CathBlog - Sisters collared by fashion police



Sisters of St Joseph at the canonisation (from the CathNews Gallery)

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You would have thought that the glories of Sunday’s canonisation – the brilliant weather in Rome for Pope Benedict’s recognition of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop’s sanctity, the happy, faithful crowds around Australia – would have been almost beyond criticism.

You could have thought that, but you would have been wrong. There were four main carps from the grizzlers to the CathNews discussion boards: one, the whole event was too commercial; two, how dare the Sisters seek to protect Mary MacKillop’s image from exploitation; three, how dare CathNews call them nuns, not sisters; and four – what about those un-habited Josephites!

Let’s deal with those first three: yes, there is a commercial aspect to the canonisation, from pilgrimages to rosaries, biographies of Mary to posters. I got into the Mary market myself at the MacKillop Interpretive Centre in Penola, buying bookmarks based on glorious Mary MacKillop images from Diana Tominac and Veronika Dimac of InJoy International (see below). 

Like it or not, people want to have a keepsake, a reminder of a person, an event. I have a little visor image of Mary in my car – since I am not the greatest driver ever to get behind a wheel, I find her comforting there. (Others on the road should be grateful she is there, too.)

Protecting the MacKillop brand is absolutely imperative, considering what might happen to her in the hands of the unscrupulous. Would you really want St Mary of the Cross’s image being used to flog anything and everything? Let your imagination wander into the Sexpo arena, and you begin to glimpse the horrors which might have been ahead.

Re the Sister/nun furore whipped up by one furious subscriber. He wrote twice. and here is the second: "The NUN word was used again. If a catholic newsletter does not get it right, what hope for the rest of us. It does matter as there is a vast different between a Sister and a Nun."

Okay, I understand. Michael MacCabe does NOT like the words being interchanged. Nostra culpa! We will try to do better in the future. We might not always succeed, however, since all the news outlets in the country also interchange the two words as well.

And now to the final gripe. This question of women religious (better, Michael McCabe?) and their dress is a continuing, low-level grumble-thread through the discussion boards. Ever since one such missive appeared in reaction to the Mary MacKillop special edition we did on February 19 for the announcement of the date of the canonisation, harping on about the Sisters of St Joseph not wearing habits, I have routinely deleted them. I also wrote to that poster, saying I would not allow such a churlish note to spoil a time of great jubilation and celebration for the congregation.

Every so often one will appear, admiringly holding up some order in the US experiencing a rise in vocations, and blaming out of habit women religious, particularly the Josephites, for the decline in local vocations. For the record, there are many complex social and economic reasons why that is happening across the world; the habited orders in Australia do not seem to be rushed by women who have discerned a religious vocation and want to put on the habit.

Here is one, in response to Sr Carmel Pilcher, sosj, who occasionally blogs for CathBlog:

"Dear Carmel: I would like to address you as Sister Carmel, but you signed your name without that warm and caring title. Our beloved Pope John Paul asked all religious to witness to their vocation by wearing a simple garb.

Sisters with veils do like to pray in the 'traditional 'ways you mentioned, but believe me, we serve with every fibre of our being. Adoration, communal prayer and daily mass are our life but these actions give us the strength to serve our brothers and sisters in greatest need.  

I used to be an unveiled sister but it didn't seem to be in-tune with the Holy Spirit. Read about the habit and check out St John Cassian; he'll give you plenty to think about regarding the symbol of the habit. 

It takes courage, and sacrifice to wear a habit today and even when you are baptised, many babies and adults like to wear a simple garment of white--so, yes, let's work for the kingdom but not fear to be a witness of the kingdom's cloths that point to a new heaven and earth. A habit will never make a sister holy. It is a Sister’s relationship with her spouse and how she lives this out in her words and actions which one hopes will reflect the light and love of Christ.  But not to wear a habit (a veil is just not enough sister) seems like walking on a wide road of worldliness instead of a narrow path to holiness."

This was sent by someone who signed herself, Serving in Central America. That is her point of view, one shared by some women religious around Australia. It is not one shared by all the Josephites, however, which provokes some anger and sniping. “If only the real Josephites wore the habit again, that would be a miracle,’ wrote Inside Guy of Beenleigh.

Interestingly, a lot of those who comment in this vein are men. One of the women religious I spoke to in Hobart in the middle of the year had a view on it – it was a version of spousal abuse, she said when I asked if it wouldn’t be better to keep a habit in the wardrobe just in case, and she would not give in to this sort of bullying. Good for you, Sister!

Margaret O wrote about a shot published by CathNews of some of the Sisters leaving for Rome last week: "What a motley lot they looked like too! Photo of three of them at Sydney airport leaving for Rome... do any of them wear a habit?"

Margaret, that sounds mean-spirited to me. These women have spent their lives in the service of God, and of the community – that’s us – and you’re trying to give them fashion notes as they climb on to a plane for a day flight to see history made for their congregation and for Australia. Seriously, Margaret… footling quibbles on this wonderful occasion? Is that all you saw?

If you would like to see the InJoy exhibition, it will be at on till November 26 at the Mary MacKillop Penola Centre, Corner Portland Street and Petticoat Lane, Penola. Tel: 08 8737 2092.


Christine HoganChristine Hogan is the Communications Manager for Church Resources, and moderates the sometime immoderate discussion boards of CathNews.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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