On Modesty of Dress at Holy Mass – Fr. Hathaway FSSP

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Fifth Sunday after Easter
On Modesty of Dress at Holy Mass

Religion pure and undefiled before God the Father is this… to keep oneself unspotted from the world.


We must remain unspotted by the world. And, of all places, we ought to show this by our behavior at the holy Sacrifice of the  Mass… especially by our manner of dress.  Said another way, beach wear belongs at the beach, not at holy mass.  And yet how many Catholics this Summer will attend Sunday Mass in tank tops, shorts, flip flops… in dress unbecoming of the Holy Sacrifice. No knobby knees nor tank tops please.  Anyone who dresses like this at Sunday Mass does not know where they are; they have become spotted by the world.

We will speak on dress for women and men at the holy Mass… especially on Sunday.

But let me preface that I did not wake up this morning thinking, “I wonder how I can ruin their day?”  I do not want to make you mad, but only advance your salvation.  Our dress can be a touchy topic… but all of us should want to correct errors should they exist.

First, we should give a definition.  Modesty in dress is the virtue which regulates the type of clothing and the manner of its wearing so that it conforms to the purposes by which clothing is worn.  Now the purpose of clothing is to protect against the weather, to reveal status or position or formality in society, and to preserve decency.

On this discussion of modesty at Sunday Mass, we concern ourselves with two purposes for wearing clothes, namely, to preserve decency and to reveal formality; to safeguard purity and to show the importance of the holy Sacrifice i.e, that God is appearing on our altar.

Now how should women dress at holy Mass?

Indecency of women’s dress at the holy Sacrifice is not a new thing.  In 1921, Pope Benedict XV (Sacra propediem) lamented the indecent dress of women at holy Mass this way,

“…one cannot sufficiently deplore the blindness of so many women of every age and condition; made foolish by a desire to please, they do not see to what degree the indecency of the clothing shocks every honest man, and offends God.  Most of them would formerly have blushed for those toiletries as for a grave fault against Christian modesty; now it does not suffice for them to exhibit them on public thoroughfares; they do not fear to cross the threshold of the churches, to assist at the holy sacrifice of the Mass, and even to bear the seductive food of shameful passions to the Eucharistic Table where one receives the heavenly author of purity.”
Generally speaking, women exceed the virtue of modesty in dress:
they dress so as to obtain undue attention through them… (but holy Mass is not a pick up joint);
they dress and become too much attached to clothing and styles… (it is hard for them to change.)

But what is the right measure?  Sometimes an invitation to a formal event reads, “wear modest dress.”  That is not very helpful.  We need more detail.  Even among ourselves we will disagree on set limits for modest dress.  We have a good outline, however, from a member of the hierarchy… when they used to speak on these things.

On Sept. 24, 1956, the Cardinal Vicar of Pius XII standardized modesty in dress for women,

“A dress cannot be called decent which is cut deeper than two fingers breadth under the pit of the throat; which does not cover the arms at least to the elbows; scarcely reaches a bit beyond the knees.  Furthermore, dresses of transparent materials are improper.”
Again, according to the Card. Vicar, a dress is not modest if it is deeper than two fingers width beneath the pit of the throat… ( to cover cleavage); dresses should cover the arms at least to the elbow; dresses should reach at least to the shin… (to preserve modesty in sitting); dresses should not be of a transparent material to which we may add, nor tight fitting… (for obvious reasons.)

Now a woman might complain, “this is too much.”  And while it is true that men must practice responsible self control, it is equally true that women respect the nature of man whose imagination is easily stirred by the women’s figure and adequately veil parts of her body… otherwise she may sin against modesty and charity towards neighbor.

Moreover, while modest dresses as exactly defined are difficult to find… all will be well if we shop with a pure motive.  The dress we buy should preserve us and our neighbor in virtue; if we shop with this motive we will not sin and we will have something worthy of God for holy Mass.

Now how should a man dress at the holy Sacrifice?

If women exceed the virtue, it is common for men to come up short in practicing the virtue of modesty in dress.  Men, we are inclined to be careless or slovenly about what we wear… (even at holy Mass); and young men are prone to deliberately neglect their dress so as to attract attention.

At holy Mass, men should wear a coat and tie; or, at least, a collared shirt and nice slacks.

Young men must be taught that baggy pants are not appropriate; that their hair be nicely cut and combed; that shirts be clean and without slogans or cross bones or a dragon,… or anything which may give Satan the appearance of being honored. (“I love SkAT’N” shirt worn by a teenager has a double meaning unacceptable anywhere.)

That is a brief outline of proper dress for men and women at holy Mass.  Please know that only the priest should correct someone’s dress at holy Mass.  Do not assume this task to yourself.  It has happened that a visitor poorly dressed but with honest motives comes to Mass and is forever turned away because of a rude admonishment by a member of the community.

Now concerning women wearing pants at church: On June 12, 1960 Giuseppe Card. Siri authored the document Notification Concerning Men’s Dress Worn By Women.  Card. Siri says wearing pants is not a grave offense against modesty as such what to him seems the gravest issue with pants is that it affects the woman’s identity  in how she understands herself, in how she relates to her husband, and in how she relates to her children.

I recognize that since Card. Siri’s time there are now modest feminine pants on the market.  And I recognize that there are certain occupations for which pants may be more suited than a dress.  It is my belief, however, that a woman should wear a dress more often than pants… namely for the reasons Card. Siri mentions and especially at holy Mass as a dress more identifies the woman.

Finally, let me say I appreciate the way you dress at the holy Mass.  This is a wonderful example of your faith and it edifies me… who grew up in a lax Catholic environment.  Doubtless, your example edifies visitors as well.  And never forget, our reverent behavior and dress at the holy Sacrifice will one day be rewarded with a happy Eternity… a place for our best clothes.

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