Any discussion of modesty in dress for church demands a sense of humor. Leave it to Blessed Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, who was asked, when he was papal nuncio to France, if the plunging necklines of women embarrassed him: “I never look at them, and neither does anyone else, because they are all looking at me to see how I am reacting.”
The danger with placing too much emphasis on externals such as dress is that we may miss the larger point, which is an interior reverence that resides in the heart.
What is judged modest in one culture, one region or one economic class may be quite different in another, but we all know that we live in a casual culture. While the Southern part of the United States may be more formal, and the Western part more informal, in general, casual dress is far more common today than it was three or four decades ago.
At the same time, concern about modesty of dress in the context of the Mass has been a recurring subject of concern long before Roncalli’s encounters with Parisian styles. Today there is a fledgling movement in parishes to recommend dress codes as a way of reminding parishioners to dress appropriately for a sacred occasion such as the Mass (see story, Page 6).
Such concerns dovetail with the larger issue of inspiring a greater sense of reverence in Mass. This is a legitimate and laudable priority in that the Mass is so central to who we are as Catholics and how we nourish our faith.
The discussion of reverence includes a variety of factors, ranging from dress and posture to the quality of sacred objects and liturgical music. These are all real issues, and the Church in some ways is always seeking to improve a sense of reverence (the revised translation of the Roman Missal) and combat the temptation to make it a rote exercise or a simple obligation.
In this context, dressing appropriately for Mass is an external sign of our appreciation for what is taking place in the Eucharistic celebration. The danger with placing too much emphasis on externals such as dress is that we may miss the larger point, which is an interior reverence that resides in the heart. Our priorities must always be to focus on our inner preparation for Mass and our inner receptivity to God’s Word.
That is why many parishes are encouraging their people to share the Sunday readings at home before Mass and to meditate on them. Also encouraged is getting to Mass early so as to collect oneself in prayerful silence. Families have many challenges getting everyone dressed and out the door, but just moving the schedule ahead five minutes can make all the difference.
Paying close attention to the liturgical prayers is a discipline that can counter the temptation to an unreflective recitation of the words. Focusing on the sacred actions is a powerful stimulus for prayer as well.
Finally, the Mass is where we gather as a community. So a sign of our interior reverence also would be our efforts to welcome the stranger and exhibit the kind of generosity of spirit that makes us truly Christlike.
Scripture has ample warnings against a pharisaical approach to religious observance. Because we know how easily we can become agitated when we see people who, in our opinion, are dressed with a slovenly disregard at church, perhaps what we need to do is let God be the judge of what is appropriate for that person at that moment. Instead, we should focus on developing in ourselves a deeper sense of interior reverence, a task that is never completed.
Judging from Blessed Roncalli’s comments, a sense of humor may be in order as well.