Change of habit Some disturbed by Franciscans' new robes

Saturday, December 22, 2001

ASSISI, Italy -- St. Francis founded his order of "poor friars" in this hillside town nearly 800 years ago, dedicating himself to a life of poverty that was defined by the plain brown robe he chose to wear.

Today, Franciscan monks are recognizable around the world for similar outfits. But one branch has decided to buy some fancy new frocks, and not everyone is pleased.

The Third Order Regular in Assisi, a small order compared to the three main branches of Franciscan monks, have commissioned new habits from a Milan fashion designer to update their look.

"We needed a new gown, in style with the principles of our founding father, but more practical to face our everyday needs," said the Rev. Lino Temperini, head of the 50-member Third Order Regular here.

He turned to Elisabetta Bianchetti, a 39-year-old designer of religious garments, who after months of research and trial fittings, produced two prototypes for the monks made of fine, gray wool that cost $140 apiece.

The lightweight, 100 percent wool habits come with two front pockets -- for cell phones or anything else -- as well as the traditional rope belt tied at the waist and knotted three times to symbolize the three vocational rules of the order: poverty, obedience and chastity.

Only ordered 30

The purchase has struck a nerve with some Italians, as well as some members of the order who feel the new look betrays the simple aesthetic envisioned by St. Francis.

"Many don't agree with the experiment to change the habit," the Rev. Waldemar Barszcz, a top official of the order, told the newspaper Il Giornale. "That's why the order to Miss Bianchetti will be 30, not 3,000!"

The Vatican hasn't commented, but the Italian media have weighed in.

"Even the Franciscans have given in to the fascination with ready-to-wear," the Milan daily Corriere della Sera wrote.

Temperini argues the designs are perfectly in line with what St. Francis intended for his followers and he has published a booklet to make his case.

It documents the varied dress of Franciscans through the ages, including sketches, diagrams, photos and footnotes. It quotes St. Francis himself as having said monks could dress as circumstances and climate require.

Temperini hopes that once the order's 50 or so monks in Assisi are outfitted, the look will catch on with its few hundred members elsewhere in Italy and other countries.

There's no indication the 25,000 monks in other Franciscan orders around the world are about to change.

The Rev. Enzo Fortunato, a spokesman for the Conventual Franciscans, one of the larger three Franciscan orders, said the decision was the Third Order Regular's alone. But, he added, "it certainly doesn't mean they are abandoning our message of poverty and simplicity."

Residents wondering

Some residents of Assisi aren't so sure. They say the monks' new clothes -- commissioned from a European fashion capital -- are another indication the order is straying from its spiritual foundation.

"I'm a Catholic, but these people think more about commercial things than spiritual things," said Valentina Castagnoli, a shopkeeper who herself sells carved wood St. Francis figurines -- in brown habits -- and other religious souvenirs.

Temperini bristles at such criticism. He said the new robes are hardly indulgent and are based on a 15th century version of the Franciscan habit.

"We really don't understand where all the fuss came from," he said.

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