Please don’t take me wrong – I’m not thinking I’m better than anybody else…I am simply reflecting on something that’s been on my heart a little bit after a recent experience.
I was a bit disturbed by something I saw recently, although it is not new to me: I encountered some religious Sisters not wearing their veils. I have asked myself, “Why should this disturb me? Why do I react to it interiorly? Why does it bother me and even weigh on my heart when I see this?” (In fact, there was a time during my discernment of religious life, in which I did not have my same convictions about this.)
In reflecting and then sharing my thoughts on the matter, I want to clarify that I do not see the religious habit or the veil as a way of saying “I’m better than you.” I don’t think that at all. Far from being used to insinuate superiority, if anything, it can be seen as a sign of a servant. In fact, among the functions of the religious garb, Vita Consecata names its being “a sign…of poverty.” More importantly, it is a sign of consecration, as this same ecclesial document reminds us.
Wearing a veil tells people something; we don’t have to say a word. When people see a Sister in her veil, they see a servant, one dedicated entirely to God. Actually, they are reminded of Christ and see Him. Wearing our religious garb is a way of “keeping God on the streets.” St. John Paul II shared these sentiments, as is seen in one of his addresses to religious. He encouraged them (and us):
“Do not hesitate to be recognizable, identifiable, in the streets as men and women who have consecrated their lives to God and who have given up everything worldly to follow Christ. Believe in the value for contemporary men and women of the visible signs of your consecrated lives. People need signs and reminders of God in the modern secular city, which has few reminders of God left. Do not help the trend towards ‘taking God off the streets’ by adopting secular modes of dress and behavior yourselves!”
In researching this issue, I found that Canon Law really has some beautiful reflections to offer for us Religious. Along with exhorting us that “Religious are to wear the habit of the Institute…as a sign of their consecration and as a testimony of poverty” (Can. 669 section §1), the preceding section offers some beautiful and profound thoughts on this life to which we have been called.
Although I do not want to criticize anyone, I feel that when Sisters do not wear the veil, they are missing out (or rather causing others to miss out). They are not bearing the witness to Christ which they are called to give. They are missing an opportunity to remind others of the love of God for all the people they meet “on the streets.”
So, far from being a separating feature or a way of trying to show superiority or anything of that sort, I see the veil very differently. I see it as a way of helping bring our Lord to all those we encounter. It also says: “I am a poor servant and am available to you, to pray for you and journey with you.”
As Sisters, we have a unique opportunity to bring a reminder of Christ to anyone and everyone we meet. I pray that more Sisters will realize this and consider wearing the veil, seeing it not as a barrier but as a bridge bringing people closer to God.
Sr. Christina M. Neumann