How Should a Jesuit Look?

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


3 thoughts on “How Should a Jesuit Look?

  1. I would like to see more Jesuits wearing something in public that clearly identifies them as members of a religious order. My experience is that members of the public are interested in religious dress, particularly when it is distinctive. Some excellent conversations have started with questions like “what are you dressed as?”, or “looks like a fun night if you’re still dressed up?” and moved into genuinely profound territory. When we just wear civvies, apart from at Mass, we deny people who might never ordinarily come across a religious the opportunity of engaging with one. In some ways I think we get it the wrong way round, we wear a collar after Mass as a sign of priesthood in a situation where everybody already knows that you’re a priest and then when nobody knows who you are, you give them no indication. We are also perhaps making a judgment about other people and their superficiality if we think that if we were to wear religious garb during spiritual direction it would somehow affect the quality of dialogue between us, and perhaps we also unwittingly introduce a cultural of clericalism around clerical clothing, suggesting that wearing this collar after Mass is not who I really am the rest of the time; i.e. there is “formal collar” me and other no-collar easy-going” me.. In a society where it is often becoming more difficult to witness to our faith, our really think we miss out on an opportunity by rarely going out into mission territory (the towns and cities) dressed as what we are, and it is in this territory that Jesuits tend to be at their most effective and are most needed, erudite and well-educated, their clothing might just cause them to get into a conversation that really surprises someone.

  2. But the sign of the times should surely show us that some sort of identifiable dress is beneficial, in a fair few ways. Muslim lay people often wear identifiable religious clothes around the cities of the UK and don’t seem to have a problem making friends, forming families, working or growing their faith among non-Muslims! My view is that clothes, an outward communication to the world, communicate something about the person. As a religious I think they should show an outward sign of an inner consecration and holiness. A sign that gives hope, affiliation and motivation to others by the life they lead.

    Religious are effectively signposts of what motivates them to the world, Jesus. The outward dress can play a role in changing hearts, and I think other religious orders have been good at doing this. I don’t think anyone can question the sincerity of the ‘Franciscan Friars of the Renewal’ and countless other orders that are often growing and interesting to young people. I think it also helps the person spiritually, as a training, to conform their actions and behavior in public to the vows they have taken.

    I don’t think a habit or dress needs to be old fashioned – it can be updated in style, color or look. There’s nothing wrong with a unified and modern habit for religious. It’s a bit of a red herring to suggest a habit keeps people away – there’s more people away since many of these changes than before! The problem seems to me that many orders didn’t want to update the habit, or review dress in a modern time. They simply wanted to adopt lay clothes and I think it has, to varying extents, manifested them many problems. They wanted to be unseen and now most of them are also not seen and largely forgotten in parish life.

    A crisis of identity and disregarding the spiritual impact of dress and daily routines is a major factor in some of their downfall. I think if many orders really, really listened to young people at discernment groups and looked around the big cities they’d hear and see the signs of times – but they’d better be ready for lots of frustration and to understand why many won’t be applying to join some of these orders any time soon.

  3. I’m very curious about this topic: is the habit part of the vow of obedience? I mean: could you, Fr. Nicholson, prevent a novice from wearing a cassock?
    I think that a distinctive habit is not that important, but it helps the sense of identity within the order and the Church, strenghtens humility, reinforces the constant presence of God. And above all, makes the member immediately recognizable by the people, who need a guide, a bench mark.
    I would be very proud to be a son of St. Ignacius… and I would show this pride to other people: here I am, in order to serve God, the holy Church and the souls! Serviam!

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