Okay, okay, I know that this is somewhat inside-baseball, but I also know that there are several readers who are interested in things Jesuit, and, also, not a few Jesuits who read this blog (and even more who read the mag). In any event, as the General Congregation winds down, here is something that has so far gone unremarked upon. (Or upon which has gone unremarked.)
That is, Father General seems to have decided--at least for now--not to wear a cassock.
A little history may be helpful. St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, never wished for the members of the Society of Jesus to have any distinctive garb, as did most other religious orders of the time. His idea was that the Jesuits should wear the dress of a "priest in good standing" in the locale. The Constitutions note that the clothing we wear should be "first...proper; second, conformed to the usage of the country in residence [or "not altogether different"]; and third, in keeping with the poverty we profess." [Const. 577] Elsewhere, in what are called our Complimentary Norms, it states plainly "there is no specified habit." His thinking seemed to be that Jesuits would dress as other priests did in the region, out of a sense of modesty and poverty, and in solidarity with the rest of the clergy.
Of course time and tradition took over and soon (for just how soon you might want to consult some Jesuit historians) there was in fact a distinctive Jesuit habit: a long black cassock tied together with a black cincture or belt (as opposed to the diocesan version with its long row of buttons.) This gave rise to the term "the long black line." Many American high school and college students who attended Jesuits schools from the 1940s through the 1960s would know that silhouette instantly. And it’s what you see most of the Jesuit saints wearing in statuary, on holy cards, and in stained-glass windows. It passed from use some time after the Second Vatican Council.
There are plenty of good reasons for a distinctive religious habit. First, it makes the question of what to wear rather simple. (And with a habit, there’s less of a need to do much clothes shopping.) Second, it is a sign to the larger world about the very presence of men living in a religious order. Third, it ties the Jesuits back to all those who wore the habit in centuries past. I’ve only worn the habit twice. (And that’s two more times than most of my Jesuit brothers.) First, when I was working with street gangs in the housing projects of inner-city Chicago during philosophy studies. (The person running the ministry said that simply wearing a black clerical shirt would not do: a more distinctive garb was needed so we wouldn’t, in his words, "get shot at.") When I first saw myself in the mirror, all I could think of was St. Isaac Jogues.
Interestingly, the gang members called us "Blackrobes," just as the Native Americans did in New France in the 17th century. The second time was in Lourdes, on my first visit there with the Order of Malta. Two Jesuits and I mistakenly thought they were required at the shrine, so we desperately scrounged some up--to subsequent acclaim from the Knights and Dames of Malta.
Both times I felt very Jesuit wearing the cassock, and thought a great deal of all the heroic Jesuits who wore them, including the saints and blesseds. At the same time, I felt extremely anachronistic, since, like it or not, Jesuit priests and brothers in the States don’t wear them any longer.
Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., the Superior General from 1983 until the election of Father Nicolas, from what I understand, continued to wear the habit as part of the more recent tradition of Jesuit Fathers General. (He may also, for all I know, have worn it in his previous jobs in the Near East and in Rome.) But Father Kolvenbach was one of only a handful of Jesuits I’ve met in the last 20 years who still wore one.
I’ve no idea whether the new Jesuit Superior General will return to the cassock, but for now I’m happy that Father Nicolas is wearing the garb of the priests of our day and eschewing a habit in favor the simple Roman collar and suit. It seems modest and "proper," and closely aligned with what St. Ignatius intended. (And for that matter, the Holy See, since the Constitutions are, technically, a Vatican document.)
While some were surprised that Father Nicolas showed up to meet Pope Benedict XVI sans cassock, it reminded me of the need for the Jesuits to use every means to adhere to St. Ignatius’s idea of "this least Society," and it seemed a humble thing to do before the pope, and before the world.