How We Dress for Mass

Originally posted in St. Paul's Bulletin in 1985

Why do so many parishioners come to Sunday Mass informally clad?

Willingly or unwillingly, one’s attire reflects a certain mood or attitude.  We may not be dining at 24 Sussex Drive or attending a royal wedding, but if the occasion is one of celebration or solemnity, it befits us to dress accordingly.  Some judges, to underscore the gravity of jury duty, let it be known they expect coat and tie of male jurors and a comparable outfit for women.  Even off-track betting parlours have been known to require jackets of their patrons.  Why, then do so many of our parishioners come to Sunday Mass informally clad?  One would think they had it from God himself that he is pleased to accept them “as they are”.

Informality is, of course, much in vogue these days in a variety of venues.  Prominent corporations have introduced “Dress-down days” for their employees, and increased casualness has long been a feature of concerts, operas, and other social events.

Dressing down is even regarded by some as a mark of American-style democracy.  Actually, the roots of the custom are distinctly foreign.  It was the practice of French revolutionaries, and later on of Communist commissars to wear their radicalism on the sleeve; Lenin caps, Mao jackets, and Castro fatigues are items of clothing often worn by admirers.  Although claiming to be on the side of the common man, what distinguishes Napoleonic France, Soviet Russia, mainland China, and Communist Cuba is their hostility to organized religion.

Academics have been known to parade their contempt for traditional values by sipping coffee in the classroom and putting their feet on the furniture.  At the same time, millionaires wishing to blend into the crowd have taken to wearing blue jeans.

The point is this: informality makes a statement, and the question is whether we, as Catholics, wish to be identified with the kind of statement it so often makes.

One can go further.  We all have a mission to evangelize, and what better way is there than to make people aware of where we are heading on Sunday and how we feel about it?  Without uttering a single word, our “Sunday Best” proclaims the good news.  Why should people feel, when they scan the streets on Sunday, that no one is going to church?  We see Jehovah’s Witnesses on street corners and observant Jews en route to the synagogue.  But where is the Catholic presence?  With Roman collars harder and harder to spot, how is the average person to know that vocations are far from dead and that our faith is alive?  One of the very first things a militantly materialist government does in trying to undermine belief in God, is to prohibit priests and nuns from wearing clerical garb.  In this way, religion is made to appear passe.  Shouldn’t we who are fortunate enough to live in a land of freedom avail ourselves of the opportunity afforded by such freedom? No one is obliged to rush out and buy a tuxedo for Sunday Mass, but one should dress at least as formally as one would dress for work and, if possible, more formally.

If Bible verses are needed, one can turn to Psalm 29:2 which exhorts the faithful to “give to the Lord the glory due his name” and to “worship the Lord in holy attire”.  According to God’s specification, his temple was to be as beautiful as human hands could make it, and his priests were to be outfitted in the finest cloth.  Surely, if the Almighty expressed concern about the appearance of his hours of worship and his priests, he cares about how members of the rank-and-file present themselves, for as Vatical Council II affirmed, men and women of the laity share in the priestly ministry.  When Moses stood before the burning bush, God directed him to “Remove your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”

Later, at the foot of Mount Sinai, he instructed his people through Moses to wash their clothes.  Once again, appearances mattered, and for a very simple reason: one of the purposes of public worship, as highlighted in the Bible, is to give glory to God (Haggai 1:8).  SO, WE ASK OURSELVES “DOES MY DRESS AND APPEARANCE GIVE GLORY TO GOD?”

Such glory is enhanced when one bows or genuflects, just as it is diminished when one crosses one’s legs, drapes one’s arms over the back of the pew, or converses unnecessarily with another in church.

Jesus himself was not one to dress down if the evidence at hand is any indication.  The kind of tunic he wore, and for which the Roman soldiers threw dice on Calvary, was seamless and therefore of considerable value for the period in which he lived.  There is also the story he told about a man thrown out of a banquet for want of proper dress.  Admittedly, the parable is concerned in the first instance with “spiritual attire,” but the Lord’s choice of imagery is noteworthy because it suggests where he stands on collateral issues.  Recall, too, the forcefulness with which he demanded that the temple remain “a house of prayer.”  The occasion on which he spoke these words was the only time during his public ministry when he is on record as having resorted to physical violence - driving the money changers out of the temple.

Naysayers claim that a return to formality would usher in another Gilded Age of social vanity and the flaunting of fortune.  This seems unlikely, however, in this age of equality.  And even if it were so, is there not more than little vanity and presumption in expecting God to “take us as we are?”

Another argument dear to the heart of sceptics is that formality penalizes the poor.  Informality, they submit, is the great equalizer.  This may have been true in the past, but no longer, for the real cost of clothing over the years has steadily declined. More important than the price of clothing is its neatness, cleanliness and modesty.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

In sum, there are many compelling reasons to dress up, rather than down, for church.  The Mass is a stupendous miracle, and those who partake of the heavenly banquet are tremendously privileged.  Polite decorum and appropriate dress are simply one way of acknowledging this privilege.  But when all is said and done, we need to get back to plain common sense and to behaviour that would seem, as well as be, “right and proper.”