Two weekends ago, my boyfriend and I were unable to make it to our preferred Mass. We saw that a Latin Mass was offered at 1:30, and although neither of us had been to a Latin Mass before, we were both curious and didn’t want to let Sunday go by without church. So, off we went for an experience that may fuel my blog posts for weeks to come!
The first thing I noticed when we walked in was that I was the only woman in jeans–or pants, for that matter. I was also one of the very few women who wasn’t wearing a veil. Although I felt self conscious throughout the Mass, I tried to let it go. Not only did I not wear dress clothes, but dress clothes wouldn’t have even been an option for me. I was away from home, and what I had in my suitcase were my only options. As someone who tries to pack light, that meant one pair of jeans and three sweaters–only one of which was still clean by Sunday.
Perusing the visitor’s guide to the Mass, I found a paragraph detailing the “dress code”:
Out of holy respect for Our Lord and the holy sacrifice of the Mass, it is fitting that both men and women be attired appropriately for church. For women, beyond the veil mentioned above, dresses or skirts of suitable length are preferable to slacks. Anything immodest is, of course, out of the question. For men, it is a matter of propriety that dress slacks and shirt are preferable to jeans and casual wear. A jacket and tie are ideal.
I noticed that, while the women and girls in the church followed the dress code to a T, the men got off the hook a bit more easily. I didn’t see any T-shirts, but I saw a fair amount of dark jeans masquerading as dress pants. I didn’t see a single jacket or tie. While the double standard bothered me, I also found the suggestion of a jacket and tie to be a little over the top. After all, is this a church service where we meet an all-loving God who has certainly seen us at worse than this, or is this a job interview where we must only put the part of ourself forward that “the authorities” want to see?
This all brought me back to my childhood parish, which didn’t get the memo about Vatican II until around the year 2,000 (just in time to make some changes before once again regressing!) What to wear to Church was a common homily theme there. In particular, I remember the priest imploring that women not wear shorts to Mass, or that parents not bring their babies dressed in pajamas (this despite the fact that the church had no air conditioning, and that almost all the families at that church were farmers, coming to late Masses after chores were done and, likely, after the littlest ones were supposed to be in bed). This also gave me my first experience of religious hypocrisy, as I realized that the Gospel could tell us not to judge while we were inside the Church, but as soon as it let out, gossiping about whom was wearing what was all fair game.
I really don’t take issue with those who dress up for Church, and I would have packed something suitable had I known what the norm would be–although I daresay I may have forgotten to pack my veil. What I take issue with is the dictatorial language, and the judgment inherent in it, in services where dressing up is “expected,” regardless of an individual’s circumstances (Does the family of 7 have time to feed everyone and get them dressed up before Mass? Does a family struggling with poverty have the money to spare for suit jackets?) If one is “expected” to dress a certain way at church, then there’s an implicit permission to judge those who do not conform. My mom used to always say, “Wouldn’t God rather have the babies there in pajamas than not have them there at all?”
Well, it’s pretty clear where Jesus stands on the matter: “Let the children come to me. Do not stop them!” (Luke 18:16). Jesus doesn’t say, “The well-dressed children may come forward now.” And when it comes to what adults are wearing, the only thing Jesus seems to say about clothes is that we should give them away! (Matthew 5:40)
I try not to have a knee-jerk negative response when it comes to bringing back old traditions–after all, there are a great many old traditions (:: cough cough :: the ordination of women :: cough cough ::) that I would like to return to myself. What I do take issue with is bringing back traditions that bring our Church further, not closer, to what it was when Jesus walked the Earth. In this season of Advent, we are extorted to wait expectantly for Jesus’ coming. And somehow, I have a feeling that the baby born in a barn won’t return wearing a suit and tie.