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Into the Friar

An inquisitor poses some tough questions: Where do you get those robes? And can you exercise in them?

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Waiting for the Blue Line train at Oak Park station the other day, I crossed paths with a vigorous-looking young man clad in sandals, a brown, hooded, ankle-length robe, and a simple belt fashioned of rope. Take away his wire-framed glasses and shave a helipad onto his melon and he would have been the very picture of a medieval Catholic monk.

"You'd be a monk," I said to him, flaunting my enormous erudition. Close, but no ciborium: He was rather a friar, of the Franciscan order specifically. "Monk implies stability of place," the man explained. "They answer to one particular monastery. Friar implies itinerancy, though I do answer to 'monk' because it's a term most people know."

My fellow commuter, it transpired, was 32-year-old Brother Jason Welle, who in March was appointed associate pastor to the parish of Saint Mary of Celle in the ultrafashionable near-western suburb of Berwyn. Always on the lookout for potentially monetizable conversations, I asked Welle if I might record an interview with him on my iPhone as we rode downtown together.

Granted this indulgence, I started out at ground level and asked him if the open-toed sandals were de rigueur in his line of work.

"I can wear whatever I like," he said. "But I was wearing sandals year-round long before I joined the Franciscans. I wear the habit most of the time, but I'm a runner—I'm running the Chicago Marathon with my brother Scott—and I don't wear it when I run." (Wearing bib number 5542, Welle completed the race in 4:04:05, which he told me by e-mail was his slowest time in the seven marathons he's run.)

A native of Albany, Minnesota, Welle has lived in Chicago for the past four years while completing his seminary training and was ordained last January. His assignment to Saint Mary of Celle is the equivalent of postgraduate training: "Our provincial minister wanted me to go there so I could learn about parish life," he said.

As a Franciscan, Welle is a "religious," belonging to the "regular" clergy of the Catholic Church, as opposed to the secular clergy—priests and deacons who do not belong to one of the faith's 125 religious orders. Religious and secular clergy are both bound by canon law to celibacy and obedience to the church hierarchy, but the religious take further vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and bind themselves to the rules of their respective orders.

I wasn't done asking about his outfit yet. Where, I persisted, did one shop to get a getup like his? "You join the order and they give it to you when you're a novice," he said. "Fifty years ago the friars sewed all their own habits, but now we often hire others to do it. This one was made by the Poor Clare sisters in Minooka, Illinois. They're a Franciscan order of women and that's a big part of their livelihood."

"What's the fabric?" I asked, hoping for his sake it wasn't some flesh-mortifying synthetic.

"It's wool, but it's very thin," Welle said. "It looks heavier and hotter than it is. I told them, 'I want the thinnest, coolest material you can come up with that will not be see-through.' Because if you're out walking on a day like this, there are times of day when you can see the silhouette. With this one you can't—it's just thick enough."

Wrestling with the implications of his reply, I leaned away from the obvious follow-up question and instead asked what awaited him after his parish assignment. "Long-term, I hope to go on and earn a PhD in Islamic studies and teach in a university," he said. "Actually that's why I'm going downtown right now: to get a visa to go to Turkey next month."

Presently Welle's taking Arabic at the University of Chicago, where he also eventually hopes to do his doctorate. "I'm studying Arabic to strengthen my application when the time comes," he says. "I'm interested in the way religious communities construct their own identity and their notions of the religious Other. I'd like to look at Muslim thinkers of the late Middle Ages, post-Crusades, and how they thought about Christians and Jews in the period after the Crusades, and what that meant for their self-understanding."

Was this to be in the service of ecumenical understanding?

"Yes, in the long-term my interests are in contemporary Muslim-Christian dialogue," said Welle. "But the reason I'd like to write on the medieval period is that I'm fairly convinced that most of our foundational assumptions about how we construe the religious Other were solidified in the Middle Ages and the period following."

Speaking of construing the religious Other, how did people generally react to him in his habit?

"People will often ask me, 'Are you some kind of monk or something?'" said Welle. "They don't know, upon seeing me, what it is that I am, but they assume that whatever this brown thing is, it's a representation of who I am."

Do they ever think he's kidding?

"Yes, at the University of Chicago. It's the only place in the city where people assume it's a costume. It's an esoteric enough environment that people assume that someone would walk around in a brown dress just to antagonize people. At the bus stop one day, someone came up and said to me, 'Are you, like, a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism?' "

To be fair, the society, a sort of medievalist reenactment group, does have a healthy chapter at the U. of C.

"I laughed and said, 'No, our anachronisms are tired and stale. They're eight centuries old, there's nothing creative about it.'

"Actually, I can tell you a funnier story than that," Welle went on. "I used to volunteer at a place called the Port Ministries in Back of the Yards—they run a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, a wide range of social services stuff. One day I was walking in my habit at 51st and Ashland—kind of a rougher neighborhood, you know? And a woman with a very small son came up to me and stopped me, saying 'Hey brother, brother, brother! I just want to thank you for wearing your habit today, because I know that you don't have to, and our neighborhood is starved for signs of hope. I want my five-year-old son to meet a man who's living his life for God.'

"And I was just shocked! I stopped and prayed with them for a second, and blessed her son, and it was the sweetest thing that anyone has ever said to me.

"So they leave and I've got the warm fuzzy butterflies. I keep walking down the street. I don't take more than ten steps before I run into a teenager who looks at me and goes, 'Who the fuck are you, Harry Potter?'"

Most regular clergy, especially nuns, no longer wear a habit, I observed, and asked Welle whether, as others have suggested, that wasn't perhaps a huge branding mistake, one that might help account for the drop-off in enrollment in the Catholic orders.

"The reasons for the decline in religious life for both men and women are very complex," he said. "Some people are very quick to boil it down to something like that, though I'm reluctant to do so. The main reason that so many religious women were so quick to abandon the habit is that before the rules about it were relaxed, they tended to be much stricter about when the habit should be worn—they really had to wear it 24/7. And also their clothing tended to be a lot tougher to wear—you had those massive wimples. The rules for men tended to be a lot more flexible—if you were out working in the fields, you didn't necessarily wear your habit, or if you were a jogger. Whereas the women were on their hands and knees scrubbing floors in the full regalia, so when the opportunity came to chuck it, they generally chucked it completely, which is understandable considering what they had been through."

Which uniform packed more mojo, I wondered: the priestly collar and black suit or the brown robes?

"This is very personal," said Welle. "I am a priest and I own a black suit and collar so I can wear that if I want to, and I do on occasion if I'm going to a place where the meaning of the habit is unclear and the symbol of the collar is clear—say if I'm going to a hospital to anoint someone, the staff might not know what this robe is. Having said that, the collar strikes me as a power suit, and for me, coming to religious life was about relinquishing power and identifying with those who are less fortunate. The habit is usually not threatening to people, whereas the collar can scare the crap out of people. So I really prefer the habit of my order—it speaks to a different set of values."

Why does the collar scare the crap out of people?

"Part of it's the recent legacy of sexual abuse, part of it is the fact that many secular clergy tend to live a bit of a higher standard of living than the religious do," said Welle. "It's really a conglomeration of reasons. But for me, it ultimately comes down to the fact that I just don't like black. I like brown: I can slop coffee all over myself and no one knows."   

Editor's note: Cliff Doerksen, a frequent Reader contributor and former assistant editor, died earlier this month. This is his last article for the Reader. See senior editor Michael Miner's remembrance of Doerksen on the Reader Web site at bit.ly/gMWwRr.

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