by M. Francis Mannion
Among my heroines is Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners, the nationally syndicated columnist and wonderfully wry and wise author of “Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior.”
When Miss Manners proposes a return to wearing “Sunday Best” when going to church, I leap to her support.
Until recently, Miss Manners observes, both rich and poor distinguished consciously between their everyday work clothes and what they wore to church on Sundays. Even today, people, to some degree, still dress up for weddings, funerals, going to the office, doing job interviews, going to dinner at nice restaurants, and attending uppity cocktail parties, but dress down for Sunday worship.
This problem is even more pronounced in Catholic churches. I (who think myself a good analyst of just about everything) don’t have the slightest clue why this is the case. Catholics dress these days for Mass as they would when raking leaves, cleaning out Grandma’s attic, going shopping, or sprawling on the couch with a six-pack watching a football game. People dress for Mass (the greatest action possible on earth) as they would for the most casual of occasions.
As a firm believer that Sunday Mass is the world’s most extraordinary occasion, I propose the restoration of the good old-fashioned custom of dressing up for church on Sundays.
Miss Manners and I can already hear your outraged objections: It doesn’t matter a whit what you wear in church. It’s not what you wear on the outside that matters, but what’s inside in your heart. And you will protest that Jesus hung around with ordinary, poor folks and despised the sanctimonious religious class with their tassels and phylacteries. Or the biggie of them all: But asking poor people to wear Sunday Best puts a undue burden on those who can’t afford nice clothes.
To all of which I (and Miss Manners, were she not so lady-like) would answer: “horse feathers!” (Besides, Sunday Best does not mean expensive or even good clothing. It means the nicest and best things you own).
I have never bought the outsides/insides argument (a product of the German Enlightenment). Loving God and neighbor is as much about outsides, good manners, and respectful self-presentation, as it is about insides.
And certainly Jesus did hang out with a fairly rough crowd. But he did tell a story (of which he seemingly approved) about a king throwing out on the street a man who came to a feast without the proper attire. (Admittedly, I am stretching scriptural interpretation a bit here).
As for Sunday Best imposing a burden on the poor: Ever been to a poor black neighborhood on a Sunday morning? There you will see a community ablaze in the most festive Sunday dress as they go to church.
So, I say let us bring back dressing up for Mass on Sundays. I am certain that it will help rather than hinder liturgical participation. Dressing up will help Christians recognize their baptismal dignity. It will say that the presence of God in our midst is worth our best, and tangibly underscore the truth that the edification and beautification of the People of God–both on the insides as well as the outsides–are primary aims of the Church’s liturgy.
So to the questions I know are already forming in your minds: Am I about to make this an issue during the homily next Sunday? Am I going to mentally judge people’s dress as I greet them at the door after Mass? As an adherent of Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, I am above such actions. Besides, Miss Manners wouldn’t approve.
Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. By permission of The Intermountain Catholic, Salt Lake City.