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.