By Dr. Judy Bullock
The subject of proper attire for Mass has been coming up a great deal lately. With some trepidation I will attempt to address this topic. Except for the priest presider, the deacon and others serving in liturgical ministries, there are no directives given for dress for the rest of the assembly. Therefore, contrary to most columns, this one will not quote liturgical documents. Understanding that there will be many opinions on this subject, the hope is to stimulate thought on the present practice and an examination of good practice, since it arguably affects the celebration of the liturgy.
For those serving in various liturgical ministries, such as lector, cantor and extraordinary minister of holy Communion, this subject is included in the formation program for each. These ministers are cautioned about drawing attention to themselves by their mode of dress: such as signage on their shirts, tops or ties; flashy jewelry; hats that could be entered in the derby competition, etc.
They are also advised to refrain from wearing perfume, cologne or aftershave that may be problematic for those with respiratory issues. These factors can actually be an impediment to the congregation’s ability to focus on the Scripture readings, the psalmody, even the reception of holy Communion.
There is also particular concern for modesty of dress. Using the superlatives, too tight, too short, too low and too little are just some of the criticisms we hear on a regular basis referring to attire at church. Since bowing is a regular requirement for all of us at Mass, the clothing that we wear should pass the test for engaging in this action.
Although older adults are not immune to this by far, these issues seem to be especially problematic for the young. The fashion industry itself is one of the main culprits for this dilemma. To wear what everyone is wearing may be quite inappropriate for Mass. When the style of clothing in vogue would not meet the criteria of modesty for many of those expected to wear it, what are we to do?
At risk of sounding my age, I remember the days when we dressed up to go to Mass on Sunday: suits and ties for the men, dresses and hats for the women. Casual clothes for church seemed out of place in those days. Whether male or female, it would have been unheard of to wear shorts to Mass.
Although the majority of parishioners today dress respectfully for Mass, there are signs that the times have changed. It seems that almost any type of clothing is okay. When you add the economic restrictions placed on families today, having dress clothes and casual clothes may be financially prohibitive.
Before placing some type of standards for dress on the table, first and foremost it is imperative to point out that coming to Mass is by far the most important consideration. Attire is secondary. Yet could it be that our relaxed attitude about dress for Mass may unintentionally express a lack of appreciation for what we are about to celebrate? The bottom line is that choices on dress for Mass involve respect: for Christ’s presence, for the solemnity of the paschal mystery we celebrate and for the Body of Christ gathered.
Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.