Is Dressing Appropriately for Mass Really that Important?

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As we approach the summer months, the temptation to dress casually for Sunday Mass increases exponentially. Why this is the case probably has to do with the culture in which we live as well as the rise in more casual services across the religious spectrum. Although this would make a good article and a philosophical discussion, this article focuses on the importance of dressing appropriately for Mass and why it is important to do so.

Before starting, let’s get one thing out of the way: I am not judging you in any way. As one who works for a parish, it is my job as an evangelist and catechist, to lead people closer to Christ. It’s not about judgment, but helping one to grow in the understanding of their faith, which includes many dimensions.

I want to share my own experience with you and how I learned my lesson on dressing appropriately for Mass. Nearly eleven years ago, I started my Masters in Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville. The first time I attended Holy Mass at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in town, I’ll never forget the feeling of being completely underdressed when I walked into the parish. Although I was wearing an expensive pair of Joe’s Jeans, an equally expensive Banana Republic polo shirt, and a pricey pair of Johnston and Murphy shoes, nearly everyone else was dressed in their “Sunday best.” Up to this point, this was how I was dressing for Mass for years before that day.

At least four of my graduate school professors, including Scott Hahn and John Bergsma, were dressed in full suits with ties. Their families were dressed to the same degree. The feeling of that moment still resides with me today. My first thought I was, “I need to go home and change into better clothes.” In the end, I stayed for Mass but sat in a corner hoping that none of my professors would see what I was wearing.

Some might think this is extreme, but I learned long ago from my Dad that it’s better to be overdressed than underdressed, and I was most certainly underdressed for Mass that day and all the years before.

From that day forward, I learned how to wear appropriate clothing to Mass every Sunday. Did I dress in a suit every Sunday? No, but I wore dress pants, dress shoes, a polo or button-down shirt (most often a button down with a sweater) and, on occasion, a tie. I am grateful that this lesson was taught to me. Dressing appropriately for Mass completely changed my disposition at Mass. My outer disposition and the clothing I wore now reflected my inner disposition.

I am writing this article to everyone that attends Mass, however, I hope that my fellow Catholic men who read this article will take these words to heart. If you wear dress pants/khaki’s and a polo shirt/button down to work every day, but come to Mass dressed in shorts or jeans,  a t-shirt, and flip flops—there is a disconnect.

I asked myself a few questions: Why would I dress appropriately for work, but dress casually for Mass? Would I wear my work clothes to go to the pool, the beach or the lake? These questions challenged me.

At this point, the common objections might be percolating. Here are four that are most often brought up.

1. “God doesn’t care what I wear to Mass”

This is often heard along with, “Come as you are! God doesn’t care what clothes you wear! He just wants you!” This objection is pure conjecture. God does care what you wear – don’t use this excuse since it is rooted in laziness. My wife did not say to me on our wedding day, “Come as you are to our wedding! I really don’t care what you wear.” See Matthew 22:1-14.

2. “It’s my personal prerogative—I don’t feel like dressing up”

Here is the objection that says, “because I dress up during the week for work, on Sunday it’s time to relax.” True, Sunday is the Lord’s Day—a day of rest. However, not dressing for Mass appropriately falls into the sin of sloth. Sloth lacks discipline and the willingness to suffer. If the Lord suffered in agony on the cross for all of us, we can dress appropriately for a couple of hours on a Sunday to glorify his name, and yes, even when it’s hot and/or humid.

3. “I never dress up”

This argument is made by non-conformists, or those who have a tendency to rebel against authority, but this comment also comes from people who aren’t ever required to dress up for work. This argument doesn’t really hold up since those same people who say they never dress up, actually dress up for a lot of things. We wear sport jerseys to games, dresses or tuxedos for proms and weddings, uniforms for teams, or sometimes special (and somewhat expensive) clothes for hunting, fishing, hiking or even working out at the gym. We actually “dress for the occasion” pretty often. Shouldn’t that concept apply to Holy Mass as well?

For the men out there . . .

1. Wear formal (dress) shoes to church. Flip-flops, Birkenstocks, beach sandals, or cross training/running shoes are not formal shoes.

2. Wear dress pants or khakis (not jeans).

3. Don’t wear shorts.

4. Wear a button-down shirt or a polo shirt, but make sure the shirt has a collar. Tuck the shirt into the pants. T-shirts with no collars, sleeveless shirts, and sports jerseys are too informal.

5. [For the more daring types] – wear a tie, a suit, or a sport coat with your attire. Some may think this is too stuffy, but not long ago, men wore such clothes every day, every Sunday to Mass, and yes, even to sporting events.

For women . . .

1. Wear decent shoes to Church. Flip-flops and tennis shoes should be avoided.

2. Remember that for a skirt or dress, three fingers above the knee, or longer, is appropriate. Skirts and dresses should not be “see through” or have long slits in them. Shorts, especially “short shorts” should not be worn.

3. Don’t wear jeans. Slacks are a good option, but they should not be too tight. Your goal shouldn’t be to attract attention to the shape of your body when dressing for Mass.

4. Wear a nice blouse (if not wearing a dress). Tops should not be too tight for the same reason that pants shouldn’t be. Tank tops, spaghetti straps, and midriffs are not appropriate for Mass. It’s also important to make sure that undergarments remain undergarments. If any part of your bra can be seen by others, rethink your choice in top.

5. Cleavage should never be visible. You might think a shirt covers your cleavage, but take this quick test before you leave for Mass: Bow in front of the mirror. Whatever you see is what the Priest, Deacon, or Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion will see when your bow before receiving the Eucharist.

With all this being said, in the end, dressing for Mass is important for two reasons – first, dress conveys both respect and honor. We are saying to God, “You are worth the effort; you deserve my best.” It also communicates to your fellow parishioners that you take Mass seriously. It’s not just another casual event during the week. Second, when we dress in a respectful manner it changes our interior disposition. Personally, when I have a suit on, or even just a tie with no jacket, my words, thoughts, posture, and my general attitude is totally different. The words of my father ring true today as they did when he first said them to me many years ago -– “a gentleman truly knows how to dress for every occasion.”

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