It is that time of year again, when skirts get shorter and necklines get plunge-ier. Last week at Mass I saw a teenage girl and her family bring up the gifts. Her skirt was so short she couldn’t bow to the priest after passing off the gifts, for fear that everything would be revealed.
For the two years I lived in Rome, I was always grateful for the visual images outside of churches to remind tourists and pilgrims alike what was expected of women and men entering a church. These signs, likely put up when fashions changed and non-Catholics didn’t know that they needed to have their shoulders covered, etc., have morphed into signs for just about anyone—non-Catholic and Catholic alike.
To be clear, we are not talking about floor length dresses or necklines up to the chin, but something very simple such as shoulders covered, no shorts or short skirts. The dress code also applies to both men and women.
But why are these dress codes required? Is it simply because one might encounter the pope and it is better to be dressed appropriately? Nope. The dress code signs are throughout the city and not just the churches where potential pope-sightings could happen. The main reason, one that every Catholic knew to the core of her being decades ago, is that how we dress says a lot about us. When we enter a church, Christ is truly present—body, blood, soul, and divinity—in that space. It is because of him that we recognize the importance of dressing respectfully. This is why there is something special about a Catholic church, why they are beautiful, why centuries of time and inestimable talent have been spent to make them so. It is this grandeur that reminds us of the unfathomable grandeur of God. And though a church may be humble, there too is grandeur of Christ. This is why Sunday-best has been entrenched in just about every Christian culture, except our own.
The hardest part about fashion trends at church, however, is that priests pretty well have their hands tied on the subject. If they say anything, they will be targeted as having “a hang up,” or directing spite at poor innocent girls. As a result, it is largely up to women to speak up.
While many of us may not give our wardrobes much thought and just follow the trends, it is crucial to understand that we may be communicating more than we realize, or something we don’t wish to communicate at all. The second reason why women should consider what they are wearing has a lot to do with charity.
My parish recently went through a struggle over the issue of noise in church. The battle lines were drawn between an older crowd who wanted to be able to hear a pin drop in church for prayer (which is a wonderful thing) and young parents who wanted to feel welcome with their children (which is also a wonderful thing). But how do you resolve this issue when people have a different understanding of what is distracting? The parent who has set his toddler up with his smart phone to watch a video during Mass is clearly going to be distracting a lot of people. Meanwhile the elderly parishioner who expects absolute silence will forever be disappointed in a growing and alive parish. A balance needs to be struck, but regardless, the issue requires a lot of charity, empathy, and even creativity.
But isn’t there another kind of distraction? Visual distraction? The teenage boy sitting behind the girl in short-shorts is going to have to struggle with a different kind of distraction during Mass than noise around him. Or what about the husband struggling with porn who is next to the woman in tight dress with a plunging neck line? Will this help him and his family? One priest I know at a Newman Center at a well-known university confided to me that he would regularly contract his stomach muscles to avoid blushing as female lectors would approach the altar scantily dressed. Clearly, this was yet another type of distraction for even the priest.
Church is meant to be a place where people can connect with God. Where we commune with him as the Body of Christ. Perhaps as women we need to look at modesty not as something to scoff at but to consider as an act of charity. It frees up the minds and hearts of those around us to do at Mass what they are supposed to do. It is a simple way to show love of neighbor. And yes, it is clear that men and women have different types of temptations and struggles. Being mindful of that isn’t sexist, but is charity in action. With our porn-saturated culture, can’t we provide one safe place for men to sort through their sins and struggles without adding to them? Instead, we are offering the moral equivalent (almost) of passing out chocolate cupcakes at a Weight Watchers meeting.
In the meantime, perhaps a simple solution would be for parishes to consider printing up signs like they use for Roman tourists. It is a lot easier to promote an objective dress code for everyone to follow than just to single out women. And frankly, the whole parish would also be well served by having men dress respectfully, too.
But in the meantime, when in doubt about what to wear, ask yourself this question: “Would they let me into a church in Rome?”