What Not To Wear (To Mass)

It ought to behoove us, when we are headed out the door to mass on Sunday, to stop and take a look in the mirror, and see what is going on with our attire. This was a point raised, though in far more thoughtful tones, in yesterday’s homily when Father Sirianni took advantage of it being the Feast of Corpus Christi to remind us of a number of points Catholics ought to keep in mind when attending mass.  “This is nothing new,” he noted, listing such things as remembering to genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament, not receiving communion in a state of mortal sin, and not wearing inappropriate clothing such as tank tops and short-shorts to mass, “but sometimes we need reminding.”  While these types of direct, catechetical instructions occur perhaps a bit too rarely in homilies these days, the fact that immodesty in dress always begins to rear its ugly head in Church during summer means that the clergy have to try the best they can to remind their congregations that God’s house is neither a beach resort nor a theme park.

In a slightly different vein, last week National Review Online ran an interesting joint article by Herb and Stacy London on why style matters, and the virtues of being well-dressed. Dr. Herbert London is the president of the Hudson Institute, and his daughter Stacy London is probably well-known to many readers as co-host of the television program “What Not To Wear”. No doubt they have differing political views, but both agree on the importance of knowing how to dress appropriately for the occasion, for one’s state in life, etc., rather than taking a devil-may-care attitude toward one’s appearance.

The issue of what to wear to church on a regular Sunday in ordinary time – rather than, say, Easter or a wedding – is something that still remains in flux, in the minds of many. On the one hand we have the argument that, because we are going into the presence of God in the Blessed Sacrament, we ought to dress up. On the other, we have the argument that we should be able to dress comfortably, since we are going to Our Father’s house – and who dresses up to go visit their father?

I know fellow Catholics who always dress for church as they would to go meet the tax man, which frankly is a bit much, for my taste, and others who just roll in wearing whatever they have on, wrinkled or stained clothes and all. The right path, it seems to me, lies somewhere inbetween these two, as is true of fashion in general. This is part of trying to pursue an integrated Catholic life, where one does not compartmentalize the Faith into an “only on Sundays” box, leaving the rest of the week to act like a mad dog, nor go to the opposite of extreme of trying to be such a joyless member of the laity that one heads in the direction of a Pharisaical Christianity.

In his “Introduction to the Devout Life”, St. Francis de Sales has an interesting chapter on how to dress appropriately, which although written to a member of the gentry he intends to apply to Catholics in general. De Sales is not of a Puritanical bent, assuming that everything is supposed to be serious and dour all of the time, but nor is he a sartorial libertine who thinks that everything is fine so long as you are not living sinfully. He explains that, based on your socio-economic status and the type of activities you are attending, you should dress accordingly, and well, not trying to be either the peacock nor the wall flower.

In his chapter on fashion St. Francis concludes by writing:

For my own part I should like my devout man or woman to be the best dressed person in the company, but the least fine or splendid, and adorned, as St. Peter says, with ‘the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit.’ St. Louis said that the right thing is for every one to dress according to his position, so that good and sensible people should not be able to say they are over-dressed, or younger gayer ones that they are under-dressed. But if these last are not satisfied with what is modest and seemly, they must be content with the approbation of the elders.

Compare this to Castiglione who, nearly a century earlier, had come to virtually the same conclusion. In applauding the fashion sense of the well-dressed people he met in the Spanish Court, who eschewed flashy colors and excessive ornamentation in favor of quality fabrics and well-cut garments, Castiglione noted that “things external often bear witness to the things within.” That the secular Castiglione and the cleric De Sales could agree on this point is quite an interesting fact.

The point, of course, is more than just idle speculation about whether St. Francis and Castiglione would have told the fashionable society women of their acquaintance to wear Chanel rather than Donatella Versace (which in my opinion they probably would have.) Nor is it for me to give you specific pointers on what is and is not appropriate for church, for that should be self-explanatory. If you are not sure, go talk to an Italian or Filipino grandmother who is a regular mass-goer, and she will be more than happy to set you straight on the matter.

The assembly brings gifts to the altar at mass, in the form of bread, water, and wine, contained in beautiful vessels. However we also give our hearts as gifts, when the priest asks us to “Lift up your hearts,” and we reply, “We lift them up to the Lord.” While God loves that we offer the gift of our heart to Him, wouldn’t it be nice if we could do so with some nice wrapping paper? Not because it makes the gift look better, but because it makes it more pleasing to Him that we took the time to do so.

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