THE CATHOLIC KNIGHT: Occasionally I'll invite a non-Catholic friend to mass with me, and when I do, this question frequently comes up. "What should I wear?"
Wow! If they only knew how profound of a question that really is. You see, I live in the Bible Belt of the United States, and here most people are Baptist or Pentecostal. These good folks have little knowledge of Catholicism, and so they really don't know what to expect. Most of the time I tell them to simply dress semi-formal. A clean shirt and slacks (or skirt for the ladies) will do nicely. That's mainly because there aren't that many traditional Catholic churches out here, and most Catholic tradition in this area has gone by the wayside anyway. Sadly, most Catholics don't even know how to dress for mass anymore. So that's why I decided to publish this post. How should we dress for mass, in an ideal world, where we honor our Catholic tradition fully and without shame? The following are some suggestions. Please excuse the diagrams, they were designed for a medical college. Just mentally insert a cross, or saint medal, where the ID badge is...
Men probably have the most simple dress code for Sunday mass, though probably not the most comfortable. The idea of "putting on your Sunday best" is not necessarily for your benefit. Men wear business suits on the job, or for social occasions (such as weddings, funerals, etc.) as a sign of respect. The idea of the suit comes from the Renaissance period, back when men started using scarves and jackets to appear in public. The idea was to excuse one's self (or one's body) from public view, so as to focus attention on the things that matter most -- such as business, conversation, manners, courtesy, etc. The tradition carries on today in what we know as "the corporate world" where certain standards of decorum are expected and maintained. This is done for the benefit of clients and customers, as a sign of respect and courtesy. Likewise, it stands to reason that this same manner should spill over into the Church -- particularly how one dresses for mass? If ever there was a time to excuse one's self (or body) from attention, so that it may be more appropriately directed where it matters (namely the Eucharist), it is during mass. Consequently, the tradition of wearing a suit, or at least a long-sleeve shirt with a tie, became the norm in all churches (Catholic and Protestant) in the western world. The custom only fell by the wayside recently (in the 1970s) as a sign of cultural disintegration in our society. Most people don't even know why the custom exists anymore, and a good number of them no longer practice it, showing up to mass in bluejeans, shorts, T-shirts and ball caps. Speaking of hats, since the time of the apostles, it has long been the Christian custom for men to remove their hats during mass. The directive to do so can be found in the Bible (1st Corinthians 11), and while it is no longer required in canon law, any man who approaches the Eucharist with his head covered would be seen as showing a tremendous amount of disrespect. Though most people may not know the reason why anymore, this tradition is still ingrained in the American psyche. Most men still remove their ball caps upon entering a home, or during the singing of the national anthem. If such respect is shown among men, then it is certainly owed to God as well.
The same idea of excusing one's self (or body) applies to women as well. However, it should be understood that in spite of the feminist propaganda we so commonly hear, female dress codes have always been far more lax in Christian churches than male dress codes. Women have always been free to explore a little fashion expression, varying between skirts to dresses, long-sleeve and middle-length sleeve, collar or no collar, along with an endless array of scarves, lace, patterns and jewelry. As a general rule, a dress or skirt is acceptable so long as it goes down below the knee while both standing and sitting. The neckline on a dress or blouse is almost always acceptable so long is it does not reveal the shoulder, bust or cleavage. The sleeves are acceptable so long as they do not reveal the shoulder or axillary area beneath the arm -- elbow length or longer is recommended. Basically common sense in modesty should prevail in all areas of dress, and for Catholic women especially, the model set by Our Lady (The Blessed Virgin Mary) should come to mind. We should remember that Our Lord always enjoyed the presence of women during his earthly ministry, and their beauty is something he calls us all to admire with the highest respect. So it is only natural that when a woman excuses her self (or body), she would do so in a way that complements her feminine appeal and dignity. In other words, she excuses herself with style and grace.
Beyond that, there is but one more element of dress that speaks volumes of our Catholic identity -- the mantilla...
The mantilla comes to Catholicism directly from our Jewish roots in apostolic times (1st Corinthians 11). In fact, Orthodox Jewish women continue with this same custom today. I have written extensively about the mantilla in a previous post (read here), but suffice it to say that while it is no longer required in the Code of Canon Law, it is nevertheless a Catholic tradition that has never been abrogated. In fact, Catholic women all around the world continue to practice it. Only in the United States, Canada and Australia has the custom been dropped, and mainly because of feminist propaganda suggesting that the practice of female head covering was a means of male domination. We have to understand that in the industrialized West, Catholic women are under tremendous peer pressure to not cover their heads during worship. So few women do it anymore, that the lack of practice actually does more to discourage the practice than the ridiculous propaganda against it. Some women may fear what others may think if they should wear a mantilla. It's sort of a fashion phobia, wherein they think "nobody else is wearing one, so I'll look out of place if I do." While some women fear a feminist lashing if they practice good Catholic modesty, afraid they may be accused of "submitting" to male dominance. Such fears are unwarranted. Most hard-core feminists left the Church long ago, and as for the fashion phobia, the vast majority of women in Church would probably join in the practice if just a few brave women stood up to the plate.
According to Catholic Christian tradition (found in 1st Corinthians 11) the head covering requirement falls equally upon both men and women. According to the custom, men are to take their hats off during religious ceremonies, while women are to put a covering on. This is for two reasons. The first is just like the manner of dress described above -- which is to excuse one's self. Saint Paul points out to us that a woman's glory is the beauty of mankind, and that is manifested in her hair. Women go to great lengths to make their hair beautiful, regardless of the style or trend, and that's a good thing. But during the mass, the focus is to always be on the Eucharist, and as a sign of modesty and respect, the woman excuses her beautiful hair (by covering it) to call more attention to the greater beauty of God's presence in the Eucharist.
Secondly, Saint Paul makes the unusual command of telling the men to uncover their heads, which actually contradicts traditional Jewish custom. Now you have to understand, Paul's instruction to do this contradicts a thousand years of Jewish tradition. It was a radical departure from the norm. This was not to exult men, but rather humiliate them. Paul is putting them in their place. You see, Jews put such a high reverence on the holy presence of God, that it was considered a frightfully embarrassing thing for anyone to be found in his presence uncovered. But Paul is telling the men to humiliate themselves by doing just that. He's telling them that they represent the image of Christ in the New Covenant, and since Christ exposed himself on the cross, and in the Eucharist, men too must expose their heads both as a symbol of humility as well as authority (Christ's authority that is, not their own)...
1st Corinthians 11:3-16
Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head. In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.
He does this to draw attention to a theological truth. In marriage, the husband represents Christ, and the wife represents the Church. The glory of Christ is to be exposed, just as he was exposed on the cross, and is daily exposed in the Eucharist. (Certainly a humiliating thing for God.) So likewise the man's head should be exposed in the Church. But this exposure is also a sign of authority (Christ's authority) in the sense that God intended in the order of nature for the woman to complement the man, not vice versa, and so for the sake of the angels (who worship God with us, and are watching us) we must demonstrate that all things have been put back into order through the authority of Christ. This is why men must have their heads exposed - for a sign of Christ's humility and authority. While the women must have their heads covered - for a sign of the Church's modesty and purity.
The Church is made pure by the glory of Christ, and that which is pure should be veiled. So the purified Church, being the veiled bride of Christ, is illustrated in the woman's head covering. It was typical of Saint Paul to take an ordinary custom like this and turn it into a big theological illustration. But it's a teaching illustration that is just as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago.
All of this may seem overwhelming for most Catholics today. Contemporary pop culture has done so much to erode our religious traditions. But I've been wanting to write about this for a while, and so here it is, to do with as you will. I hope that it's been of service to at least some of you. God bless.