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Being Inconspicuous as a Penitent

Jesus told us that, when we do penance, we are not to try to be conspicuous as the hypocrites are, but are to wash our faces, comb our hair, and not appear to be fasting. Then God, Who alone sees us fasting, will reward us. As penitents, our penitential practices ought to remain hidden. We are to blend in with the crowd even as we live lives of penance (conversion). A few matters come to mind in this regard.


The call from the Holy Spirit, and hopefully we trust that call, was to "live the Rule of 1221 and to pray that more people will live the Rule of 1221 nationwide and worldwide." When we look at the Rule of 1221, we read about the clothing requirements right there in Chapter One. Penitents at the time the Rule was written were to dress in "undyed cloth of humble quality." This was in contrast to the rich and colorful clothes the nobility, clergy, and bishops were wearing. So penitents did stand out from the nobility and clergy, although they could have blended in with the poor who often wore undyed cloth of humble quality. I say often because frequently the poor were given cast off, dyed clothing from the rich. We can assume, however, that this clothing was in poor condition.

So why were penitents instructed to wear "undyed cloth" when even the poor often wore dyed cloth? Because wearing undyed cloth keeps one's life simple and is truly a penance, especially if you like bright colors. It also keeps a person more inconspicuous than bright colors or patterns do. In a crowd, folks generally notice pink more than white, green more than brown, and stripes or polka dots more than solids.

So in 1221, penitents were not totally inconspicuous. Those who knew them would have been aware that there were changes in their dress. If they were asked about those changes, we can imagine that they may have said, "I'm living a Rule of Life in my own home and clothing is part of the Rule."

Penitents today, who have dealings with the same folks day in and day out, might be asked similar questions. "Why I don't see you in red anymore? I thought red was your favorite color." Today's penitent can answer just like those 1221 penitents did. "I'm living a Rule of Life in my own home and clothing is part of that Rule."


Some female penitents have asked about using head coverings at Mass. St. Paul asked that women cover their heads at Mass, and this was because those who didn't stood out from the other women and were distracting, calling attention to their uncovered heads. In other words, in Paul's day, women with uncovered heads at Mass were the exception. The 1917 Code of Canon Law mandated head coverings for women (1917 Canon 1262, No. 2). It also said that it was desirable that men and women be separated in church (1917 Canon 1262, No. 1). However, the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which is now in effect and which did not mention head coverings, abrogated (that is, abolished) the 1917 Code (1983 Canon 6, No. 1, Section 1).

Thus, the 1917 Code is no longer in effect. The Code of 1983 does not address the issue.  Therefore, canonically, wearing head coverings in a Catholic church is a matter outside the law. The old Code has no effect in the Church today. Since the Catholic Church currently has no obligation that women's heads be covered in church, most women do not wear head coverings, although some do. Suppose a penitent wishes to wear a headcovering in a Catholic Church? Certainly that would be fine, as long as she understands that it's her choice and not mandated by the CFP Rule or by the Church. She needs to know, too, that those who don't wear head coverings and those who do are both showing respect for Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. If she believes otherwise, she is in opposition to the teachings of the Catholic Church and, therefore, in opposition to what our Rule enjoins.

The head covering, however, ought not be worn all the time, as part of the penitent's day in and day out dress. This is because it then resembles a veil, and the penitent can be confused with a religious, or with someone who is trying to look like a religious (someone once called lay women who wore head coverings indoors and out "wannabe nuns"). Constant use of a head covering can also make others think that wearing head coverings make a woman holier. Or wearing them is or ought to be part of the CFP Rule. All of these are misconceptions, and we, as penitents, need to avoid fostering misconceptions.

Suppose a penitent wants to wear a head covering while at prayer while not in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament? Certainly a penitent can wear a head covering while praying in private. She can also kiss the floor or prostrate herself while at prayer or even, with the approval of the spiritual director, do additional penances and mortifications, when no one sees them but the Lord. However, the penitent should examine how head coverings are used in her culture. In some cultures, all or most  Christians wear head coverings while at prayer, wherever they are. In those cultures, to not wear a head covering would make the Christian stand out and appear disrespectful to God so the head covering should, in those cultures, be used.


However, in many cultures, Christian women do not wear head coverings while at prayer in public places other than a church. They do wear head coverings to protect themselves from the elements, of course. Penitents need to be careful not to call attention to themselves as doing so can be a matter of spiritual pride. In the case of the CFP, it can also be a matter of confusion for others. If a person knows that someone is in the Confraternity of Penitents, and always sees that person praying with a head covering outside of a Catholic Church, the assumption is that a head covering is necessary for penitents while praying.

The penitent may say that praying puts one in the Presence of God and one acknowledges God's Presence with the head covering. Catholics understand that we are always in God's Presence, whether we are conversing with Him or not. Therefore, ought we wear head coverings all the time because God is always with us? The Church has not mandated this. What the Church has not mandated, we ought not mandate for ourselves.


Penitents who want to continually wear head coverings in public are really being asked by the Holy Spirit to strip themselves of their personal desire for the sake of the community. Putting the community before one's personal preferences is part of religious life. A religious sister or brother, for example, may have to give up many of their religious practices or prayers to fit in with their community. The purpose of entering religious life is to give up one's will for the sake of God. The CFP is a community of lay people who are living a religious Rule of Life. We, too, need to give up our wills for the sake of God, and living our Rule and being mindful of the community and the public are part of giving up that will. All that we do must reflect accurately what the community expects of its members and must be done out of obedience to our Rule, just like those who take religious vows.

Just as those in religious life are not to appear singular to others in their community, so, too, penitents ought not appear singular to other penitents. Singularity causes confusion and spiritual competition. If, for example, a religious brother decided to wear visibly a medal which is not part of his religious habit, another brother might see this and decide to wear one as well. Or maybe two. One can imagine a community of brothers who now are following their own spiritual bent, competing in who looks holier by the number, size, or type of medals he sports.

Similarly, women who always wear head coverings can make other penitents think that, in order to be really humble and holy, they, too, ought to wear head coverings. Or male penitents who always wear a white shirt and black pants can make other penitents feel less mortified if they have a more varied wardrobe. As penitents, our focus ought to be on change of heart, not on appearing singularly holy by our dress.


One woman who inquired with us a few years ago owned a  pink flowered dress that she liked very much. She said, "No way am I giving up my pink flowered dress." And she didn't give it up. She gave up being in what was then the Brothers and Sisters of Penance. That woman joined the Benedictine oblates, who have no clothing requirements. Recently, she sat next to me at Mass, and she was wearing her pink flowered dress and her Benedictine oblate name tag. A head covering or a certain style of clothing can be like a pink flowered dress. Certainly there is nothing wrong with it. However, for the sake of our Rule, we may have to relinquish it, and maybe we don't want to. We may feel that we are holier wearing a certain garb, but the Church does not say that we are. To consider certain clothes necessary for ourselves is to go beyond the teachings of the Church. It is to say that we know better than the Church what ought to be worn.

Penitents certainly can wear hats and scarves if the weather warrants their use. I nearly always wear a scarf outdoors because my head gets cold and, if it's windy, I'm subject to ear aches. When it's really cold, I wear a warm hood indoors because my head is cold since we keep our heat low. But I don't wear the hood indoors in public (if I have to answer the doorbell, I take it off, or if a repair man is working in the house, I keep it off unless I tell him, "Please excuse this but my head is cold.").

Penitents might prefer certain styles of dress. But they ought to vary the colors so that they don't appear to be wearing a habit. Some women, for example, feel more comfortable in jumpers than in slacks.

They can wear jumpers all the time, as long as they aren't all the same color of jumper. If they are the same, the jumper has become a habit.

That said, penitents must always be sure to do God's Will. Certainly God's Will is above any written Rule. The CFP does not want to stand in the way of how God is calling an individual to serve Him. Saints were sometimes called to extreme styles of dress or unusual mortifications and penances. If a penitent feels that the Lord is calling him or her to any garb, mortification, or penance beyond what our Rule enjoins, he or she must pray intensely to determine if the penitent is really hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit. If the penitent feels that is the case, he or she must share these inspirations with the spiritual director, reminding him or her that penitents are not to appear to be religious, not to stand out, and to dress as the Rule asks. If the spiritual director feels that the penitent is, indeed, dealing with a prompting of God, and if obedience to this prompting would involve a visible variation from our Rule of Life, the penitent's spiritual director should contact the Visitor and Minister General of the Confraternity and discuss the matter. The Visitor and Minister General will pray about the request and speak to the penitent and spiritual director about it. The Visitor and Minister General shall, together, have the final say on whether or not a penitent ought to follow these inspirations and how this might be done.


Female and male penitents are sometimes asked if they are nuns, brothers, or priests. This is because others see the visible cross or crucifix and the plain clothing and somehow think that those dressed in that way are religious. That is frequently a false assumption as many clergy and religious who wear secular dress wear bright colors and prints and often do not wear any religious symbol.

Penitents need not feel uncomfortable if they are mistaken for members of a religious congregation. The reason this happens is not because penitents are dressing like members of religious orders but because members of religious orders  are dressing like laity. Our call is to "live the Rule of 1221." If we are faithful to that call, we will be faithful to the clothing element in the Rule, no matter how secular looking clergy and members of religious orders may become. 

It's important for penitents to understand why someone may ask them if they are clergy or religious. The questioner may:

Church is built next door, does that mean that the home owner ought to cover the brick with aluminum siding so that folks don't mistake the house for the parish rectory?

a. Have an intention which needs prayer.
b. Have a question about the Catholic Church.
c. Have a problem for which they need counsel or a listening ear.
d. Be trying to figure out how to address the individual.
e. Be looking for a religious presence in a secular world.

All of these are good reasons for wanting to speak to a religious. Rather than feel awkward about being asked if they are nuns, brothers, or priests, penitents ought to use the question as an opportunity to help someone else. How about this answer? "No, I'm a lay person who is living a Church accepted Rule of Life in my own home. Might you have something you wanted to discuss with a religious or a prayer intention I could pray for?" Answering this way may minister to someone who would otherwise not have found anyone he or she felt comfortable enough with whom to talk.

Our CFP Constitutions ask us not to be conspicuous and yet, because we dress simply, people notice. Is this notice violating the Constitutions? Not at all. The Constitutions are asking that we not stand out because our bright and worldly colors call attention to themselves. Clergy and religious are not to call attention to


God may be asking us penitents to be willing to be His witnesses in the world. Remember why folks ask if we are priests or religious. They are looking for a religious presence in a secular world. They are trying to see if God matters to anyone. They want someone to pray with them or for them or to answer their questions. Our plain garb with its cross or crucifix is a way of saying that God does matter, prayer matters, others matter, at least to us. People who are looking for answers, prayer, support, or just a listening ear, see the cross and crucifix as indicating someone who can provide those helps. Today especially, when rock stars and atheists are wearing religious symbols as jewelry, while religious are not wearing habits, we penitents have to expect to be singled out.

The original charism of the Confraternity of Penitents was "to live the Rule of 1221." We thought we were to live it for ourselves, but

themselves either, yet, if they are in religious garb, they definitely stand out. What folks are noticing about us in the CFP is not our dress but our dress combined with the crucifix or cross. If we began wearing patterns and colors and still wore the cross or crucifix, folks would notice and still ask if we were religious or priests as religious and priests wear these colors. The only way that penitents could look "just like everybody else" is to not wear the cross or crucifix at all. That would violate our CFP Constitutions.

The clothing part of our Rule and Constitutions is critical to how we live this life, and perhaps more critical to others than we know. Let us be open to preaching without words wherever we go. If someone does ask us if we are priests or religious, then we can use words to minister to them as the Holy Spirit directs.


it is becoming increasingly clearer that we are to live it for the sake of others as well. If our simple, plain dress with the cross or crucifix says to someone that we are loving and serving the Lord in a special way, isn't that a good thing? St. Francis once told a friar that they were going out to preach. They walked up and down the hills of Assisi and returned to the friary without having said a word. The friar questioned St. Francis about the preaching mission. Francis said that they preached a good sermon by their demeanor. We, who are living the same Rule, need to "preach" in the same way.

Consider our days of fast and abstinence. Do penitents have to turn down luncheon dates with coworkers or friends, if they fall on days on which the Rule enjoins fast or abstinence? Not at all! Charity is the most important part of the Rule and is written into it. Penitents certainly can go to luncheons. They can order meatless meals on abstinence days, if that's possible. If they are served meat on such days, they ought to eat it in charity. If they are served a between meal snack, they ought to enjoy it. If they go to a restaurant between meals with co-workers or friends, they can order a soft drink or fruit juice. If they go to a buffet on abstinence days, they can select the meatless items. There is absolutely no need to turn down luncheon or dinner dates or to stay back when everyone else goes for coffee!


A Rule of Life is a way in which all those in the organization are to live. It is the thread, other than our faith in God, that binds us together. Living a Rule is a way to exercise obedience and denial of self will. If we want to change the Rule or mitigate it or forget parts of it, or make it stricter, then we are not living our Rule of Life but another Rule. It takes great humility to live a Rule. That's why many folks won't do it. May the Holy Spirit give us the wisdom, love, grace, and courage to live our Rule and Constitutions as we have them. We are promised eternal life if we do.

Madeline Pecora Nugent

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