colors for the Franciscans of Life, we went back to early Franciscan tradition. We found that Clare and Francis were practical. Not only did they try to make use of whatever wool was the cheapest, but they were also very conscientious about working conditions. Although the brothers are men of penance, this does not mean that we be unreasonable. Penance does not have to be a torture in order to please God. Francis and Clare gave us an example of dress that set them apart as poor and part of a family. The tunic and cord were the constant. Today, the Tau is the constant. When two or more brothers walk into a setting, people should be able say, ‘Here comes the Church.”
Our habit reminds us that we belong to a family of brothers. We’re never alone even in solitude. We’re part of something bigger than ourselves. We’re united to each other by prayer, penance, discipline, faith and above all love.
The habit serves as a guard against infidelity. I reminds us who we are, sons of the Church called to be faithful to the Commandments, the Gospel, Holy Mother Church, the holy rule, and to Christ’s call to live and proclaim the Gospel of Life through everything that we do, everything that we say, and everything that we don’t do or say. It also protects our purity. Whether we’re married, single or celibate, some things don’t change. Our bodies don’t know
that our hearts and minds are Catholic. Spontaneous temptations and attractions will happen. It’s part of being alive. The habit reminds us of our relationship to others. Everyone is our brother and sister, not the object of our desire or a thing to be used for our satisfaction.
The habit can help us regulate how we deal with others. It should help us remember to keep custody over our eyes and a holy distance from temptation. The habit helps us set boundaries. This is true discipline, a form of self-control and a display of emotional maturity.
There is much more to wearing a habit besides chastity and fraternity. The fact that we dress the same and that our dress does not call particular attention to us allows us a certain degree of anonymity. Yes, people may notice us and ask questions about our identity. That’s a perfect moment to speak to people about our family, its Gospel vision and its mission, thus drawing the attention from ourselves and onto what really matters, the Gospel of Life.
We can say much about the value of uniformity. Holy Mother Church reminds us that the habit is an external sign of poverty, which was so dear to Our Lord, his Blessed Mother and our holy father Francis. Poverty is the way that Christ chose to enter the world. Poverty was his condition at the time of his death, naked on a cross and buried in a borrowed tomb, because the “Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Mt 8:20). “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Phil 2:6-7).
Think about it brothers, the habit allows helps us to be visible as members of a family that if faithful to Christ from within the Church. We do not walk alone.
I encourage you to wear your Franciscan symbols as often as possible, but don’t let them become a matter of routine either. Think about it as you’re putting them on.
I am part of a family.
I am a brother to all men.
I am a son of the Church.
I am the voice of the voiceless.
I am a sinner.