GLOBAL.CH squareAn April 18, 2010, story from the Florida Times-Union begins, “Hospital patients don’t have to think twice to figure out who Sr. Lucie Thai is when she walks down a corridor or into their rooms at St. Vincent’s Medical Center …. She’s one of only a handful of Catholic nuns in Northeast Florida who still wear a habit or veil.”

According to writer Jeff Brumley, Sr. Lucie keeps the veil “because it instantly communicates who she is as a chaplain.”

I saw this principle in action May 18 at the Rite of Promise at St. Francis de Sales, Spooner. My English-born, non-practicing Episcopalian husband was sitting beside me in the last row of pews when Servite Sr. Dominica Effertz stood up near the front row on the opposite side of the church.

“That’s the nun,” he observed.

Obvious perhaps, but I had never thought about the powerful witness of a sister’s veil, a brother’s robes or a priest’s collar. It speaks volumes across a room.

Priests and religious naturally don’t share my lack of awareness. When I interviewed Fr. Patrick McConnell, he talked about wearing his collar in the community – at schools, in pubs, at a young person’s funeral – as silent outreach.

Stories of medieval England are always swarming with friars, monks and nuns, but today we are unlikely to encounter this cast of Catholic characters in everyday life. My parents were educated by nuns, but that era had all but ended by my childhood in the 1980s and 1990s. I recall seeing the occasional sister or brother, but they were few and far between – too few to etch more than a brief memory, and too infrequent to generate any lasting impression.

Certainly our religious figures have fallen visually out of American culture. Pope Francis aside, I don’t know of any living Catholic who is recognized simply for being Catholic.

Fact is, we in the States live in an ardently visual but decreasingly Christian culture. Not so to the south.

When I traveled to Peru in 2011, I was astonished by the sheer number of collar-wearing priests and habited nuns wandering around. They were in airports, on the streets, everywhere.

Taxi drivers had holy cards dangling from their rearview mirrors. Tourist shops sold little Last Suppers and Nativity scenes. The visual impact was – not unlike the rows of Our Lady of Guadalupe candles in Mexican groceries – a constant affirmation of faith that keeps religion at the heart of national identity.

In his 2010 article, Brumley speculated nuns’ habits were making a comeback. He reported orders with traditional garb were increasingly attracting young women; from what I’ve seen of the recently professed, that appears to be true.

Mother Mary Clare, founder and superior of the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus in Searles, Minn., considers the habit a visual reminder of a Handmaid’s consecrated presence. Having not lived through the time when the Vatican encouraged orders to modernize, I don’t know why habits were abandoned. But, when I see my husband show respect for a priest or nun, despite his native country’s complex and sometimes acrimonious history with the church, I recognize the value of that witness.