It’s that time of year again, when skirts get shorter and tank tops get louder. Each time I have visited Rome, I have been always grateful for the visual images outside of churches that remind tourists and pilgrims alike what is 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 now become signs for just about anyone, including Catholics.
To be clear, I’m not talking about floor length dresses or Victorian-style 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 in Rome required? Is it simply because one might encounter Pope Francis and it’s better to be dressed appropriately? No. The dress code signs are found throughout the city, including some museums, and not just the churches where potential pope-sightings could happen. The main reason, one that every Catholic seemed to know to the core of their being decades ago, is that “how we dress says a lot about us.” We should know when we enter a church that Christ is truly present—Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity—in that space. It is because of Him that we should 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 that way. It is such grandeur that reminds us of the omnipotence of God. Even though a church may be modest and humble, there is the grandeur of Christ. This is why “Sunday-best” has been entrenched in almost every Christian culture, except our own.
The hardest part about speaking of fashion trends at church, however, is that we priests pretty well have our hands tied on the subject. If we say anything, we will be targeted as having “a hang up,” or deriding “a poor innocent girl.” As a result, it is largely up to someone else 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 we should consider what we are wearing has a lot to do with charity.
My home parish once went through a struggle over the issue of noise in church. The battle lines were drawn between an older crowd that 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 toddler, whose parents have set him up with a smart phone to watch a video during Mass, is clearly going to distract a lot of people. On the other side of the coin, the elderly parishioner who expects absolute silence, will forever be disappointed in a growing and vibrant 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? Picture the teenage boy sitting behind the girl in short-shorts, who is going to have to struggle with a different kind of distraction during Mass than the noise around him. What about the husband struggling with porn who is next to the woman in a tight dress with a plunging neck line? Will this help him and his family?
One priest I know 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. 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. 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.
It might seem like a simplistic solution for parishes to consider printing up signs like they use for Roman tourists. It’s a lot easier to promote an objective dress code for everyone to follow than just to single out one gender or another. 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?”