In my never unending quest to divide the world into two types of people, today we have the division between those who dress casually for Mass in the summer and those who still keep much of their flesh covered even in parishes without air conditioning. Once again whichever camp you may find yourself you are making a philosophical decision.
First are those who come to Mass “as is.” It may be while on the way to the beach, the opera, the ball game, or just to be cool. A basic principle here is “God loves me just as I am and you should too.” I don’t really recall any passage in Scripture where Jesus chided someone for coming to hear him preach inappropriately dressed. When he talked to prostitutes there is no record of Him asking them to cover their bare shoulders first. If we want people to come to Mass, we need to be open to who they are and part of that is how they are dressed.
The second group come to Mass as if marking a special occasion or meeting somebody special. The basic principle is, “God is worthy of at least the respect I show to my employer, a bride and groom at their wedding, or the judge at my trial.” Though there were no instances of clothing concerning dress at Temple in the Bible, Jesus was meeting them where they were and lifting them to someplace else. What did the elect wear in Revelation? Shorts? Fig leaves? No. They wore long white robes immaculately cleaned. If we want people to take the Mass seriously then we need to expect a certain level of seriousness from them.
Is it untrue that we should accept people for who they are? Of course it is. There are people out there who simply do not have or do not understand the least about why or how to dress up much more than putting clean underwear on. This is a tragic fact but true. In my own life there have been times when I had to wear pretty outrageous outfits to Mass. I was organist and had to show up but would be leaving Mass already late for my next “gig” and so came to dress in band uniforms and other costumes of various types. If looked upon in a condemnatory fashion such people may not come back to Mass. Is having rid ourselves of short shorts worth the loss of soul?
On the other hand are those who know and can dress better for Mass. The idea that God loves me “as I am and so should you” is an inherently selfish one. It is not about you. It is about us. And part of being “us” is showing respect to those around you. The reason we dress up for a potential employer or the judge at our trial is because it shows respect for that person and a willingness to be part of the goings on. We do not expect them to “take me for who I am,” an absolutely ridiculous thing to do.
So what to do? There was a group of young people in Cleveland that thought people should be dressed up for the opera. Instead of passing edicts they went out, got very nice clothes, and started setting the bar higher themselves. So the first step is to take care of self and family first. Show that it is possible to survive for an hour or so in the summer in one’s Sunday best.
The second is to not too quickly take others to task who look like they are rather going to a beach party. The reason we hear of no clothing disputes with Jesus is that he first got to know people and then invited them higher. Imagine the difference in these examples: 1) The look of “how dare you dress like that” and the loud whisper to another saying, “how could s/he come dressed to Mass like THAT?” or 2) Getting to know someone and saying, “Next Sunday we are going out to breakfast after Mass. Why don’t we all get dressed up and go out together?”
Of course the pastor must set the tone. Some are better about it (or care more about it) than others. It is a service I believe to invite others to the call to dress well at Mass. It breaks us out of ourselves, unites us more closely together in a common cause, and creates an atmosphere that is more reverent.