A Church Service . . . or a Job Interview?

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.

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About Lacey Louwagie

I'm a feminist, a writer, an editor, and a seeker. I co-edited "Hungering and Thirsting for Justice: Real-Life Stories by Young Adult Catholics" (ACTA 2012) and authored "Where I First Met God" in "Unruly Catholic Women Writers II" (SUNY Press 2013). You can learn more about me at www.laceylouwagie.com.

9 thoughts on “A Church Service . . . or a Job Interview?

  1. Yeah…at my home parish, the lectors (including me) have to get up and read a statement before Mass, reminding people they should be “wearing clothes that are respectful of the Eucharist.” I’m always itching to shout out the words of Matthew 11, 8-9: “Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out?”

    Go Lacey!

  2. Thanks for another great reflection, Lacey.
    I do think that common sense is the order of the day. Dressing “immodestly”? …one knows it when one sees it. And Justin hit the point very well.

  3. I’d like to hear more about your impression of the Latin Mass. I think it is appropriate to dress for Mass as we would when we go to see someone important, as we would when interviewing for a job, as you suggested.

    • I’ll probably continue to reflect upon my Latin Mass experience in future posts. There were some things about it I really liked, such as the bells rung to call attention to the Sacrament and taking communion up at the rail. And I can understand the rationale behind dressing up for church; after all, if we dress up for someone of earthly importance, shouldn’t we give the same to God, who is so much more important? What I struggle with is an inordinate focus on superficial trappings like clothes; for while we may dress to impress others, we have no need to impress God who knows all sides of us. To me, a “come-as-you-are” or “come-as-you-can” sense of authenticity feels more appropriate to worship services.

      • I wouldn’t equate a dress code necessarily with an inordinate focus. However the human element not mentioned in the dress code also deserves consideration, we don’t want to dress in a way that calls attention to ourselves and away from God, I don’t think we want to be a distraction to the other people in the pews through our dress if we are able to avoid doing so.

  4. Lacey! I love this post!!

    Most of my faith formation happened in the woods at a Lutheran Bible Camp– where we would be caked in mud and have gone days without showering. We’d all be wearing rags and completely random clothing, and the worship services I attended there remain among my most favorite in my entire life… These memories of Church are what I brought with me when I entered my community, and the first uproar I caused was when I wore some holey jeans and a T-shirt from a hatchery that mentioned Quality Chicks for being a Eucharistic minister at the convent. I hadn’t even thought about it being inappropriate, but just authentic to who I am. I get it now though, whew.

    How can we be authentically reverent, model respect, yet be shamelessly inclusive and non-judgemental? I don’t know, but I am glad I am not alone in the questions and I don’t really have to figure it out…

  5. Just as it would be inappropriate to expect people to dress for a job interview, so it would be inappropriate to for people to dress as if it were a beach party, if that’s all they think the Mass is. I compare It to a wedding. What would Aunt Sally say when she invites me to Cousin Julie’s wedding: “come as you are”, or “if you can’t dress up don’t come at all”? Of course the first. But you know what she expects, and if you showed up in jeans you would feel uncomfortable. And the Mass really is a Wedding, or at least a Feast.

    If someone hissed at you, yes, there is a problem. And if someone hissed at a farmer’s fingernails, yes, a problem. In the meantime, as you continue to reflect on your experience, consider if you might be imposing some feelings of guilt on yourself that no one else seems to have.

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