Dear Fr. Joe: I’m appalled by some of the clothing I see at church on Sunday – everything from jeans to shorts to sleeveless tops. What is appropriate dress for Mass?
Thank you for this question! This is an issue that pops up fairly often and it’s good for us to pause and consider things like this.
I’d like to make something clear right off the bat: I’m not going to give you a dress code for Mass. I’m not doing it for a lot of reasons, the most important of which being the simple rule, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
Let’s say you’re at Mass and someone comes in dressed in a manner that you consider inappropriate – and believe me, in my experience, those standards run a very wide gamut. The easiest thing would be to draw conclusions, lament their state of dress and soak in self-righteousness. That’s the easiest thing to do, but not the right thing. The fact is, you don’t know what is happening in anyone else’s life, you don’t know what kind of circumstance they’ve just come from – we could fill books with what we don’t know.
Here’s what I think is the best approach; a guide of two things to consider when looking at how we dress for Mass. Those are the dignity of the celebration we are attending and the dignity of the human person.
We’ll start by pondering the celebration: when we celebrate Mass together, we are there to worship God. We are there to thank God for who he is and what he’s done. We are there to receive him through the body of Christ that is the gathering of his people, through the word of God that is our sacred Scripture and through reception of Jesus in the Most Blessed Sacrament that is the Eucharist. We are there as God joins heaven and earth in a triumphant song of praise, and this is a privilege beyond imagining. We remember Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection; we thank him for saving us from our sin. This celebration is all about God and it is filled with dignity and joy.
When we talk about the human person, we need to remember that we are, first and foremost, God’s children. We are, in the words of Pope St. John Paul II, “the sum of the Father’s love for us.” Through Jesus, we are inheritors of a heavenly kingdom that we didn’t earn, but that is ours purely by God’s gift. We are blessed to carry within our very selves the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We recognize his Spirit dwelling within us. We have been appraised, and God declared us as worth all his blood and all his breath. This is who we are and this is who every human we meet is.
These two things – who we are and what we are doing – come together and offer us a chance to let our dress reflect the wonder of both who we are and what we are doing when we walk into church.
Practically, I think it’s easy for us to forget the importance of prayer in addressing what we see.
If you are at Mass and see someone whose dress is distracting or disrespectful in your opinion, you can respond with two prayers. First, pray to let go of the distraction and focus on why you are there. Remember that this is about you, and not about them. What is distracting to one person may be completely respectful to another.
Second, pray that God bless and guide the person who distracted you. Condemnation and anger are always less effective than prayer and focusing on the only thing we can control in this circumstance: our response.
This is, by all accounts, a very contentious topic. If tradition holds, I will get angry letters from people who will either say I wasn’t strong enough or that I have just successfully chased people out of church. To both of those extremes, I invite you to ask God to keep your mind and heart focused on what he has put in your life to control and let go of the desire to control other people’s choices or situations.
Whatever we wear to Mass, I pray that it reflects the dignity of the celebration of the Eucharist and the dignity of what it means to be children of God. I pray that we, “Above all, clothe [ourselves] with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Col 3:14)
Enjoy another day in Christ’s presence.