...But your neighbors do. Word on Fire blog contributor Father Damian Ference explores the always colorful (and low-cut) topic of Summer Fashions at Mass. And while God might not have a problem with those sweat pants, chances are someone else will.
Have you heard it yet? If not, chances are you will in the next few weeks. And if you don’t hear it from the pulpit, you might read it in the parish bulletin. And if you don’t find it in your pastor’s column, maybe yours is the community where the parish council or liturgy commission has decided to place signs in the vestibule. Yes, summer is almost here, which means so is summer dress, and with the change of seasons and the change of attire usually follows the annual reminder: please dress appropriately for Mass.
There was a time not so long ago when folks just knew what was appropriate attire for church and what wasn’t. They didn’t need a reminder. For instance, when I look back to pictures of crowds at Cleveland Indians games from the 1950s, the men were wearing the same outfits to the ball game that they would wear to Mass on Sunday mornings—dress pants, a shirt, a tie and a hat. In other words, the culture and the church were on the same page in regard to proper attire. The same, I am told, is true of air travel. There was a time when people actually dressed up in their Sunday best to fly from one city to another, whether they were flying in first class or coach.
Cultural trends have changed dramatically in recent years as far as dress is concerned, and we Americans have become much more casual in our attire. And since it is now acceptable to dress down for baseball games, air travel and even the theatre, we shouldn’t be too surprised that this trend has carried over to church. But is there anything we can do about it?
One approach is to make the argument that immodest or improper dress is an offense to God. Most of us have heard this one somewhere along the way, that somehow the Master of the Universe is upset by the fact that you are wearing shorts, a t-shirt, a tank top or a skirt that is showing too much leg. And on one level this argument works—the church is God’s house, and dressing improperly as a visitor to God’s house is a sign of disrespect to him.
But, of course, there is that argument that many teenagers offer to their parents, priest or youth minister: “God doesn’t care what I wear to church—He’s just glad I’m at mass, and you should be too!” There is something very right about this argument as well.
As jarring as it sounds at first, we must always keep in mind the fact that God does not need us. God did not create the world or create us men and women in his image and likeness out of need—God creates out of love. God does not need us to come to church or even to pray. God does not need us to celebrate the sacraments. God does not need us to sing hymns of praise to him in order to build us his self-esteem. Whether or not we come to Mass, go to confession, and pray every day, God will still be God. Nothing we do or don’t do can diminish who God is or that God is.
We Christians don’t glorify, praise, adore and worship the living God because it is good for God—we worship and pray and seek forgiveness because it is good for us. As the dialogue goes at Mass: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right and just.” Worship truly is an act of justice. It is something we owe God for all that God has done for us. It is in worshipping God that we become who God made us to be. Worship sanctifies us. It makes us holy. The sacraments are not for God; they are from God and they are for us, so that we can become like God. In other words, worship doesn’t change God.
Worship changes us.
So does God really care what we wear to church when we worship? Probably not, but our neighbors do, and this is the point. God is not distracted by the young man whose pants are hanging 10 inches below his waist and whose striped boxers are showing, but the family in the pew behind him is. God’s attention is not diverted by the woman whose neckline is showing off much more than her neck, but the priest giving her communion is. God’s concentration is not broken by the couple in cut-offs, flip-flops and sleeveless shirts, but the elderly woman’s sitting next to them in the pew is. God may not care what we wear to church, but our neighbors do.
Catholic worship is never just a ‘Me and Jesus’ sort of thing; it always involves community. The reason we ask folks to keep quiet in church isn’t because God is offended by our talking, it is because our neighbors deserve a place where they can pray in silence before and after mass. The same is true for proper dress at mass. Dressing well can assist the community in praying well—it can help alleviate distraction. Dressing appropriately is a sign of respect for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Even the priest dresses the way he does at Mass not primarily for God, but for the people of God. Does God need the priest to wear an alb, stole and chasuble? Nope, but the people of God need him to. The priests’ attire helps the community to pray and to pray well. The people of God should expect that their priest dress appropriately for mass, just as the priest should expect the same of his parishioners.
So as the days get warmer and we start pulling out the summer clothes, we would be wise to select our Sunday dress with the community of believers in mind. May what we wear to church not be a distraction to others, but may it help our brothers and sisters worship, and worship well.
Rev. Damian J. Ference is a priest of the diocese of Cleveland. He is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and a member of the formation faculty at Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio.