Last week I had to finally admit that my Passionist Habit had reached the point of no return. It was the last habit ever made for me, and it was made by a lady in Dublin back in 1994 when I was heading out to South Africa and Botswana to work for a year in our Vicariate; to do some work in our parishes and with our young Passionist students. After 25 years then, it didn’t really owe me anything. My only habit before that had been the one made for my First Passionist Profession in 1980. I still wore that one at the time, but I had wanted something lighter for the hotter climate in Southern Africa and so this lady, who worked in our kitchen in Mount Argus in Dublin, kindly took on the task, and a good job she made of it too. In recent times various seamstresses had managed to do a remedial job, but it had now reached the stage where no more could be done and, sadly, I had to bid it farewell.
My first thought was to get a new one made, but that’s easier said than done, as not too many people have the skill and the knowhow. At first glance a Passionist Habit may seem to be a simple garment, a black tunic with a leather belt, and our distinctive Passionist sign, a heart worn over the heart, bearing symbols of Christ’s Passion. But, in reality, our Passionist habit is a very intricate garment, made to a very unique pattern. The stitching represents the wounds of Jesus and the sorrows of Mary, and there is a hidden pocket that may or may not have been a handy place for the religious in days gone by to keep their snuff. Nowadays it’s more likely to be used for a handkerchief.
I then discovered that, in the sacristy presses, there were quite a number of habits that had belonged to Passionists from years gone by, but who had now gone to God. One afternoon, when the church was closed, I began to work my way through them, trying them on as if I were in a fitting room in Marks and Spencer’s. As I did so I began to speculate on who might have worn these habits in times past. I remembered Jock Stein’s famous quote about the hoops: “Celtic jerseys are not for second best, they don't shrink to fit inferior players” Could the same be said about the Passionist habit? Trying to find one that was the right body length, sleeve length, and neck-size, was a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack. Just as I was about to give up, I pulled out a very dusty garment from the back of the press. I almost cast it aside immediately, it looked so grubby. I decided to try it on anyway, and, without a doubt, this would be my last go. And would you believe it, it fitted perfectly; length, arms, and neck, all as if it were bespoke made for me.
The next question was, how would it clean up? It was a heavy woollen garment, much heavier than anything I was ever used to. I took it home and threw it in the washing machine. I gave it an extra spin when the wash was finished, and then I hung it up to dry. I left it for a couple of days to dry it out thoroughly and, at the end of it all, I put it on, and it still fitted perfectly. Who did it belong to? I have no idea - but he was obviously a finely built specimen like myself.
Next year, 2020, we will celebrate the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Passionists by St. Paul of the Cross. You may have been aware that recently, we had here in St. Mungo’s a special Passionist jubilee icon that is travelling around the world, wherever there are Passionists, to help us prepare for this celebration. The Passionist habit has a very important place at the beginning of that story that is worth recalling, and it may give a sense as to why the habit is so important to us.
In 1718, at Sestri, outside of Genoa, at Our Lady of Gazzo Church, at 21 years of age, Paul saw himself in a vision. He was clothed in a black tunic and filled with a desire to lead a life of poverty and reparation. He wanted to call others to join him. Two years later, in 1720, at a local Capuchin Friary, Paul prayed fervently for an understanding of what had happened at Our Lady of Gazzo Church. On his way home he received a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary clothed in a black tunic and wearing the Passionist sign. Mary told him to gather companions, and to establish an Order that would mourn the death of her Son, Jesus Christ. On November 22 of that same year, Bishop Di Gattinara of Alessandria vested Paul, in what was later to become established as the Passionist Habit.
Christ Crucified is a work of love. The miracle of miracles of love. The most stupendous work of the love of God. The bottomless sea of the love of God, where virtues are found, where one can lose oneself in love and sorrow. A sea and a fire, or a sea of fire. The most beneficial means of abandoning sin and growing in virtue, and so in holiness. (St. Paul of the Cross)