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The Third Rail: Immodest Dress at Summer Masses

Immodest dress at Mass is not a comfort problem, but a spiritual problem. We need to talk about it, no matter how uncomfortable it might be.

Peggy Frye

Yep, it’s summertime again. The sun is out full blast, air-conditioners are working overtime, and we wear less clothing. Off go the closed-toe shoes and sweaters, on go the sandals; flip-flops, shorts, tank tops, and breezy little dresses. It’s all good. After all, when the temperatures rise, keeping cool and maintaining that relaxed, laid-back feeling of summer is what it’s all about. I’ll even bet that most of us have at least one pair of flip-flops and some shorts in our closets right now. I know I do.

But do you wear them to Sunday Mass? Sadly, many Catholics do. Here in San Diego we enjoy beautiful weather year-round, so seeing super-casual attire at Mass is all too common. But summertime is worse—and it’s not just the out-of-towners who show up at Mass looking as though they’re ready for the beach. It’s parishioners, too.

Communion during the summer can look like a waiting line at Disneyland or a ballgame: a parade of backless dresses, tube-tops, shorts, low-cut tops, strapless tops and dresses, tight skirts and jeggings, miniskirts and flip-flops. And it’s not just the women who dress inappropriately at Mass. Men need to be checked, too. Enough with the torn T-shirts, saggy jeans, chest-baring tank tops, ball caps, flip-flops that expose gnarled toes, swimming trunks, shorts, and hairy legs. Ick.

As a kid, I remember going to church during the summer, when the temperatures were pushing ninety, and I never saw one person at church wearing anything close to beach attire. Church was for wearing your Sunday best. Even on the hottest of Sundays, my mom and my sister and I would wear nice summery dresses; no matter what the temperature, my dad would wear his suit and wingtips. Wearing shorts to church was unheard of. No air-conditioning in the church, either. We got through it. Honestly, when it’s blistering hot, no matter how much you take off, it’s still blistering hot. Wearing appropriate lightweight clothing will keep you just as cool as a tank top and shorts. That’s why the “it’s too hot to wear anything but shorts to church” excuse falls flat.

Immodest dress at Mass is not a comfort problem, but a spiritual problem, rooted in an over-sexed culture whose fashion influences have been trickling down into our parishes for decades. The mentality that “it’s nobody’s business what I wear for Mass—God knows my heart” reflects a lack of humility and a poor understanding of what’s actually happening at Mass. It also shows a lack of respect for others, disregarding how our immodest dress can become an occasion of sin for the opposite sex.

Church is “a house of prayer in which the Eucharist is celebrated and reserved, where the faithful assemble, and where is worshiped the presence of the Son of God our Savior, offered for us on the sacrificial altar for the help and consolation of the faithful” (CCC 1181). Church is not a place where temptation and sin should abound, where sexual distractions should be permitted to compete with our Lord who is present in the sacrament of the altar. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer at Mass, we say, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” So why are we allowing carnal temptations to be openly present at Mass? Why are we giving the Evil One permission to prowl throughout our sacred places, seeking the ruin of innocent souls?

Immodest dress appeals to the flesh, which, St. Thomas Aquinas says,

tempts man by enticing him away from good. For the spirit on its part would delight always in spiritual things, but the flesh asserting itself puts obstacles in the way of the spirit.

In his 2006 pastoral letter on modesty in dress, especially at Sunday Mass, the Most Rev. John W. Yanta, Bishop of Amarillo (Texas), reminded the faithful, “We can help the devil in many ways, including the way we dress.”

Over the years I’ve had my share of uncomfortable pew experiences where I’ve had to sit behind or next to people with no sense of decency when it comes to attire. On one occasion I sat behind a family whose “physically mature” teenage daughter was wearing a crop top and pants so tight I wondered how she moved. From the looks she got when going up to Communion, clearly I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Both her parents appeared oblivious to the attention she was receiving.

The Church doesn’t bind us to dressing a certain way for Mass, but it certainly sends us plenty of reminders about the value and importance of dressing appropriately for Mass:

We should also come to the sacred liturgy appropriately dressed. As Christians we should dress in a modest manner, wearing clothes that reflect our reverence for God and that manifest our respect for the dignity of the liturgy and for one another (On Preparing to Receive Christ Worthily in the Eucharist).

[Our] bodily demeanor (gestures, clothing) ought to convey the respect, solemnity, and joy of this moment when Christ becomes our guest (CCC 1387).

Our fear of addressing the modesty issue during Mass is often fueled by things we’ve heard repeated over the years, such as “we don’t want anyone to feel judged, or unwelcome in our worship space” or “if we say anything about dress they might stop going to Mass.” Concerning the latter comment, Bishop Yanta said, “If they are looking for an excuse [to miss church], they will find something.”

I don’t believe that “modesty custodians” of the type found at some churches in Rome should be stationed at the door of every Catholic church, turning people away if they don’t comply with the parish dress code. Nor do I believe that women should come to church dressed as if they came right off the set of Little House on the Prairie, or that men should wear tuxedos to Mass on Sunday. We just need to use common sense when we dress for church. That’s it. For warm summer days, perhaps business casual might be a good place to start.

[The] faithful of the present time, and indeed today more than ever, must use the means which have always been recommended by the Church for living a chaste life. These means are: discipline of the senses and the mind, watchfulness and prudence in avoiding occasions of sin, the observance of modesty (Persona Humana).

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