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How Jesuits dress

How Jesuits dress is a topic that even in this century can raise blood pressures. At my first Mass I voiced the hope that I would not have to wear black all my life; but I did not anticipate all the issues that would arise over dress, and the sartorial decisions for which I was unprepared. This note on fifty years of change is inviting the brethren to reflect on an important issue.

How we look is emotionally charged. When I grew a beard in the early 1970s, an older father of strong views passed me on the stairs pretending not to know me. When I was visiting the Crescent church in the same period, with a Roman collar visible under my beard and motor-bike gear, an elderly Pioneer with his hand on the door of the church looked at me aghast, muttered “Drink, drink” and walked out of the church. An elderly Brother in Belvedere would castigate younger fathers for not wearing the collar. It was a matter of some passion.

If you google clerical dress, after long historical pieces about Anglican dress you can find a well-argued defence of the Roman collar from the Homilectic and Pastoral Review by two US priests. Pope John Paul II often recommended the Roman collar. On the other hand Jesus wore ordinary dress and said Be not solicitous what you wear. Since the time of Philip Harnett, our Provincials have been flexible. We can read some of the passing fashions in the ordination photographs on the Milltown corridor; also in vocation leaflets, which change every few years and reflect passing moods.

The Province undoubtedly went through a period when scruff was cool: one saw Jesuits in dirty T-shirts, jeans and runners, even on formal occasions. Open shirts and high-necked pullovers were acceptable. For a while in London a collar and tie seemed to be going too far in the direction of the secular, though it was normal in continental Europe. On the other hand we have seen a German bishop lose his see for wasting church money on ecclesiastical bling.

It is curious that the European clergy, when given the freedom to move away from the soutane and “clergyman”, still generally opted for somber greys and navy blues rather than the bright colours that are available now. No such misgivings in the Australian Province, which produced an attractive range of Jesuit ties with the IHS logo artistically incorporated.

We see an apostolically minded freedom in the sartorial choices of some of our greatest forbears. Matteo Ricci SJ describes Jesuit dress at the court of the Ming Emperor; “We have let our beards grow and our hair down to our ears; we have adopted the special dress that the literati wear, which is of purple silk, and the hem of the robe and collar and the edges are bordered with a band of blue silk a little less than a palm wide.”

Ricci implies two important principles: that we need to be indifferent and free in matters of dress; and that dress is a language that says something about us, and we need to be aware of how we are seen by those with whom we live and work, and respect them.