Responding to inappropriate attire at Mass

A heat wave is rolling through, and when the temperatures skyrocket, wardrobe choices become a bit less modest. It can really bother some churchgoers who are used to dressing very conservatively in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. So what should we do if this becomes a problem at our parish?

“I find over the years that people are becoming more modest, actually, in the way they come to church,” said Fr. Marcel Taillon, pastor in Narragansett, RI.

As a pastor of a beach town in Rhode Island, many beachgoers attend the Sunday evening Mass at his parish. “The reason that Mass started is there was faithful Catholic lifeguards at Narragansett town beach who couldn’t get the Eucharist because every Saturday and Sunday they had to man the chair at the beach from about 8:00 in the morning until six at night.” The Mass has since exploded in popularity among young people, some of whom come straight from the beach over to Mass. Although there are some flip flops, Fr. Taillon says that the dress is overwhelmingly respectful of the sacred space.

Modesty is something to be aware of as we get dressed for Mass, but also not something we should be judging other people for. As Fr. Taillon explains, we never know why someone is dressed a certain way—perhaps they have mental illness, physical disabilities, or financial constraints—and it’s important that we see beyond their outward appearance. It’s also quite possible that they are a newcomer at Mass, and we want to be welcoming!

What should we do if we see someone immodestly dressed at Mass? “That’s a delicate thing to do and say and not knowing, does that person regularly go to Mass, are they first time back in thirty years? Are they totally dragged there by their grandmother at the last minute when they were in the backyard? Be very careful how we address that,” warns Fr. Taillon. “Yes, it’s a worthy cause, it’s certainly important to be dressed modestly. But how we approach that person that we see maybe could do a little better—I think really, really gently. Great gentleness and kindness, a smile, no sense of righteousness or condemnation—that would not be what the Lord wants. Certainly in that situation, find a way to do it well.”

Times have changed, and while that doesn’t excuse improper behavior, it does mean that younger generations may not be aware of traditional etiquette. “Jesus says, ‘Don’t judge lest you be judged.’ That doesn’t mean we don’t have expectation of ourselves and others for dress and for behavior in certain public places—no doubt about it, God does of us, too. But I think having worked a lot with Millennials these days and other young people, … sometimes it’s just a basic ignorance of past etiquette and other times there could be something else going on, they could be in a kind of rebellious phase of their life and they just don’t see it or get it. But I think we have to be a little patient,” said Fr. Taillon.

Bottom line: the large majority of people are not trying to be disrespectful or offensive when they dress for Mass. If you feel that God is calling you to have a conversation with someone about dressing more modestly for Mass, remember to be extremely gentle and kind.

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