Dress Sense and the Real Presence

Kelli - pelican

Pew Research’s recent study revealing that a majority Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence but instead believe that consecrated bread and wine are merely symbols of the Holy Eucharist set me thinking: What could be the contribution of the typical church-going Catholic to this dismal state of our faith? No doubt, poor catechesis is to be blamed. However, the most patent symptom of one’s attitude to the Real Presence seems to be how one dresses for Mass. 

Is ‘Real Presence’ an Absurdity Outside Catholicism?

Is Real Presence only a Catholic thing that it is beyond the grasp of the average person? Well, the Catechism itself seems to observe otherwise:

In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist […] therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.” “This presence is called ‘real’—by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be ‘real’ too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present.” (CCC 1374)

How is the idea of ‘real presence’ germane in the everyday life context? What does it have to do with how we dress?

In the ordinary prudent world, humans normally learn to make dress choices based on their acknowledgement of certain facts and the possibility of certain occurrences—Dressing for the pool admits to the presence of water; dressing for the bedroom anticipates the existence of comfort or intimacy needs; dressing for play readies one to face the stretch and the strain involved; dressing for the cold concedes the occurrence of low temperatures; wearing uniform salutes the presence of one spirit and camaraderie among colleagues and comrades; getting dressed to meet one’s bride or bridegroom or love interest recognizes the being of the other in relation to oneself.  

We see that not only is the idea of ‘real presence’ real, it also naturally dictates how we dress. If it would be okay to critique the act of wearing pointed heels to the beach, or swimwear to the workplace, or a double-breasted jacket for a summer trek, shall we not pause to reconsider our choice of attire for Mass—which is Christ’s sacrifice for the salvation of our souls?

Is This a Catholic Fuddy-Duddy Rant?

Someone working in a secular business organization recently shared with me about the company’s well-articulated employee dress code.

The dress code stated that its philosophy “refers to your time at work, not after work. If you are going to the pool after work, pool attire should not be included [in your dress choice for the day].” 

“Some clothing is never appropriate work attire,” the dress code declared. “For example, provocative clothing (considered to be clothing that causes others to feel uncomfortable); ripped, torn, or grungy clothing; clothing with derogatory comments.” In conclusion, it stated: Individuals wearing inappropriate attire will be asked to leave (if necessary) and change clothes. 

Companies are successful eliciting employee compliance to even disagreeable policies thanks to job loss anxieties. Alas, in the Church—Christ’s only instrument for the salvation of souls—pastors (fearing parishioner exit and revenue loss), parents (to humor their kids), and respectfully nervous volunteer religious education teachers continue to fight shy emphasizing the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, continuing to skirt ‘touchy’ teachings of the Church, let alone admonishing their charges on issues of morality. 

Real Presence Home and Abroad

When on pilgrimage, one notices ‘modesty signs’ outside basilicas and shrines the world over. They call for avoidance of revealing, short, tight or sleeveless clothes. Recently at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, AL, I witnessed inadequately clad visitors being lent “pullover attire” at the reception counter. 

Retreats and pilgrimages often set us on a virtuous high. However, families in our times prefer vacations over pilgrimages. Thomas a Kempis’ (The Imitation of Christ) laments the attitude of pilgrim-vacationers:  

Many go to diverse nations to visit the relics of the Saints, and they are surprised to hear of their marvelous deeds; they contemplate their noble church buildings, and kiss their sacred bones enveloped in silk and gold. But behold, you are present to me here on the altar, my God […] Many times, men are moved to see these things from curiosity and the novelty of the sight, and therefore, little fruit of amendment is derived; even more so when the persons run here and there without being moved by true contribution for their sins.

Jesus comes to us in a humble piece of bread so he can be everywhere, so what is inhibiting the process in one’s home parish? We watch the manner of dressing of the Royals and first ladies who meet the Pope but not our own when we go weekly to celebrate the Eucharist. 

Insidious Catechesis?

In John 6 (The ‘Bread of Life’ discourse), many reject Jesus because of his teaching “my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (Cf. John 6:55). They prefer Him to be symbolic. To their credit, at least they first considered His teachings before rejecting Him. 

‘Look the Other Way,’ ‘Live and Let Live’ and ‘Eggshell-Walk or Popcorn Catechesis’ are some approaches parishes take in catechizing their flock on matters of general morality. Any homily on the Real Presence is a piece of esoteric poetry if the pastor acts coy of patiently “convincing, rebuking and exhorting” (Cf. 2 Timothy 4:2) about what is hurting or degrading of the Holy Eucharist. After all, unlike the Emperor’s New Clothes, is not the Real Presence for all to behold and honor?  

Unbounded personal preferences and indecorous exposure go on display at Sunday Mass. Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, Children’s Liturgy of the Word volunteers, lectors, altar servers, faithful in the Communion line, sway down the aisle and about the sanctuary as if it were a catwalk, clad in ‘come-as-you-are’ wardrobe. Female altar servers appear with long loose hair, tossing it back and forth. People rush out after Mass to compliment one another’s clothes. The Spiritual Works of Mercy of “instruct the ignorant” and “admonish the sinners” do not exist in our self-indulgent equal world of ‘Catholic’ freedom. “All are welcome in this place,” we sing.

Garments the Father Desires

Is God unconditionally welcoming ‘all’ into His kingdom? In the Parable of the Wedding Feast (Matthew 22:1-14), the king’s invitation to the intended guests to the wedding feast of his son is met with cold and repeated rejection. Declaring them unworthy guests, the king sends his servants to the thoroughfares to gather as many as may be found. The good and bad arrive at the feast. When the king joins his new guests and finds a man with no wedding garment, he questions him about it, leaving him “speechless” (v.12).  

The wedding garment refers to the righteousness required to enter God’s kingdom. The Catechism speaks about the striving for purity as a battle. Although “Baptism confers on its recipient the grace of purification from all sins, the baptized must continue to struggle against concupiscence of the flesh and disordered desires.” ( CCC 2520) The faithful are called to “love with upright and undivided heart.” 

“The “pure in heart” are promised that they will see God face to face and be like him” (CCC 2519). The baptized, as children of God, are clothed in Christ. (Cf. Galatians 3:26-27)

We Preach by What We Wear

Clothed in Christ, every baptized person is a priest called to preach by their righteous conduct. “[Modesty] guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity. (CCC 2521) Pope Benedict XV in a note to Italian Catholic women ((October 1919) stated: 

We know that certain modes of dress that women are beginning to accept are harmful to society, for they are a cause of evil. […] If she realized what she was doing, a woman would never dare to enter a church indecently clad, to appear before those who are the natural and authorized teachers in matters of Christian morality.

Pope Pius XII noted:

The good of our soul is more important than that of our body; and we have to prefer the spiritual welfare of our neighbor to our bodily comforts. If a certain kind of dress constitutes a grave and proximate occasion of sin, and endangers the salvation of your soul and others, it is your duty to give it up.

There always are voices protesting of male leaders dictating how women must dress. The Blessed Virgin Mary in her Message at Fatima (1917) warns

Certain fashions will be introduced that will offend Our Lord very much. Woe to women lacking in modesty.

“Christian purity requires a purification of the social climate” (CCC 2525).

Servant of God Father John Hardon, SJ provides the reciprocal solution:

Modesty is the pre-condition to restore society.

But where do we begin? The Domestic Church (the Christian home) must represent and nourish both society and the Church. 

Domestic Church—School of Morality

As a child, I came across a snippet about the ‘bearded’ Saint Wilgefortis in a secular magazine. This young woman, fearing that her father would give her away in marriage to a Muslim king, prays that she is made ugly so her suitor would reject her. In return, she pledges to her life to Christ by remaining a virgin. The idea of not looking attractive to the world appealed to me. My mother was a great inspiration to me in this regard. She taught her children to live in simplicity, dress unpretentiously, not even using make-up. “You are already beautiful!”

Truly, this reassurance to a child “inspires a way of life which makes it possible to resist the allurements of fashion and the pressures of prevailing ideologies.” (CCC 2523) In a pragmatic sense, this wisdom protected me from attracting unwise friendships and the accompanying woes. It also gained me some precious spiritual friendships to last a lifetime. Saint Ignatius of Loyola words it well:

“Let your modesty be a sufficient incitement, yea, an exhortation to everyone to be at peace on their merely looking at you.” 

The sufficiency of modesty is a call that springs from the depths of our being. The knowledge that we are “wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) and loved by our heavenly Father is the only abundance we ever need. When we recognize this truth, we yield ourselves more obediently to His true and substantial presence in the Blessed Sacrament.

Only because he is enveloped by the love of the Father, is Saint Francis of Assisi able to embrace the nakedness of poverty in the presence of his townspeople and the Bishop. He strips himself of his fine clothes, returning them to his earthly father. As if in a visible gesture of the Father’s love, the Bishop covers Francis with his own mantle. 


I remember Day One at the retreat center in San Antonio. My roommate, an elderly woman with a stately air, took out of her baggage what looked like a golden monstrance. ‘Wow!’ I thought, ‘Do people in the United States even have their own monstrance?’ I focused on my journaling, respectfully avoiding looking her side during her time of ‘personal adoration.’

Being from India (with Christian population less than 3%) and just a few months old in the United States, I got a sense of having arrived in Catholic Land. I witnessed Catholicism worn on the sleeve, on earrings, necklaces, tattoos, handbags, clothes—Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Cross, angels, and other Catholic telltale signs. But a personal monstrance?!

I must remember to inform, as my San Antonio retreat roommate educated me, her ‘personal adoration’ was actually before a golden magnifying vanity mirror.

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9 thoughts on “Dress Sense and the Real Presence”

  1. My sweetie and I most always dress for Sunday Mass, because it’s appropriate when one considers the Sacrifice and the Real Presence of the Lord. His gripe is that many of the men he knows who attend will dress better for a day on the golf links! And of course, I remember one of my pastors turning away girls and women in micro-mini skirts from the Communion rail, back in the ‘Sixties…

    Good article overall!

  2. Kasandra Van Keith

    A number of years ago when I was a Tibetan Buddhist, it was interesting to see what women wore to teachings and empowerments. These events were often given by celibate monks or married men. All the women without exception wore long skirts/dresses and often had a shawl. They would use the shawl to cover their laps when sitting or drape around their upper bodies when going to receive a blessing from a teacher. No one had to tell them as they just looked around and knew there was a dress code. Men or women never wore shorts, tee shirts or anything sleeveless.

    1. I believe that God. Jesus and Mary look into our hearts. Dress matters yes….but a humble and contrite heart is above all of this. Also….emphasis on women only with regard yo modesty irks me


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  4. Since I will be in the presence of the King of Kings when I attend holy Mass, I always wear a skirt. A couple other “church ladies” do as well. And recently I have added a veil!

  5. I was asked about proper attire recently by one of my 6th grade PSR students, and mercifully I also remembered that Parable of the Wedding Feast! I used that same example; although I’m not so sure she was happy – I obviously confirmed her parent’s verdict.
    My student’s reaction also eased a little of my own discomfort – yes, I can be guilty of falling short of wedding garment quality – especially in the summer months, but she wasn’t being critical of me. Since then, I continue to be reminded – one post being at a church in the Philippines (where the “Sunday best” could mean a 5 year old t-shirt). Our church might not all dress the same, but His Presence in the Eucharist is universal.

  6. My guess is the average Catholic thinks: It seems odd for us to say that it’s real when we’re doing it in on the instructions of Jesus who was obviously speaking only metaphorically.

    1. Thank you for the insight. Taking Jesus’ words metaphorically explains why so many of his disciples left him due to that hard saying. Dropping the metaphor, he was asking them to ‘Remember me at Passover time’. Analogously, what friendship could possibly survive the similarly outrageous request, ‘Think of me during my absence’?

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