Busted Halo

Caitlin Kennell Kim, seminary grad, baby wrangler, ordinary radical, writes about the life of a convert in the Catholic Church and explores how faith and everyday life intersect.

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January 28th, 2013

Modesty at Mass (The Sequel): In Defense of Radical Hospitality


Parishoners walk past a dress code sign at a Catholic Church in the Philippines. (CNS photo/Cheryl Ravelo, Reuters)

Holy controversy, Batman! I had no idea that so many people had such impassioned opinions about what other people wear to Mass. I would like to offer my sincere thanks to those who took the time to respond to my last post via the comments section on the Convert-sation blog and also on Busted Halo’s Facebook page. I decided it would be easiest to respond to your questions and thoughts in another post. So here we go …

When my husband and I were graduate students — newly wed and in the throngs of a very complicated first pregnancy — we spent an inordinate amount of time on a particular city block visiting our doctor, getting labs drawn, and being examined at the hospital. We were tired, broke, and scared. At the end of said block was a church. The doors of that church were open most of the time. Sometimes Mass was being said. Sometimes the Blessed Sacrament was exposed for Adoration. Sometimes nothing in particular was going on at all.

My husband and I would stop into that church before catching a bus home. We came in jeans, sneakers, and thrift shop winter coats. We knelt in prayer. We huddled together and closed our eyes like birds in the snow. We stared up at the constellations painted on the ceiling. That church was a place of refuge and peace and holiness for us. And not just us. Homeless folks slept in the pews. Business folks clutching rosaries knelt before the altar. Women and men donning scrubs lit candles. A few elderly nuns dotted the assembly. Students lugged backpacks up and down the center aisle. A man with a thick accent and a mane of unkempt white hair emphatically addressed a statue of Our Lady of Fatima at the back of the church … his hat clutched in his hands, his exposition ranging from lament to supplication to praise like a psalmist. Nobody noticed us except to occasionally smile kindly at my belly peeking out of my coat.

People — all kinds of people — came in and out of that church all day long to attend Mass or Adoration, to pray, to light candles, to keep warm, to find a safe place to sleep, to sit quietly. This parish operated (and I’m sure it still does) under the principle that the house of God (the place where God dwells really and truly in the Blessed Sacrament) is for the people of God (read: everyone). This is radical hospitality and it is a rare, precious, and holy thing in a world fraught with fear, division, and alienation. It made a profound impression on my faith.

All of this is to fumble at what Thomas Merton said far more elegantly and succinctly in describing his first experience of Catholic Mass (Merton, like yours truly, was a convert from Protestantism. In fact, we came into the Church at the same parish): “What a revelation it was, to discover so many ordinary people in a place together, more conscious of God than of one another; not there to show off their hats or their clothes, but to pray, or at least to fulfill a religious obligation, not a human one. For even those who might have been there for no better motive than that they were obliged to be, were at least free from any of the self-conscious and human constraint … .”

So, what I want to say is this: let’s stop judging each other. Let’s stop assuming we know anything about the inner workings of another human being’s soul (or their intentions, for that matter) based exclusively on what they happen to be wearing (or for any reason whatsoever). Let’s stop turning Mass into a show of our personal piety, propriety, and prosperity. Let’s come as participants … not spectators. Let’s stop being so interested in/critical of/offended by the fashion foibles of the family of God. Let’s make our parishes beacons of radical hospitality. Not because it’s easy. Not because it makes us feel comfortable. Not because every person who enters our local church will adhere to our personal (or cultural) standards for modesty. But because we are called to great love. We are called to be a refuge. We are called to welcome all who wish to draw near to Jesus. Not just folks who act and think and look like us. We worship the God of radical hospitality. Lord, make us worthy disciples.

The Author : Caitlin Kennell Kim
Caitlin Kennell Kim is a full-time baby wrangler, writer, and ponderer of all things theological. She earned her Masters of Divinity in Pastoral Ministry and Theology from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. She currently lives in Northeast Ohio with her husband and their four small children.
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  • http://twitter.com/SouLFoodLF SouLFoodLittleFlower

    Wow–thank you for sharing your beautiful story!

  • Rachel DB

    Radical Hospitality, starting with our own personal attitude, is. WOAH. hard. Even looking at the specific issue of what you wear to Mass affects me.

    The whole point of the Eucharist as Sacrament is the community–God is found in us as much as God is found in the wafer. We are all in communion with one-another and God specifically because we are all there to worship and participate in the same way. Mass is so completely different from our own personal devotions and prayer time because the sacrament is the community.

    So, then, who is right? If you wear something to Mass that is distracting to me; you and I are not in communion with each other. But who should change, and where do we draw that line? Some churches serve their suburban community where homelessness and wayfairers are a non-issue. But in those churches maybe we should ask a dress code that enforces no sports paraphernalia. Especially on big football Sundays.

    But when I open the Gospel, I only see Jesus’ example of Radical Hospitality and his encouragement to “do this in memory of me.” What is the Eucharist anyway, if we sanction off part of our community??

  • Drew

    Thanks so much for this wonderful article and for your previous one on the same topic. It is amazing to me how many people have responded with bald assertions about god’s supposed fashion rules which he has apparently delivered to them direct through private revelation. So I guess his prophets no longer decry social injustice and foretell great events. They are now rather like the mean popular kids in grade school who make fun of the kids who can’t afford name brands or choose not to wear them. Actually, they are worse. At least the mean popular kids don’t pretend like God shares their prejudices and approves of their meanness. So for those who are keeping score, that’s 1 for the mean populst kids and 0 for the religious hypocrites.

  • Veronica Zamarron

    Good, insightful article. And yes, maybe we shouldn’t focus on what one is wearing, and focus on the fact that he/she is IN church. HOWEVER…a person should show respect for God, the priest, and the congregation and leave the sexy clothes for partying. There HAS to be some standards for the House of God. Low-cut blouses and micro-minis really have no place in church.

  • Belinda


  • http://www.facebook.com/todd.lovas Todd Lovas

    Let us build a house
    where love can dwell
    And all can safely live,
    A place where
    saints and children tell
    How hearts learn to forgive.

    Built of hopes and dreams and visions,
    Rock of faith and vault of grace;
    Here the love of Christ shall end divisions;

    All are welcome, all are welcome,
    All are welcome in this place.

    my emphasis added.

  • http://www.facebook.com/SPBorland Sean Borland

    I really enjoyed your first article. Very Much! I’m sorry some people with different views may have been hateful. The problem I have is that sometimes they are the ones who think they are more pious and better than all the rest of us who have been humbled by our broken lives and still try to walk towards Jesus, stumble, ask forgiveness, and carry on, every day trying to be better and more Christ-like.

    • Rachel DB

      Hey Sean, Although I agree that some comments came off hateful, let’s all try not to pass judgement on each other’s piety. We should be united- having conversations like these help in that way. Making statements that divide into US (“the rest of us”) and THEM (“they think they are…”)

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