Last July, I had occasion to ride in a vehicle with some Protestant Christians who were getting dropped off at their Sunday service. Almost all the women I could see going in were wearing dresses, and the men suits. By contrast, when I had to take a cab to a Catholic parish not my own, where I knew reverent dress was not particularly emphasized, my driver, seeing those going in, remarked, “People come in whatever. You don’t have to be dressed anymore.” While I do not believe to be a good person and Catholic one must always wear a suit or dress to Sunday Mass, I think in this area we Catholics as a whole could learn something from the Protestant brethren I observed. Here are some reasons why Catholics, among Christians, should make an effort to dress well for Sunday Mass.
What IS Mass?
In the first place, we must think of what Mass actually is. It is the most perfect prayer, and, to put it more dramatically, the union of Heaven and earth. We are guests of the King of the Universe at His Heavenly banquet. To me, that seems like something worthy of better attire than old jeans. But wait, the counterargument states. It’s true that we go to Mass to worship God, and He is Lord of all, but He loves us just as we are. Why should something as unimportant as how we dress matter to Him if we truly love Him? Well, it is absolutely true that He loves us just as we are, but how much love are we showing Him if we do not even try to look better than we do on weekdays for Him? After all, the third Commandment states, “Remember to keep holy the Lord’s day.” In fact, a good dress in a church is the reason why in English we have the expression “Sunday best,” not “Sunday ordinary.”
But, the counterargument continues, a heart filled with love and a spirit of worship for Him is always more important than the outfit one is wearing. Here’s a twist: considered by itself, this statement is correct. Certainly, the most important thing someone can bring to Sunday Mass is not his good clothes at all, but his love.
Unkept for Mass
However, looking unkempt for Mass is not as innocuous as it might seem. In reality, the question of Sunday Mass dress has much less to do with mere appearance, and more the interior spirit it helps to reveal. There are other underlying reasons why people might be dressing badly for Mass, rather than just a simple preference for casual clothes. It could stem from an attitude of indifference (“So what if I’m not dressed up?) or possibly worse, superiority. (I’m already going out of my way to go to church, so I’m not going to go to even more trouble.) A third reason is simply laziness, or “I just don’t feel like changing.” This runs into the same problem as before, namely, not considering Mass as important enough to override what we “feel” like wearing.
However, perhaps the greatest cause of this problem is a loss of the sense of the sacred. Perhaps people dress up for something like the opera because they have a sense of respect for the performers. If we respect opera singers in that way, why not give God just the same respect? It seems to me that many these days (not exempting myself) have a hard time keeping the Third Commandment. However, for the majority of people, I would say it is most likely less that they are trying to keep it and just not reaching it fully, as indeed no human will, than that they have forgotten the commandment entirely. Now, there are some legitimate reasons to go to Sunday Mass in bad clothes—say you overslept and are running the risk of being late, or wore all your better clothes during the week and forgot to do laundry. However, Chilton Williamson, Jr., a writer for Crisis magazine, observed this about the matter:
Twenty years ago, my priest delivered a sermon on the subject of what constitutes proper attire for Mass on the Sabbath. Wear the best you have, Fr. Taylor said, and if the best you have is not much, don’t worry your heart about it. A good rule of thumb, to be sure. But, if it’s being followed today, a majority of the Mass-going population in America evidently qualifies for free clothing from the Salvation Army.
Then, too, there is the converse problem that it’s bad for someone to wear his good clothes only out of concern for how he will appear to others, particularly if his goal is to be “better” than everyone not dressed as well. Based on Williamson’s and my own experience, though, this does not seem to be as great a problem as dressing poorly overall.
Give God Respect
As I said above, dressing well for Sunday Mass is important for giving God His due respect. But there is another positive aspect to it as well. If we are constantly striving to love God better, improving our own dress for Mass is one way of reminding ourselves that “He is greater than I,” and putting Him up as greater than earthly activities in our lives. As Christians, we have a duty to hold God above the things of this world, not equal to them, and dressing well for Sunday Mass is a good way to accomplish that. Furthermore, reverent dress helps to make Mass itself a more reverent, set apart time for God, and simply aid in reminding us that it truly is the union of Heaven and earth.
Now, I’m not saying that everyone who wears bad clothes to Sunday Mass is automatically irreverent and has no love for God. Rather, when done with the right intention, choosing to dress well is an outward manifestation of a love of God that can aid us in loving and serving Him more. Next time you’re getting dressed for Mass, if you feel inconvenienced, try not to think about it that way. First, remember that you’re doing it for God. Second, think of it as aiding you to grow in love for Him. Finally, you could remember that no sacrifice was too great for Him in saving us, so this small sacrifice of effort in dressing well need not be too great for us.