Rather than repost all that commentary here, I would like to focus on a new video (thanks to Brandon Vogt and the other producers) that invites us to be more considerate about how we dress for Holy Mass. The video is quite balanced and presents a range of views. One man wears a tie, the other does not; one woman wears a dress, the other, slacks. The point is not to specify in minute detail what is to be worn, but rather to reinstill a devotion that influences our clothing and demeanor at Mass within a range that is culturally recognizable as appropriate for the occasion.
As a “range” this will vary a bit based on age, season, climate, personal issues, and the like. But a range, while admitting variability still has limits beyond which we ought not to go. Consider of a road with several lanes; it also has shoulders and a guardrail. And while one may travel in any of the different lanes (styles), the shoulders should ordinarily be avoided (except for urgent reasons). The guardrail represents a final limit which, if transgressed, indicates that one has gone beyond safety and prudence.
Here are a few random observations about the range of clothing decisions for Holy Mass and what might affect and influence that range.
- Church norms and rules – There are no official, specific Church norms or requirements 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 veils were once required for women (in the 1917 Code of Canon Law), the current code is silent on the matter.
- Hence it seems that the culture supplies most of the norms. A factor to be considered is that in the West, the culture has become secular and does not therefore supply a proper sense of the sacred. Therefore Catholics ought not to simply consider cultural norms in assessing proper attire for Holy Mass.
- For, indeed, in American culture we almost never dress up for anything anymore. Casual is an almost ubiquitous norm. Most of us who are older than fifty remember a time when this was not so. Prior to 1968 (when the culturkampf really exploded) one would almost never think of going into a restaurant in shorts or a T-shirt. Trousers with a belt, and a button-down shirt with a collar were the expected norm. This norm prevailed in most other public places as well. Shorts and T-shirts were fine for the backyard, but not out in public. Today such norms are long-gone and casual attire prevails almost everywhere. Jeans and T-shirts, once considered rather sloppy except for those engaged in physical labor, and are now considered fashionable.
- So the cultural norms have changed. Some of us who are older or more conservative lament this. But some room has to be made for the general consideration of things like fashion and for the fact that people have different opinions about what is acceptable.
- But remember, saying that there is a range does not mean that there are no limits. There is some right and duty to insist on limits and to indicate offense when necessary. The culture, even if it has gone casual, does not alone supply a proper sense of dress for Holy Mass, since the culture has become secular.
- Sadly, even among many Catholics, attitudes about Holy Mass have changed, too, arguably for the worse. Poor catechism, bad liturgical practices, secularism, other cultural trends, and even architecture have all lessened the reverence many Catholics have for Holy Mass. Many do not consider that they go to meet and worship God. Communal dimensions, not bad in themselves, prevail; they are out-of-balance and eclipse the presence of God and the orientation that Holy Mass should have toward God. We aren’t just “going to Church,” we are going to encounter God and worship Him. But this is simply not the emphasis in most people’s minds and it affects the way they dress.
- God cares how we dress. One of the replies that sometimes comes back in discussions about proper attire is that “God doesn’t care how I dress.” One ought to avoid saying that God doesn’t care about things, especially when His revealed word indicates otherwise. There are actually a number of places where God indicates in His Word that He does care about such stuff. There is the general directive to Adore the Lord in holy attire (Psalm 96:9; Ps 29:2). Moses was told to remove his shoes for he stood on holy ground. There are directives for the Passover meal that one should have staff in hand, with loins girt, and sandals on his feet (Ex 12:11). St. Paul speaks to norms of his day regarding decorum and orderliness in worship, that women cover their heads in prayer, etc. (cf 1 Cor 11 – 14). Granted, these norms spoke to the culture of that time and admit of interpretation. But it is wrong to say categorically that “God doesn’t care how I dress.” God does care, because, as we all intrinsically know, the way we dress says a lot about how we regard something and affects how we behave. Even in our more casual times, people know the value of dressing well for a job interview, or for important events such as a prom, a wedding, or a State dinner. Clothing both signifies and affects our attitudes. To this extent God does care, because he looks to our heart and its condition. And we, too, should care, by observing a proper range of clothing choices for something as significant as Holy Mass, wherein we go to worship the God of the Universe and take part in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. Holy attire is fitting for holy things, holy rituals, and holy people.
- Climate – Another common reply is that it is “hot.” Yet here in America, I can hardly avoid chuckling at that response. For the most part, people leave their air-conditioned homes, get into their air-conditioned cars, and walk into air-conditioned churches. It may be hot outside, but most people spend little time in any sort of heat. It is also fascinating to me that our most recent ancestors, who had no air-conditioning at all, usually dressed and wore a lot more clothing than we do. I suspect one thing that helped them was that they wore more natural fibers such as cotton and linen. So this retort seems more rooted in a “comfort culture” that has made us soft and out-of-touch with the real weather outside. However, as noted above, climate and weather are factors in the range of clothing that is acceptable. Back in the “old days,” before the revolution, during the hot summer we would usually wear “only” a shirt and tie to Mass. It was mainly in the cooler months that a suit jacket was worn.
- Getting smarter about clothes? People often ask me, as a priest, how I tolerate the hot summers in Washington. I generally find that loose-fitting clothing is actually better than less clothing. My summer cassock (which has no liner) is a better option around the parish because it breathes more and shades my skin from the hot sun. Linen albs are best in hot weather since modern polyesters don’t breathe well. I am least comfortable in the black business suit I am often asked to wear. I shop for suit jackets without liners, but they are hard to find.
- The common good – In going to Mass, we do not simply dress to “suit” ourselves. We ought to have the common good in mind as well. Demonstrating the sacredness of Holy Mass is helpful to us and to others as well. Being careful not to dress in ways that distract others (by immodesty other such things) is important. The way we dress can be a teachable moment for others.
- Charity – Discussions about attire can easily descend into a lack of proper charity. We have to accept that there are going to be differences of opinion and, as I have said all along, there is a range of what is appropriate. The main hope is to scope out a sensible range, allow reasonable diversity within that range, and seek to correct extremes. Simply scoffing at others from either side (too casual or too formal) creates more heat than light. The main point is to consider what Holy Mass is, and to dress accordingly within an acceptable range, out of faith and charity.
What to wear, what not to wear?
Hence at the risk of seeming old and stuffy I’d like to suggest a few norms for attire at Holy Mass. I hope you’ll supply your own as well.
- Men should wear formal shoes. We used to call these hard shoes (because they were) but today many formal shoes are actually quite comfortable. Sandals (not flip-flops) can be acceptable.
- Men should wear trousers (not jeans).
- Men should not wear shorts.
- Men should wear a decent shirt, preferably a button-down one. If it is a pullover shirt it should include a collar. Wearing a plain T-shirt without a collar seems too informal. No sleeveless shirts or tank tops should be worn.
- Men should consider wearing a tie, 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!
- Now as I talk about women I know I’ll get in some trouble!
- Women should wear decent shoes. Flip-flops and beach sandals seem inappropriate. Some forms of sandals are more dressy and can be acceptable
- Women, like men, should not wear shorts.
- Women, like men, should not wear jeans, and though there is such a thing as fashionable jeans, they are seldom a good match to the Sacred Liturgy. Some nice and modest slacks can be fine.
- Women should consider wearing a dress or at least a skirt in preference to pants. It just looks a bit more formal than pants in most cases.
- Women should wear a nice blouse or shirt (if not wearing a dress). The blouse or shirt should not be too tight.
- Women should not wear tank tops, tube tops, spaghetti straps, or have a bare midriff.
- For both men and women, T-shirts with loud and obnoxious slogans or secular messages are inappropriate, as are sports jerseys and other sports paraphernalia.
Well, have at this list; add or subtract as you will; the discussion is open. But please, try to remain charitable; we all have opinions. Someone who doesn’t share your exact view isn’t necessarily a bad person. There is a range of acceptable options. Don’t attack the blogger (me) or your fellow commenters. Stick to the issue and comment on that.
If possible, please watch the video before commenting.
I have avoided speaking directly to modesty in this post. That, too, admits of a range and often leads to debates about men and women that I’d like to avoid here. Let’s focus on a sense of the sacred in attire, a theme that includes modesty but is wider than just modesty.
Here’s the video: