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Mass Dress code

The Cardinal Archbishop of Manila, the Most Reverend Gaudencio Rosales recently sent guidelines to his diocese about the proper attire for Mass. The directives have been favourably viewed by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) whose members are likely to adopt the Cardinal's guidelines.

The issue of Mass attire is not just an issue for Pinoy Catholics but also with Catholics worldwide. Let me give my own take on the issue.

Overseas, especially in countries with a British heritage or colonial history, the Catholic church is usually near the Anglican or Protestant church. Sometimes the two churches are located across the street from each other. I usually make it a point to attend Mass in the morning and attend evening prayer with the Anglicans and Protestants in the evening. This is where I observe some major differences in what people wear for worship.

It seems that the Anglicans and Protestants dress up for services compared to the Catholics. The Anglican men may be seen in jacket and tie and some women still wear hats. Catholics are more informal, although it was only in Australia and Bermuda where people can wear shorts. In these countries shorts may be considered appropriate attire depending on the season.

In Louisiana a southern US state, people still dress up for Mass but most are in "smart casual" and a few men are in jacket and tie. But at the Anglican Church parishioners are often seen in their Sunday best. But in the Catholic parish one can see a few men who wear jacket and tie andf women in Sunday dress with the appropriate hat.

Anglicans and some Protestants have become liberal in their theology (having blessed same sex marriages, female priests and bishops) but their worship is still largely traditional. Catholics on the other hand are conservative in their theology (especially with Benedict XVI) but liberal in their worship. Traditional sensibilities have been slighted by numerous "innovations" in the Mass, complaints that have been noticed by Pope Benedict XVI.

This is where the paradox lies. How come Catholics seem to be informal at Mass?

We can blame Vatican II which some newspaper op-ed columnists have done. But Vatican II did not mention mass attire but decreed certain reforms on worship. By and large the reforms have been good for the Church.

Perhaps what is more interesting is that the fact that sacred spaces that are needed for religion to function seem to have disappeared from many Catholic churches. This is not to say that sacred spaces have really disappeared but that people's perception of sacred spaces have disappeared. So the respect for the Divine in these spaces has gone out the window. People don't care about what to wear in encountering the Divine.

Catholic sanctuaries have been used for secular purposes for one. Also Mass is commonly celebrated in shopping malls. Mass has now become a commodity in which one can pick up on the way to the cash register.

Also there is some truth to what conservatives say. People care about what to wear to the office, school or socials but not for the Mass.

While Saint Paul preached in the Greek agoras, we have no proof that he celebrated the Eucharist in these places. In the Roman Empire, the Eucharist was offered in catacombs, house churches and when Constantine legalized Christianity, in basilicas. These are all sacred spaces.

The unfortunate thing is that many Pinoy Catholics just focus on the prurient aspect that women who wear sleeveless attire distract men (and horrors the celibate priest!) from worship. There is obviously more to that. The root is that theological understanding of the sacred has been waylaid by necessity e.g. the necessity to be politically correct, the necessity to get more parishioners and their contributions.

Pope Benedict XVI is trying to turn back the tide against making the sacred mundane. In this effort I agree with His Holiness. As for the Anglicans, the form of worship decreed by the Prayerbook is the last refuge for the traditionalists, who still dress up for Holy Communion.

And perhaps the Cardinal should really limit the celebration of the Eucharist outside churches.


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