Does what we wear to church matter?
I’ve been thinking about that ever since I recently read a couple of letters to the editor in Catholic New York that raised the issue. One letter focused on young people’s wearing casual clothing—including the currently fashionable torn jeans—that the letter-writer considered inappropriate for Mass. Another letter-writer was happy to see young people in church regardless of what they wore, and thought that God would agree.
I have sympathy for both points of view, and I think that the topic deserves attention.
I have seen people in church (not just teens or young adults) wearing clothes that made me want to ask them, “Would you wear that outfit to your best friend’s wedding? Or to a job interview?” If the answer were no, I would ask: “If it’s not good enough for a wedding or a prospective employer, why is it good enough for God?”
I am not, of course, referring to people who do not have the means to dress more appropriately. One of the things I love best about Catholic churches (and this goes for all or most houses of worship) is that anyone is welcome there. Special attire is not required for praying, or for just coming in and sitting for a while. The commandments do not include a dress code, and I don’t judge people by what they wear. I am talking about people who have the means to wear clothing that is more suitable for Mass than, say, sloppy jeans and a message T-shirt advertising a bar.
Other kinds of clothing that I don’t like to see in church are super-short miniskirts and—on anybody regardless of gender—clothing that is skintight.
Is God happy to see people in church even if what they are wearing might be inappropriate? I don’t like to assume that I know what God is thinking, but in one sense, most likely he is. That doesn’t mean we need to approve of clothing that doesn’t convey the respect and reverence that church services merit.
Decades ago—say, in the mid-20th century—the term “Sunday best” described what many, if not most, people wore to church, or to any event that required a dignified appearance. It was taken for granted that people attending church services would wear clothes that were neat, modest and in good repair. The cultural changes in the United States since then have cut deeply into many traditions that we had perhaps thought unshakeable. One change is that manners and dress are more casual in many situations. In some ways, that’s good. I’m glad that women are no longer expected to wear hats in church, and that trousers and flat shoes are just as acceptable for women as skirts and high heels.
I’m not as enthusiastic about torn jeans.
Though the way we dress for church is important, there are matters that are far more pressing. Why is it that only about 22 percent of U.S. Catholics regularly attend Sunday Mass? Why do many Catholics—estimates vary—say they do not believe in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist? What can we do to bring inactive Catholics back to Mass, and to restore and strengthen belief in key elements of Catholic doctrine and practice?
Those issues seem far removed from any debate on what we should wear to Mass, but I think there is a connection. When we dress up, we send a message: “What I am doing is important. It matters to me. I respect the other people who are involved in this event, and I want my attire to reflect the dignity of what I am doing.”
Besides, dressing up makes us feel good. Wearing our Sunday best can reflect our joy in going to church to encounter the Lord.
Perhaps this year we can resolve to invite a Catholic we know to return to Mass. We can show by how we dress that going to Mass is important and rewarding. It’s a kind of silent witness that might lead to a significant conversation. And perhaps a return to Mass.