When I left diocesan life, but obviously remained a priest, it was time to design a habit. One question I got a few times was “Why don’t you just model your habit after one religious order or another?” It’s a pretty innocent question, but I would have to explain to people that it would be the equivalent of “stolen valor” in the military. The Franciscan habit is not just a way to look pious or homeless. The Dominican habit is not just a way to look clean or erudite in learning. The Carmelite habit is not just a way to look deep or quiet. All of these habits carry the spirituality of the founders, much as a Green Beret uniform carries a different code than the Navy SEAL uniforms. A uniform describes what you sacrifice for, what you believe, and who you call your team or family.
In short: Nobody has a right to wear a habit not their own, for they do not take the same code or vows as those in it.
So, I couldn’t just “copy” a habit. When I asked my friend Liz here in CO to make my habit off of my design and hers, the color grey became the color more by elimination than appreciation. I knew people would think I was Carmelite if I wore brown; Dominican if I wore brown or white. And because I do pro-life work with Fr. Fidelis of the CFRs of the Bronx, I knew my color had to be different from the grey of the CFRs. That is, I didn’t want any “stolen-valor” when walking around NYC. Thus, the only color left that I could think of was an ashen grey.
I think Liz did a very sturdy in sewing my habit. Since designing that habit, I have found some interesting God-incidences on it. I was reading Bl. Mary of Agreda’s Mystical City of God, and it turns out Mary, the Mother of God, always wore an ashen-grey! Of course, I don’t see myself as worthy to be associated with her, but it may have been a little gift in God’s eternity from Him to me through Her to have this distant way of calling myself a Marian-priest (again, as unworthy as I am.) Also, as an Irishman, I found it funny that in the new Angelus magazine there is an old picture of St. Patrick in a similar grey putting his staff through the foot of some recalcitrant Irish king:
As a monk-missionary-priest (under Can. 603 of diocesan hermit) this habit serves well for that life. Whereas the Roman collar was more easily-recognizable as the garb of a priest, the black cassock also brought the occasional angry stares due to all the recent priest-child scandals (no specific suspicious against me, just the Roman Collar in-general.)
On the other hand, this grey habit often attracts questions like “Are you a Buddhist monk?” (especially if I’m in California.) But anyone who sees the enormous Rosary at my side knows that I’m Catholic. And usually they know I’m a priest. If they don’t, they quickly ask me if I’m a priest or a brother. People still stop me in public and ask me for confession, which is the greatest proof I have that Liz has designed a truly Catholic habit.
This habit seems to be doing the job of still making me “set apart” from the world and till “not-diocesan” and yet still a priest. That is the job of a habit: To make you part of the bigger family of the Catholic Church and also a part of your smaller tribe. But since I live alone, my habit is quite singular. You can see it at the top on the floor of my “hermominium” as a priest friends calls it.