Last week we had a discussion on the women wearing veils in Church. One of the themes that emerged in the comments was that the discussions about what to wear in Church should be broader than just a veil. More specifically BOTH men and women should consider how they dress when going into God’s house. Hence I would like to explore some background issues and  enunciate some principles. You of course will be able to add to them.

1. Scripture – There is very little in Scripture that seems to spell out the proper way to dress for sacred worship. There is the general directive to Adore the Lord in holy attire (Psalm 96:9; Ps 29:2) But this seems more an allusion to holiness (God’s and ours) more than to clothing per se. There are directives for the Passover meal that one should have staff in hand, with loins girt and sandals on their feet (Ex 12:11). But this seems a specific rule for the Passover meal only and hardly something that would done in the synagogue or temple. To gird one’s loins meant to pull up the lower part of one’s outer garment and tighten the belt. This exposed the lower legs and allowed greater mobility for them. It was a sign of being flight or of being at work. It is the ancient equivalent of “roll up your sleeves.”  (more HERE). As a general rule Jewish people would not show their legs unless circumstances strongly required it. They would surely not come to the synagogue or the Temple in this manner. Scripture also speaks of Phylacteries and Prayer Shawls. But these sorts of clothing and accessories seem to have come under some critique in the New Testament (Matt 23:5) and their use was not continued in the New Testament Church worship.

2. Church norms and rules – There are no official and specific Church norms or requirement for lay persons who attend Mass mentioned in Canon Law or the Sacramentary. Surely for priests and other clergy there are many rules and norms but I am unaware of any currently binding norms for the laity. Although the veils were once required for women, the 1917 Code of Canon Law was abrogated and the current code is silent on any requirement.

3. Hence it seems that Culture supplies most of the norms regarding what is considered appropriate attire for Church. And, alas our culture is currently quite unhelpful to us in this regard. Here in America we have become extremely casual about the way we dress for just about everything. It seems we almost never dress up anymore. This has changed somewhat dramatically in my own life time of just less than 50 years. “Sneakers” or “tennis shoes” as we called them were for sports or running around and playing in the neighborhood. But we would never even think of wearing them to school and certainly not to Church. I remember having a special set of shoes just for church. In the 1960s, it was also expected that I would go to Church in formal, pressed trousers, a button down shirt, and, except in the hottest months, a tie and even a suit jacket in winter. My sister and mother always wore a dress. Pants would not even have been considered for them. For the younger girls a skirt and a blouse might be OK but preferably a dress with a hat or veil.

But things changed dramatically around 1970. The photo above right was taken in 1969 at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Canton, Massachusetts. It was the end of an era. Within five years neckties were lost and jeans and a t-shirts came to be the norm. Most of the women as we discussed lost the veil, and dresses gave way to more casual pants suits and then also to other more casual things like jeans etc. Shorts for men and women, unthinkable in previous years also began to appear in church as did tank tops and other beach attire. Within ten years the culture of dressing up for Church was almost wholly abandoned. Now  wearing a tie to Church would seem stuffy and formal.

But this is where our culture has gone. It is not just Church. Years ago when my family went out to eat we almost always dressed up. Maybe it wasn’t a full neck tie but at least trousers and a button down shirt. Maybe not a formal dress for mom and sis, but at least a skirt and blouse. A restaurant was considered a semi-formal outing. School was also considered a place where things like jeans and informal t-shirts were out of place. Going down town to shop meant we changed out of shorts and put on something appropriate. Shorts were basically for running around the house, playing in the yard and such. But you just didn’t go out to more public settings wearing shorts and flip flops or even sneakers.

Pardon me for sounding like and old fud but I am not really that old. My point is that culture has changed,  and changed rather quickly. This has affected the Church as well. What were fighting is a strong cultural swing to the extremely informal. Most people don’t even think of dressing up for most things any more let alone Church.

4. Hence at the cost of seeming old and stuffy I might like to suggest a few norms and I hope you’ll supply your own as well:

  1. Men should wear formal shoes to Church. We used to call these hard shoes (because they were) but today many formal shoes are actually quite comfortable.
  2. Men should wear trousers (not jeans).
  3. Men should never wear shorts to Church.
  4. Men should wear a decent shirt, preferably a button down shirt. If it is a pullover shirt it should include a collar. Wearing a plain t-shirt without a collar is too informal.
  5. Men should consider wearing a tie to Church and in cooler weather, a suit coat. Some may consider this a bit too stuffy and formal but who knows, you might be a trend setter!
  6. Now as I talk about women I know I’ll get in some trouble!
  7. Women should wear decent shoes to Church. Flip flops, beach sandals etc. seem inappropriate.
  8. Women should not wear shorts to Church.
  9. Women, if they wear pants, should never wear jeans to Church. Some nice slacks that are not too tight can be fine.
  10. Women should consider wearing a dress or at least a skirt in preference to pants. It just looks a bit more formal than pants.
  11. Women should wear a nice blouse (if they are not wearing a full dress). The blouse or shirt they wear should not be too tight.
  12. Sleeveless garments are pushing it a bit but can be acceptable.
  13. Women should never wear tank tops, tube tops, spaghetti straps, or bare midriffs to Church.
  14. Well, you may have at this list. Add or subtract as you will.

A final thought: Clothes say something about what we think, what we value. They also influence how we behave and feel. That our culture has become so casual about everything says something about us. I cannot exactly articulate it but it seems to say, “nothing is really all that important.” But that is not true. Going to God’s house IS  important. Being ministered to by the King of Kings and Lord of Lords is astounding. Casual attire in these circumstances is simply inappropriate if we really think about what we are doing, where we are going and who it is we will meet. It does not necessarily follow that we must wear tuxedos and formal gowns. But decent semi-formal attire seems wholly appropriate. Sunday is special, God’s House is special. Somethings really ARE important and our clothing and demeanor ought to reflect this truth.

367 Responses

  1. Zorro says:

    I couldn’t agree more! My parish is an abomination. Ushers & $$ collectors wear sandals, hawaiin shirts and shorts. But, the Church needs to share the blame. You strip the Church with it’s Calvin-esque appearance, celebrants did away with baroque vestments and wore simpler attire and no one said anything–they just let it fester and happen. You lead by example and the example starts with the Church.

    Occasionally, I go to a Latin Mass. I felt under-dressed NOT wearing a tie! However, I do focus more on the mass: supposedly the highest form of prayer. Bare skin, hairy legs, and see-through clothing are not a distration–as it should be.

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  3. Fernando says:

    I want to know what your thoughts are about political pins worn by lay ministers (ushers, eucharistic ministers, etc) at Mass. At my church, one of the ushers has a habit of wearing a political party pin on his lapel, and has taken to wearing pins and shirts with political messages on them. Is this appropriate? Is there a rule or norm in the Archdiocese about this practice? To me, it seems entirely out of place.

  4. Great post.Ne’er knew this, appreciate it for letting me know.

  5. God does not judge what we wear.... says:

    I agree in much of what you are saying however I do have to disagree with the lingo you are using. We do not get dressed up because we are in God’s house we get dressed up in respect for each other. So we will not be distration to each other when we have come together to worship the Lord. It is true there are for certain events or services that we dress in slacks, button down shirt..etc. For example: weddings, debuts or special mass services.
    I have never accepted the fact that God will care what I am wearing. Mainly, because he said to not be concerned of such things. In mathew Jesus says we should not be concerned for how we will live, what are we are to eat or how should we dress ourselves. We should only focus on God’s heavenly kingdom. I have always worn jeans to mass; sometimes I get dressed nice when my family and I feel like it. When I was single, I did a few times attend mass in shorts but no one could ever denie the fact my devotion and adoration to the Lord. Now that I am married and work in a church myself, I dont ever wear shorts anymore but I would if I new it would not cause a distration. But since it does, I do not. God is savior, my king, my master but most importantly….God is my best friend! For Jesus did say he no longer calls us servants but friends and I believe him! So my friends, we dress appropriatly to mass to prevent a distraction from others around us not because we enter into the house of God.

    • Chaplain says:

      The first priestly King, the Servant of God, David, did instruct his people to Worship the Lord in Holy Attire. Perhaps, God does not care how you dress to worship, but do you care how you look before God?
      Yes, indeed, God care about what is in one’s heart. But then what is in one’s heart also shows on the outside.
      I think it is one thing when one is meeting one’s best friend at the market place. It is quite a different thing when one is meeting one’s best friend at the Governor’s Mansion. The attitude one has toward God is reflected on one’s demeanour and portment in God’s House.
      God may not make ask of us to appear before Him properl;y dressed. But how do you want to present yourself before God? Would it not be your ever best?
      When you went out on your first date, how did you dress? And is the Mass, a holy, worshipping encounter with God, not more important than the first date?

  6. Colleen Duncan says:

    Thank you for your views. I have believed this for a long time. I have believed this for a long time and I’ve
    been looking everywhere to find comments and beliefs that substantiate this thinking. I think that we have
    become not comfortable but lazy. Our country us changing many things that are not defending the
    existance of God. We have to be particularly careful so that we don’t offend those who don’t believe in
    God. God have been removed from schools and civic places because we are offending others rights.
    BUT WHAT ABOUT OUR RIGHT TO BE CHRISTIAN. We need to stop being so lazy and stand up for
    our rights as christians and if we start dressing up for church and feeling and showing that we are proud
    to be a christian then maybe others will catch on.
    What the heck the gay right movement caught on, birth control caught on, abortion caught on and many
    more. Stop following the crowd and listen to our heart and the Lord will tells us what is right. Initate is by
    dressing up for church and show others that we do have rights, we are proud of them and that we are
    no longer going to sit back and let the rest of the world walk over us. They say we are uptight or we need
    to be cool and join the others. my answer is NO I will remain faithful to God,church and I will not allow
    others to infringe on my right.

  7. Aaron says:

    I was taught at an earlier age that sneakers and sports jerseys are not acceptable to a place of worship and to this day, I always dress up for church, regardless of weather condition. Is it appropriate to wear cowboy boots to church since I live in Texas where they are the norm? Most parents these days allow their kids to wear t-shirts, shorts, and Nikes/flip-flops to church and think it’s okay! If they were mine, that won’t be the case! These days, people go out in public dressing like they normally wear while working out at the gym and think it’s ok to dress like that! What is wrong with this country? I understand that this is the United States and that times have changed since like the mid-to-late 60’s but people need to take responsibility for what attire is appropriate for where! I don’t allow myself or anyone to wear pants sagging down where people expose their undershorts! That is never appropriate!

  8. Francisco says:

    Thanks for finally writing about > Adore the Lord in Holy Attire – On Proper Dress for
    Mass

  9. Deb says:

    One has to believe that Jesus Christ is present in the Eucharist and that HE is GOD in order to be concerned about how one appears when they come before Him. Those who came before Him when he walked this earth, for healing and help would prostrate themselves before Him or fall to their knees. We don’t even bother to do that anymore when we receive Him in the Eucharist, the greatest of all gifts.
    We as a society judge each other by our actions. The early Christians were obviously different from those around them and others were attracted to what they saw in them. What do we say to others when we show up at Mass in shorts, jeans, flip flops and beach wear? Do we say we are appearing before the Creator of the Universe? Do we say we are there to worship, to praise, to love, to adore, to show our desire for God’s great mercy or do we say, I am going to fit this hour into my day, but I am not going to take an extra ten minutes to get dressed up because it really isn’t that important? This is just an obligation.
    Who would go to a job interview in their shorts? Who would go to a five star restaurant in their jeans and flip flops?
    If we truly understood who is before us in the Tabernacle, we would realize how unworthy we are to even be in His presence. How we dress is a major way of showing respect, to anyone, but especially to God. It also makes a very strong statement to everyone around us. People do form opinions based upon our actions. Do we want to be a person who draws others by our actions or who affirms to them that none of the externals matter? Disrespect in one area leads to disrespect in others and so it goes.

  10. David Rericha says:

    Thank you, Msgr Pope, for this courageous article! If it doesn’t matter to God how we dress at Mass, why should it matter how we dress anywhere else? If our exterior appearance has no connection with out interior, why can’t I go to a Wedding or a Funeral or meet the Queen in an Hawaiian shirt and sandals?

    The truth of the matter is that how we dress does reflect our interior attitudes. If I show up to meet the Queen in beach attire, I am projecting an interior attitude that I don’t regard the occasion as all that important or the personage I meet as worthy of any extraordinary respect. How can the same not be true of meeting the King of Kings and the Lord or Lords at the Holy Sacrifice of the Eucharist?

  11. Holly S says:

    Msgr., I thank you for publishing this article. Since becoming a Lector and an Extraordinary Minister of the Holy Eucharist, I have ALWAYS worn a proper dress or skirt/blouse to Mass. Even when I am not on the schedule, I will still wear modest, feminine clothing, as this is the proper way to show respect not just to God, but to myself.

    However, Priests have the moral obligation to address their congregations about proper and modest apparel in a Mass setting. Yes, it is most important that Roman Catholics attend and participate in Sunday Mass, it is also important to attend Mass dressed properly. While it is the attendee’s responsibility to see that he/she and/or children are dressed in a proper, modest manner, sometimes we become lazy and complacent. We no longer think that we are going to God’s house, but rather, to the beach or gym, or that we are simply lounging in our own living rooms. When the latter happens, the priest must do what is proper and moral (what you have done) and address the congregation on proper attire. I find it sad and disgraceful that adults (who are supposed to have common sense) must be told how to dress, especially if one is a Liturgical Minister.

    I once attended a Mass where the Extraordinary Ministers of the Holy Eucharist were dressed very casually: tennis shoes; women wearing cropped pants and capri pants; men wearing sport shirts and golf shirts. Ministers wearing sandals with no socks/nylons. I was so appalled and disgraced at the way these Ministers were dressed, that I almost did not receive our Lord in the Eucharist.

    I attended another Mass where a family was bringing the Offertory Gifts to the Sanctuary. The family’s teenager daughter was wearing a shirt that was very tight and very low-cut, and a skirt that was very tight and very high-cut. I was hoping she did not sneeze or drop anything. I found this girl to be an incredible distraction, simply by virtue of her (lack of) proper attire. I blame the girl, but I also blame her parents for allowing her wear harlot’s clothing to Mass. What kind of parents would allow their daughter to wear skimpy, provocative clothing in public, let alone to Mass?

    In conclusion, I am very happy that you have addressed this issue of decent, moral dress. I only hope more Priests will follow your lead and do the same.

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