May 4, 2007

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Modesty helps us live according to God’s plan

Recently, after Mass at one of our parishes, a woman told me that with the coming of spring and summer I need to tell folks they should dress modestly when they come to Church.

I would make the case that modesty should be characteristic at any time, not just “in church,” so I will address the sensitive issue in two parts. It is one thing to talk about how we conduct ourselves in church. It is another topic to talk about modesty in dress.

If one follows recent liturgical directives, both from the Holy See and from our U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, one of the recent themes concerns a sense of the sacred and the respect due to the celebration of the liturgy, the Eucharist in particular.

The reform of the liturgy over the last decades has promoted an awareness that we gather to celebrate the Mass as a community. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI’s recent apostolic letter on the Eucharist calls it the “Sacrament of Charity.”

The ideal of promoting active participation in the Eucharist has led to a kind of informality of presence at Mass. I also believe that the provision for Saturday and Sunday evening Masses (to make the Eucharist more accessible) may have triggered for some the sense that these are more “laid back,” “come as you are” celebrations.

We may have gone overboard. Loss of a sense of the sacred is a loss. It is essential that we keep in mind the principle that how we celebrate the Eucharist affects how we believe in the sacrament and what we believe.

Active participation does not mean we are merely participating in a socializing event with friends. The eucharistic banquet which unites us also celebrates an awesome mystery. Each time Mass is celebrated, the sacrifice of Christ is re-presented in mystery; it is the decisive event of our salvation.

Greater approachability to this marvelous gift is important. But so is respectful awe. Active participation includes respectfully listening to God’s Word, responding in song as well as being attentive to the eucharistic mystery and worthy reception of Communion. This requires a certain degree of composure, stillness and silence.

The architecture of our more recent churches provides a narthex or gathering space for friend-making and visiting before and after Mass.

St. Charles Borromeo once told his priests that if they are seriously distracted during Mass, perhaps they need to ask what they were doing in the sacristy beforehand. The need for composure and focus applies to all of us. Part of that stillness and composure does, indeed, include how we dress and whether or not we think we are participating in something special.

That leads me to the matter of dress. There is a difference between informality in dress and modesty. No doubt, informal dress is more acceptable in our culture and that is not all bad.

But I get the impression that because of what currently passes as culturally and socially acceptable deportment in dress has, as it were, immunized many folks’ sensitivity to modesty.

The term “modesty” itself has virtually disappeared from common parlance; its use embarrasses some people.

I have remarked before that I am often amazed when parents allow their daughters to present themselves for the sacrament of confirmation in less than appropriate apparel, dress that by ordinary standards would not be acceptable in any situation.

Some sponsors and parents are similarly attired. Their lack of embarrassment makes me wonder whether they may be unaware of the immodesty of their dress, though I would find that surprising.

Apparently, the prevailing style of dress for young women is simply accepted by many people. I realize this is a sensitive topic to raise with mothers and fathers. Some tell me it is difficult to find modest clothing for their daughters. Others tell me they simply lose the argument because youth are so style- conscious. And still others look at me as if I am hopelessly out of touch.

Yet this is a serious issue. “Modesty is a virtue necessary for purity. It flows out of the virtues of temperance, chastity and

self-control. A modest person dresses, speaks and acts in a manner that supports and encourages purity and chastity, not in a manner that would tempt or encourage sinful sexual behavior. Modesty protects the mystery of the person in order to avoid exploiting the other. … Modesty ensures and supports purity of heart, a gift that enables us to see God’s plan for personal relationships, sexuality and marriage” (United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, USCCB, pp. 441-42).

Admittedly, our Church’s promotion of the virtues of modesty and purity is a sign of contradiction in an overly eroticized society. The awesome mystery of the human person is at stake and that has serious consequences. †

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