Our upcoming exhibit, Swan Song, opening next week, looks back at the change in the Daughters of Charity’s traditional habit, which occurred 50 years ago this September and the experiences of the Sisters who experienced it. As we look back on the change, an important question to ponder is: why? Why did the habit change at all and why did it change at this particular time?
The change of habit was one of many major changes to religious life that happened in response to the Church’s call to change that began with Pope Pius XII and continued through John XXIII and Paul VI and the work of the Second Vatican Council. As Sr. Kieran Kneaves, D.C. has written, “in June 1962 Sr. Suzanne Guillemin was elected our Superioress General and in October, Pope John XXIII opened the Vatican Council. And so, we were called to begin the journey to renewal. And our lives have never been the same.”
Our library collection holds many editions of the documents from the Second Vatican Council. From these we can see the strong focus on re-examination and renewal which characterized the Council’s work. It wasn’t just the habit that changed. A whole way of life changed, as religious communities, both women and men, were directed to take a fresh look at the spirit and charism of their founders, to cast off practices and traditions which had become outmoded, to rewrite constitutions and common rules, and to simplify their attire. At the same time dramatic changes took place in the liturgy and lay people’s participation in it. Decrees on Ecumenism and on the Church’s Missionary Activity drew religious communities into new ministries and gave a new focus on issues of social justice.
In keeping with these directives, the Daughters of Charity’s Constitutions, Common Rules, and Book of Customs were extensively re-written and updated. And it was in the 1960s that Louise de Marillac’s contributions as a co-founder of the Daughters of Charity first received greater attention and recognition.
A few representative quotations from Vatican II documents are below. The documents of Vatican II are available online; print copies are also available for study in the Provincial Archives.
“[The Church] is preparing to welcome the Fathers of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council … This is a solemn hour for the history of the Church. It involves, therefore, increasing the fervor of its efforts for spiritual renewal, which are always at work, in order to give new impetus to the works and institutions of its millennial life …”
Pope John XXII, Letter to Women Religious
July 2, 1962
The most important work of the General Chapters is the studied accommodation of the rules of their Institute to the changed conditions of the times … Religious Institutes will flourish and prosper so long as the integral spirit of their Founder continues to inspire their rule of life and
Pope Paul VI, To All Religious, May 23, 1964
“The religious habit, being a sign of consecration to God, should be simple and modest, poor and at the same time becoming. In addition it should meet the requirements of health and be suited to the circumstances of time and place and to the needs of the ministry. The habit of both men and women Religious which does not conform to these norms is to be changed.”
Pope Paul VI, On the Adaptation and Renewal of the Religious Life (Perfectae Caritatis), October 28, 1965
“You hear rising up, more pressing than ever from their personal distress and collective misery, ‘the cry of the poor’ … It calls for the conversion of hearts, for liberation from all temporal encumbrances. It is a call to love.”
Pope Paul VI, On the Renewal of the Religious Life According to the Teachings of the Second Vatican Council (Evangelica Testificatio), June 29, 1971
“We believe that the day has come when the life of women Religious has to be given greater honor and be made more effective, and that this can be done by perfecting the bonds that unite it to the life of the whole Church … We have given orders that some devout qualified ladies are to attend as auditors several of the solemn ceremonies and several of the General Congregations of the coming third session of the Second Vatican Council; what we have in mind are those Congregations that will discuss matters of particular importance to the lives of women.”
Pope Paul VI, New Horizons for the Women Religious, September 8, 1964
For more information, see Sr. Doris Gottemoeller, RSM “Vatican II: The Call to Religious Change”, an informative post found on the blog of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.