Published February 23, 2006
I suspected that it would eventually come to my desk here in the Archdiocese of Atlanta because the same issue had already come to my attention in the Archdiocese of Chicago and then in the Diocese of Belleville. The issue of what is appropriate attire to wear in Church is a concern for many people. The same issue was even present for the ancient Church as attested to by the Letter of the Apostle James (Chapter 2:1-5).
People who express concern about this matter are people of real faith, and they deserve respect and Christian understanding. The topic, however, is fraught with difficulty. The norms that govern and set the standards for proper attire have changed significantly and repeatedly during the past generation.
Many of you may remember when a properly dressed gentleman was expected to wear a hat—felt in the winter and straw in summer. Ladies were expected to wear hats and gloves for all formal events. While some might lament the abandonment of such fashion, they are rarely followed today. Even business attire has been modified in the recent past. There is a clear shift to require or expect less and less formal attire in most situations. Whether this more casual practice is satisfactory to everyone is a question of debate and sometimes intense opinions—which prompts the e-mails and letters that occasionally comes to a bishop’s desk.
The Church is a public institution and subject to social mores and customs. This means that people who live in the society at-large typically take public customs into the Church. When all is said and done, the issue of what constitutes proper attire in Church has changed over the years. This is especially challenging for parents of young people who must persuade their youngsters to attend Church, but who may themselves have real qualms about the appropriateness of the dress of their children. The styles of young people change with even greater rapidity than clothing styles for the general population. Parents want their children to be properly dressed for Church, but how do they also allow their children to feel comfortable, to feel connected to their peers, and not to develop an aversion to going to Church simply because it always involves a painful encounter over apparel.
As the pastor of this local Church, I must confess that I have never been offended or scandalized by any attire that I have seen our kids wear to Church. I am so happy to see them at Mass that I generally don’t even notice what they are wearing. When I see those bright faces, I am grateful that these young people are found within the warm embrace of the Church. Braces and flip-flops are welcome wherever I am celebrant.
Now a word to our youngsters: Your parents are trying to prepare you for life and part of that preparation must be to instill you with good manners. Dress is a sign that speaks to you and to your friends. That’s why you like certain jeans, why you wear your hair in particular styles, why you reject last year’s fashions. When Mom and Dad want you to dress in a certain way to attend Church, they want your clothing to speak to the entire community of the Church. It’s important for you and your parents to speak to one another—in love—about this issue. You must listen to them—and hopefully they will listen to you. It’s part of being a family. It’s part of growing up.
Because the Archbishop is usually not in the kitchen when these conversations take place, he wants you to know that he will always welcome you, Mom and Dad with a smile on his face because he knows that you have done the best that you can to bring changing styles and traditions into Church. Such conversations will continue to take place since they have such a longstanding history without having ever been completely settled!