Modesty at Mass

Question: Why is there no dress code in the Church? There is immodesty and a lot of overly casual dress for the miracle that takes place.

Lois Doelz, via e-mail

Answer: There is an understandable concern today about the way many people dress for Mass. There are double issues of modesty and also of people attending in clothes that seem far too casual for the holiness of the Mass and of God’s house.

The problem begins as a cultural one. The fact is Americans seldom dress up any more for anything. Even many work places that once featured uniforms and/or suits and dresses, have become very casual. Modesty, too, is a cultural problem that includes clothes that are often too tight or revealing.

Now culture is very influential for most — often, sadly, more influential than faith. Deep faith would seem to inspire a devotion and sense of the sacred for the holy liturgy and for God’s house. But due to poor formation in many, the influence of culture prevails and most think little of how they dress when going to Holy Mass. Frankly most do not intend any irreverence, but simply dress without a lot of thought.

Thus a problem in issuing a dress code is that there is a range of acceptable views on clothing. In fact the word “modesty” comes from the word “mode” referring to the middle of some range of views.

And, frankly, standards vary across time and cultures and especially regarding age. I have often found that many younger people are surprised to hear that what they wear might be considered irreverent and express a little irritation. Older folks (such as me) remember different times when standards were different.

That said, a general norm for men might be: trousers, not jeans, a button-down shirt, or at least a T-shirt with a collar, no crazy slogans. For women, a skirt and blouse or dress at knee level or lower is acceptable. Women should avoid low-cut blouses. Sleeveless blouses are debatable.

Perhaps the best we can do is to gently remind all people of the sacredness of the Holy Mass and seek to grow their faith in how special the Mass is. As for modesty, more significant moral issues are involved, but so are greater sensitivities.

It is a very delicate matter for a priest to speak in great detail about women’s fashions. Frankly, we wish older women would take the lead here and speak to younger women. Priests and men can speak to younger men, but here, too, laymen ought to lead in this manner.

OK to alter Lamb of God?

Question: Is it permitted for the cantor to add tropes or phrases such as “King of Kings” to the Lamb of God? Also, should it be sung during the sign of peace?

Bill Manners, Philadelphia, Pa.

Answer: No. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops clarified in September 2012 that is it is no longer permissible to alter the text of the Lamb of God. The number of times it is sung may be lengthened, however, to cover the action. The Agnus Dei is meant to be sung during the breaking of the host. The sign of peace, which should be brief, ends, and then the Agnus Dei is sung.

It remains problematic that the sign of peace is often difficult to end, since many treat it as a kind of meet-and-greet rather than a quick sign of charity to those immediately nearby. 

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to msgrpope@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.