By Frank Wessling
Is there a wrong way to dress for church?
Does God care how we look during the celebration of Mass?
Isn’t an attentive mind and heart more important than middle-class standards of dress?
Must teenagers follow an old folks’ dress code?
You may have your own questions after a summer of looking at underwear straps, shorts, ripped jeans, old message T-shirts and those ubiquitous flip-flops in church. Aren’t there standards of dress we should expect for such an occasion?
This is a delicate topic. Most of those offended by the dress of others in church are the comfortable older folks and most offenders are young. We don’t want to make young people feel unwelcome at Mass. How to communicate the message that community standards exist: that should be our bottom-line question.
It begins in the family, and the most important thing that begins there isn’t a dress code. It’s an attitude toward the Mass. Is it treated as a special, though regular, part of the rhythm of life? Not an imposed interruption that we “have to” do but valuable as an opening to visit and revisit the faith and hope of our lives.
The uniform dress of young people is almost always more informal than that of their elders. There’s nothing wrong with that — as long as the informal dress doesn’t also seem to have no regard for community sensibilities. What might be OK for a youth retreat on the beach simply does not fit with the parish assembly back home.
God welcomes the pray-er at any time and place and state of dress. God is also in the spirit of the church assembly, and anyone not attentive to the spirit of that assembly will miss a vital part of God’s presence there. We are not individuals in church; we are not, as St. Paul says, male and female, rich and poor, young and old. We are all one in Christ, opening ourselves together to experience together a death to selfishness so that we might experience in our variety the love that saves us.
Some of us are old enough to remember when farmers wore overalls and kept one pair reserved for church. They might take a pew far in the back, avoiding comparison with the merchants and bankers up in front with their suits and ties. But those farmers knew what the standards were. When you went to church you answered a call out of the ordinary, and you dressed appropriately.
We should all keep in mind the lesson of those farmers.