The Pope Wears White—So Do These Orders

From the Carthusians to the Camaldolese, these religious orders show that the good guys wear white, too.

Vincenzo Carducci, “Martyrdom of the Priors of the English Carthusians of London, Nottingham and Axholme,” c. 1639
Vincenzo Carducci, “Martyrdom of the Priors of the English Carthusians of London, Nottingham and Axholme,” c. 1639 (photo: Public Domain)

We are all familiar with the white vestments of the pope. And many of us know that the color, if not the design, goes back to at least the Dominican pope, Pope Benedict XI, who simply kept wearing the white habit of the Order of Preachers — though this doesn’t have seem to have become the norm until another Dominican pope, St. Pius V, stuck with the white of his order in the 16th century.

While the pope gets his power from being the Successor to St. Peter and Bishop of Rome, and is thus a member of the secular clergy, there are more than a few religious orders whose garments are also white. In order of foundation (pun intended):

The White Friars. Better known as the Carmelites and dating back as far as the late 1100s, “the white friars” is a bit of a misnomer as Carmelites (both the original order and the later order of Discalced Carmelites) are known mainly for their brown habits — and the proliferation of the Brown Scapular, which was given to St. Simon Stock by the Blessed Virgin Mary. However, early paintings of the order shows members wearing a great white cape or cope. Whoever the founder of the Carmelite Order was, their rule was set by St. Albert. Numerous members of their order have been canonized, including three Doctors of the Church — Sts. Teresa of Ávila, John of the Cross and Thérèse of Lisieux.

The Carthusians. I’ve written at length on St. Bruno (d. 1101) and his founding of the Carthusian monks here. Their habit is actually a holdover from the Cistercian monks of Cîteaux, where St. Bruno briefly stayed before moving to the French desert of Chartreuse and founding the motherhouse, “Le Grande Chartreuse,” or the Great Charterhouse, which is the name given to the monasteries of this strictest of all monastic orders. There is only one Carthusian foundation in the United States: The Charterhouse of the Transfiguration in Vermont.

The Cistercians. Founded in the 11th century in the French valley of Cîteaux by St. Robert of Molesmes, St. Stephen Harding and St. Alberic, these men wanted a return to the original austerity of the Rule of Saint Benedict, their spiritual father. As with the Carmelites, the term “white monk” is also not 100% precise. It refers, rather to the choir robe worn over their habits (which is composed of a black or brown scapular). Perhaps their most famous member is the great reformer and Church Doctor, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who was a friend and contemporary of St. Norbert of Xanten (see below).

Canons Regular of Premontre. I’ve written on St. Norbert and his 12th-century foundation here. The Norbertine habit, which according to tradition was given to St. Norbert directly in a vision from the Blessed Virgin Mary, most closely mirrors the pope’s own vestments — not only in color, but in the sash, the short cape with buttons and the white tunic. Not for nothing are Norbertines (or Premonstratensians) also called “The Little Popes”! However, when fully garbed, they were a white biretta on their heads, whereas the pope would wear either an ermine camauro or zucchetto.

The Order of Preachers. As mentioned above, this mendicant order, founded by St. Dominic in 13th-century Spain, does indeed wear a white habit. However, they also feature a great, flowing black cape. The Dominicans have produced four popes — among the most of any single religious order that has not undergone a reformation.

The Camaldolese. Like the Carthusians above, the Camaldolese are among the strictest monastic orders still in existence. And, like the Carthusians, they are an eremitical order (meaning they are really more a collection of hermits than a community that prays together daily). Founded by St. Romuald in the 11th century, he did in Italy what the Cistercians were doing in France — that is, returning to the original version of St. Benedict’s Rule. I’ve written more on St. Romuald here. There is one American Camaldolese foundation in the United States, in Big Sur, California.

The Trappists. A reform of a reform. The Trappists are monks whose official name is “The Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance,” but took on the moniker of “Trappist” not because they are at all “trapped,” but due to the fact that their mother house is “La Grande Trappe” in Normandy, France. Founded by Armand Jean le Bouthillier de Rance in 1664, the Trappists wanted, like the Cistercians, to get back to the genuine sixth-century Rule that Saint Benedict had penned for his followers.

The White Fathers. A missionary society of apostolic life founded by Archbishop Charles Martial Lavigerie in 1868, no one should have been surprised when the order decided to wear white since they were stationed in the stupefying heat of Africa. They number nearly 1,200 members and minister to the poor and sick of Africa. A unique aspect of their all-white habit is the dark rosary that they wear around their necks.

Marians of The Immaculate Conception. Founded in the 17th century by Saint Stanislaus Papczyński, the Marians are the first Polish religious order for men. Papczyński had originally joined the Piarist fathers, but left to found his own order. The white habit, with a distinct turned-up collar, seems to have been Papczyński’s innovation, as the Piarists wear a habit closer to that of the Jesuits or the local clergy.