Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Proper Dress for Mass: From the Archdiocese of Washington

I wrote a short post, 10 days ago, About how to act and dress for Mass. Mostly, it was a sort of review of a video I'd been shown on the topic.

This time, I'm focusing on modesty, culture, common sense, and what is (and isn't) appropriate when Catholics living in America celebrate Mass. Here's an excerpt from what set me off in that direction:
"Adore the Lord in Holy Attire - On Proper Dress for Mass"
Msgr. Charles Pope, Archdiocese of Washington (May 24, 2010)

"Last week we had a discussion on the women wearing veils in Church. One of the themes that emerged in the comments was that the discussions about what to wear in Church should be broader than just a veil. More specifically BOTH men and women should consider how they dress when going into God's house. Hence I would like to explore some background issues and enunciate some principles. You of course will be able to add to them.

"1. Scripture - There is very little in Scripture that seems to spell out the proper way to dress for sacred worship. There is the general directive to Adore the Lord in holy attire (Psalm 96:9; Ps 29:2) But this seems more an allusion to holiness (God's and ours) more than to clothing per se...."

"...2. Church norms and rules – There are no official and specific Church norms or requirement for lay persons who attend Mass mentioned in Canon Law or the Sacramentary. Surely for priests and other clergy there are many rules and norms but I am unaware of any currently binding norms for the laity. Although the veils were once required for women, the 1917 Code of Canon Law was abrogated and the current code is silent on any requirement.

"3. Hence it seems that Culture supplies most of the norms regarding what is considered appropriate attire for Church. And, alas our culture is currently quite unhelpful to us in this regard. Here in America we have become extremely casual about the way we dress for just about everything...."

"...My sister and mother always wore a dress. Pants would not even have been considered for them. For the younger girls a skirt and a blouse might be OK but preferably a dress with a hat or veil.
"But things changed dramatically around 1970. The photo above right was taken in 1969 in a Parish near my own in the northern suburbs of Chicago Ill. It was the end of an era...."

'None are Righteous, Save Me and Thee: And I'm Not So Sure About Thee'

I looked up Monsignor Charles Pope on the Archdiocese of Washington website - and found that he's apparently quite a bit younger than I am. That makes his appreciation for what happened in the years around 1970 impressive: He's done his research.

He's also, I think, got some very good advice for Catholics living in America. What's important, I think, is that in addition to a list of 'dos and don'ts,' he briefly discusses why what we wear is important.

I was born during the Truman administration , so I remember the 'good old days,' when 'decent' women didn't wear pants in public, and American culture had a somewhat formal dress code.

In a way, I miss those 'good old days.' But not very much.

I've lived the bulk of my life in the Red River Valley of the North and central Minnesota. I love it here, but then I grew up in a place where water is a mineral for several months each year. Dresses and skirts look good on women - and I've got the legs it takes to wear a kilt - but during winter it's simple common sense to wrap your legs in pants - trousers - slacks - long johns - anything.

On practical grounds, it makes no more sense to demand that a woman go outside wearing a dress in winter, than it would to insist that I walk around in a kilt during January. Bracing as the experience would be.
But the Bible Says Women Shouldn't Dress Like Men!
There are scriptural prohibitions against cross-dressing. I've discussed this before. Here's what's in Deuteronomy:
" 'A woman shall not wear an article proper to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman's dress; for anyone who does such things is an abomination to the LORD, your God."
(Deuteronomy 22:5)
I accept the idea that men should dress like men and all that: but I also realize that a few things have changed as the millennia rolled by.

If I tried dressing "like a man," according to the standards of the Middle East several thousand years back: I'd look downright out of place. And time.
Nice Christian Girls and Nice Christian Ladies, ca. 1970
I sang with a Christian folk/gospel group in the early seventies, and have some good memories of those times. I also remember an occasion when well-meaning folks from two generations weren't on the same page.

The group I was part of had been booked in a sort of retirement community: no problem with that, except we'd been told that semi-formal attire was expected. So far, still no problem. For me. The young ladies had, like me, been born around the early fifties - and some of them didn't have a long dress to wear. So they did the sensible thing, and all wore modest, formal-looking pant suits.

I had no problem with that - but the elderly ladies were, well, displeased. The spokesperson for the old guard was nice about it: but we wouldn't be allowed back.

Our behavior was sinful, you see: The young women were dress up 'like men.'

It was the slacks.

Never mind that I'd have looked like I was in drag, if I'd had any of their outfits retailored for me. Those nice old folks were convinced that it was sinful for women to wear pants - 'it says so in the Bible.'

You can't argue with that sort of logic, and we didn't go back.

I also filed that experience under 'religious beliefs,' with a sort of cross-indexing with 'assumptions,' 'reason,' and 'abnormal psychology.' Eventually, I converted to Catholicism - but that's another story.
Sorting Out Preferences and Principles
I have preferences about how I'd like other people to dress - but I'm nowhere near confident enough about my own position in creation to assume that what I like and dislike has much authority behind it. Or that I could take Biblical injunctions about proper dress and use them as an authority to back up what I like and don't like.

I don't, really, blame the old folks in that community. They had grown up in a very different world - and things were changing in the early seventies. Fast. Given their age and comparative lack of connection with the rest of the culture, it's no wonder that they hadn't realized that the standards of their youth weren't the unchanging standards of all times and all places.

And I'm pretty sure that they would, if they'd thought about it, have realizee that the Israelites who followed Moses out of Egypt didn't dress quite the same way that Euro-Americans did in the upper Midwest during the early 20th century.

It's the Principle of the Thing

Thousands of years ago, women living near the east end of the Mediterranean dressed one way and men dressed another. Human beings tend to have more-or-less different clothing for men and women. Partly, it's a matter of practicality. A woman's body isn't quite the same as a man's. Partly, I think, men and women dress differently because most of us like it that way.

Let's face it, folks, human sexuality is fun. Yet another topic.

Okay: Moses and company had a dress code. God was rather clear on the topic: Women were supposed to dress like women, not men: and men were supposed to dress like men, not like women. That's clear enough.

Now, fast-forward more than two dozen centuries, and go several thousand miles west and a bit north. Quite a bit has changed. Including the way people dress.

I have no trouble applying the principle of dressing appropriately - but I'd have trouble keeping a straight face while insisting that everybody start wearing clothing just like the Egyptians and Israelites did, back when.

A couple dozen centuries from now, the Catholic Church will still be insisting that God really meant it, about cross-dressing - and wearing 21st-century North American clothing might not be a good way to follow that rule.

Bottom line? Things change.

Back to the Washington Monseigneur

Msgr. Charles Pope had a 14-point list of recommendations for what to wear - and not to wear - when celebrating Mass. Actually, it's more like 13. The 14th point was "Well, you may have at this list. Add or subtract as you will." I may take him up on that. But not today.
"...4. Hence at the cost of seeming old and stuffy I might like to suggest a few norms and I hope you'll supply your own as well:
  1. Men should wear formal shoes to Church. We used to call these hard shoes (because they were) but today many formal shoes are actually quite comfortable.
  2. Men should wear trousers (not jeans).
  3. Men should never wear shorts to Church.
  4. Men should wear a decent shirt, preferably a button down shirt. If it is a pullover shirt it should include a collar. Wearing a plain t-shirt without a collar is too informal.
  5. Men should consider wearing a tie to Church and in cooler weather, a suit coat. Some may consider this a bit too stuffy and formal but who knows, you might be a trend setter!
  6. Now as I talk about women I know I'll get in some trouble!
  7. Women should wear decent shoes to Church. Flip flops, beach sandals etc. seem inappropriate.
  8. Women should not wear shorts to Church.
  9. Women, if they wear pants, should never wear jeans to Church. Some nice slacks that are not too tight can be fine.
  10. Women should consider wearing a dress or at least a skirt in preference to pants. It just looks a bit more formal than pants.
  11. Women should wear a nice blouse (if they are not wearing a full dress). The blouse or shirt they wear should not be too tight.
  12. Sleeveless garments are pushing it a bit but can be acceptable.
  13. Women should never wear tank tops, tube tops, spaghetti straps, or bare midriffs to Church.
  14. Well, you may have at this list. Add or subtract as you will.
"A final thought: Clothes say something about what we think, what we value. They also influence how we behave and feel. That our culture has become so casual about everything says something about us. I cannot exactly articulate it but it seems to say, 'nothing is really all that important.'..."
(Archdiocese of Washington)
Msgr. Pope's speculation about the root of contemporary America's very casual habits of dress may or may not be near the mark. Particularly since it was introduced by a generation who included some of the most intensely involved and earnest folks I've known. I don't think informality is necessarily a sign of apathy.

My own perception is that the deliberately casual style of the sixties and following decades was in part a rejection of the fifties obsession with material gain and status in society.

But, that's what I noticed, from where I was.

On the other hand, I have no trouble agreeing with this statement:
"...Clothes say something about what we think, what we value. They also influence how we behave and feel...."
(Archdiocese of Washington)
It's possible to get into the proper frame of mind, attending Mass in frayed jeans and a torn T-Shirt. But I think it'd be easier for someone following the monseigneur's fashion advice.

Oh, great: that means I'll have to re-evaluate how I dress when at Mass.

Related posts:
A tip of the hat to MatthewWarner, on Twitter, for the heads-up on this article.

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