How Should a Jesuit Look?
On the back of the door of my office hangs a Jesuit gown. Black, calf-length, sleeveless, but with the distinctive “wings”. It is said to have been modelled on the academic dress current in the 16th-century University of Paris, when Ignatius and the first Jesuits studied there. When I joined the Society, in the late 1970’s, it was used to mark two rites of passage. After the first fortnight of the novitiate (a time called “First Probation”), the novice was given a hand-me-down gown, musty and often tinged with green, and which had probably belonged to a Jesuit recently dead. Two years later, on taking First Vows, you were presented with your own gown, hand-tailored (at that time) by the 90-year-old mother of a Jesuit priest. The one I received in this way in 1980 is the one that still hangs behind my door.
Shortly after I received it, they went out of fashion. Our understanding in those days was that Vatican II had called religious to draw closer to ordinary people, to be less cut off by dress or patterns of speech or aspects of lifestyle. It’s rare now to see a Jesuit wearing a gown. In the Constitutions, Ignatius had said that Jesuit dress should be “ordinary”. Yet what that should mean in practice, how a Jesuit should look, remains a debated issue.
Ask yourself how you would react to meeting someone dressed in the Jesuit gown today. Would you feel immediately that this was a man you could trust, could confide in? Or would you feel put off by the strangeness of the encounter, unable to relate to a man who might seem as old-fashioned as his clothing?
I’m not sure that there is a single clear answer to these questions. Wearing “ordinary” dress, I can sit on a bus or train incognito and undisturbed, and if I’m honest often I prefer that. Yet the lack of distinctive clothing worn in public can contribute to the sense that religious faith is disappearing, or is a private affair that should not impinge in any way upon others. My own view is that strident opinions that a Jesuit priest should always, or never, wear distinctive clerical dress, are unhelpful. I try and let myself be guided by what I judge will most help those I’m working with – a clerical collar when celebrating a parish Mass, an open-necked shirt when I offer spiritual direction. But that’s my solution.
What do you think? How should a Jesuit look?
Fr Paul Nicholson SJ
Director of Novices