Inside Out: Dressing for Mass

Debates about liturgical forms and proprieties abound among Catholics. Beyond the translations and rubrics for rituals, music constitutes the other main point of contention. But one issue that I see least mentioned on the internet (at least outside discussions of the Extraordinary form) is proper attire.

Perhaps that’s because people don’t see it as important. “God doesn’t care what I wear” and “It doesn’t matter what I wear as long as I’m a good person” and “at least I’m coming to Mass” seem to be the general attitudes.

Such was the case for some when a priest friend of mine posted one of his homilies on Facebook. He spoke of dressing for Mass within the proper context: the idea that we are dressing for God, the most important Person in our lives. In fact, his homily not only covered the subject of proper Mass attire, but also informed its audience more fully about vestments and the vesting process.

Dressing as Mindfulness and a Mark of Respect for Others

Behind vesting, he remarks, lies intention. While robing himself with each vestment the priest says various prayers, all directed toward the goal of preparing for and offering Mass. He wears not what suits him, but what suits the occasion. This keeps him mindful of what he is doing, helps him focus, lessens the opportunity for distraction.

Father pointed out that the laity also must have the same concern. And we do, even in secular matters: do we not dress in a particular way for dances? For going out to a fancy restaurant? When meeting a famous personage? When attending an award banquet,  a graduation ceremony, a wedding? Even when going on a date? Who, if meeting the President of the United States, or the Queen of England, would not want to be dressed at the very least in a decent pair of jeans, some sensible shoes, and a nice shirt (if not in a formal dress or suit)? Would you meet either of them comfortably in yoga pants and a tank, or sweatpants and a t-shirt?

If we dress in a specific way, often up, on these occasions, then we must also dress properly for Mass. And since God is more important than any top star, dance, or award, He commands more respect and better dress from us. This does not, as Father continues, mean simply dressing up–financial situations, of course, often limit what you can buy–but giving God our best, whatever that is.

Dressing as a Mark of Respect for God

One commenter on Facebook completely missed the point. She continually insisted that we should not judge people based on what they wear to Mass, that what is important is that people are going to Mass, and said that this sort of judgement teaches our children to bully other people.

Her first problem is to conflate judgment of action with judgment of heart. We can judge that it is objectively inappropriate for someone to be wearing, say, a swimsuit or PJs in church. If we could not judge actions, the Christian morality to which we subscribe would be moot. What we must not judge are hearts, and Father in his homily did not at all attempt to do that.

What he attempted to do was move hearts. His words came from a desire to inflame in his people more faith, to point them outside themselves to God, to show them something they had perhaps not realized before. So though I understand the commenter’s concern–of repelling those whose faith is just burgeoning or only tenuous–her attitude does more harm than good. Why? Because it is focused on us and not God. It is focused on what we want to do, and reflects a society that thinks God should be grateful we pay any attention to Him at all, and that we do anything for His sake. (I am not in anyway implying that said commenter believes these things, but am pointing out the root cause of these ideas, which disguises itself even in well-meaning people as care for others.)

When we go to Mass, we go not for ourselves, to be entertained, nor for others, to please them. We go for God. We go because He asks us to. We go because He is our Creator, the One we should love above all others, the One who loves us, the One whom we should worship with every fiber of our being and every action. We go because we love Him. God, the Being most deserving of respect, ought to be shown that respect, in every way, both privately and publicly. Dressing specially for Mass is one way of showing God and the world that we love, adore, and respect Him, that He is like no other. It also encourages us to see what we are doing as important.

“Do people who dress for Mass in less exalted attire not love God?” someone will inevitably ask.

I will then rub the bridge of my nose in resigned frustration and answer, “That is not at all what I’m saying.” What I’m saying is that the way we dress at Mass is about God, not about us. Our outfits should reflect His honor and glory, not ours. Dressing properly for Mass is about falling more deeply in love with God. Because if we love him, we will want to show it in all the ways we know how. But we don’t know all those ways, and sometimes our sinful nature will even lead us to be repelled by those ways, because Satan wants to lead us away from God.

Dressing as a Sign of Our Love

What the commenter–and many of us today–forgets is that God cares about us so much He wants to change us. He is not satisfied for us to continue in sin. He will do anything to help us relinquish it: including letting us come to Mass in the first place, and then helping us realize how we should properly dress.

I do not know whether I am repeating myself, or whether I can completely articulate in words what I am attempting to say here, but I am going to try.

Turning to God is the first step. If our turning to God means going to Mass, whatever we wear, then that is good. Sufficient, for that day, is going to Mass in yoga pants. But eventually that becomes easier. One day, it will not bother us to go to Mass in yoga pants at all. But it may still be hard not to gossip or to honor our parents or to be chaste, and perhaps we have been living on and gossiping, being disrespectful, and being unchaste. Yet we cannot say, “I go to Mass; this is enough; I can continue in my gossip, disrespect, and unchastity.” We cannot just look to do the minimum good. What must happen is we must say, “Now that I have turned to God I see the error of my ways; I shall begin to fix them” and then we proceed, in whatever way we can, to turn from sin. Our hearts, hardened by sin, have been softened by God and by our growing love for him. Changing ourselves will become something we choose to do with love, not merely something we think we are obligated to do. It will not be easier because we love God, but we will do it anyway because we love Him.

All sinners, even the saints, continued to have their eyes opened to sins and to ways of loving God. They did not always like to hear that they were in error, just like we do not, but they pushed through the obstinacy of sin and mended their ways anyway.

So we encourage people to dress in their Sunday best, the best clothes they have, as a mark of their love for God. They are not bad or evil if they do not, but if they intentionally do not dress their best for no other reason than they do not feel like it, they may perhaps lack understanding of why.

I do not think I have said well what I have to say, but I hope a small part of it does get across. My main point is that the things we do are about God, not about us, and that our outward actions reflect our inward attitude and orientation. So if we love God, we will seek to show that love for Him in various ways–including dressing our best for Him in His own house.

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