Monday, December 04, 2006

Appropriate Dress in the House of God

Once in a long while, some poor soul, in all innocence and naivety and jealous for the glory of the House of God, the Domus Dei et Porta Caeli, will gather up their courage and approach their parish priest to beseech him to use the pulpit to exhort his flock to dress appropriately in a way that befits the great dignity and solemnity of the mystery of Faith that is being celebrated on the Altar.

"Most Reverend Father," they meekly begin, "could you not please remind the people to dress suitably when they come to Mass?"

These poor souls, are usually, but not exclusively, elderly people whose memories perhaps hearken back to a time when all were in their Sunday best, the women in chapel veils and the men in collared shirts. But not all the petitioners are old. A new generation is emerging up with a renewed sense of decorum and propriety as well.

For their trouble, these poor chaps normally get the shock of their lives when they are reprimanded for their good deed.

"Change yourself!" the good Reverend thunders. "Do not look on them with evil thoughts in your heart. Treat them as you would a son or a daughter, brother or a sister and banish all lustful thoughts. It’s so easy to ask others to change. It’s much harder to change yourself. So, go, and sin no more".

Crap, think the petitioners and they walk to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel to bring their complaint to the Good Lord Himself, making a quick stop after that to complain to the Lord's Mother, just in case.

Come Sunday morning, the most reverend Father then begins his sermon. "I want to talk to you about the way you should dress in Church."

The long suffering people with a sense of propriety perk up. Finally, they think, someone is going to put a stop to this eyesore and disrespect.
The Pope removed his shoes while in a Turkish mosque.

Smiles start to from on their lips through a half mumbled prayer to the Virgin and St. Jude for prayers answered.

The young ones, flaunting assets and in some cases, debts =), perk up from their semi-comatose state. "What the.... These are the clothes that I'm going to wear to the mall/arcade/night club/bar after Mass. What's wrong with them? Anyway, these clothes sure got the attention of that cute John/Jane over there. He/she is now looking at me. Yay!"

Out of the corner of my eye, I see an elderly lady grab her cane. Perhaps in anticipation of Father's go ahead to run these skimpily dressed ladies and gentlemen out of the God’s House. The glint of glee in her eye in now overshadowed by the glint in Father's eye as he continues: “Some of you have come to see me about the way people dress in Church and have asked me to address this question from the pulpit. This is what I have to say to you: ‘Change yourself!’ Father then proceeds to give the change yourself speech again, asking the complainants to look at these skimpily dressed chaps as their own son/daughter/brother/sister and to banish all unseemly thoughts. He says gives the old ‘It’s much easier to change others but much harder to change yourself’ speech asks them to look in their own heart if they fine certain types of clothing or the lack thereof distracting.

Now, what is wrong with those statements, you may ask?

Well, nothing and everything.

Taken by itself, there’s nothing wrong with these statements. It’s perfectly true that ‘It’s much easier to change others but much harder to change yourself’. It’s also manifestly clear that we should banish all evil thoughts and not blame the dressing of others for the mental crimes we commit. After all, it was the Lord Jesus Himself who said that ‘If a person so much as looks at another woman with lustful thoughts, he has already committed adultery with her’. Purity in thought is something that we must all strive for at all times. Unlike others, we can’t blame rapes on the dressing of the victims, saying that men can’t control themselves at the sight of a little flesh. That’s clearly wrong so on those points, Father was completely right.

However, the Lord Jesus Christ also said this:

"You have heard that people were told in the past, 'Do not commit murder; anyone who does will be brought to trial.' But now I tell you: if you are angry with your brother you will be brought to trial, if you call your brother 'You good-for-nothing!' you will be brought before the Sanhedrin, and if you call your brother a worthless fool you will be in danger of going to the fire of hell. So if you are about to offer your gift to God at the altar and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar, go at once and make peace with your brother, and then come back and offer your gift to God.
(Mat 5:21-24)

Many people in the congregation that day should have been brought to trial and put before the Sanhedrin and had put themselves in no small danger of hellfire. There were certainly abstentions from Holy Communion, I can tell you that.

There were many people who were outraged that day, and justly so. They were right to feel that way, for the good Rev. Father was completely and utterly wrong on all points.

What? I thought just now you said he was completely right?

I did. But in this context, he’s completely wrong. And here’s why.

The complaint was not that prayer was impossible because of the distraction. The complaint was not that these skimpily dressed people inspired lustful thoughts. Had those been the complaints, then perhaps Father’s rebuke might have been just.

But the complaint was that there’s a certain kind of decorum expected in God’s House and certain kinds of dress are just not appropriate there. And it’s the job of God’s priests to encourage a correct and decorous way to dress in Church to respect the sanctity of the place dedicate to God’s worship and the One who dwells therein.

Its certain not befitting that the Church's minister should use his authority to encourage otherwise.

In Malaysia, people of many races and religions coexist together. Our priests always preach respect and tolerance for people of other religions and races and respect for their legitimate customs. Thats great. Really.

There are some places in the world where being skimpily dressed before the Supreme Pontiff is a socially acceptable thing to do. And thats fine.

It’s a different thing is it’s the culture of the people to dance wrapped around in fronds. Its ok because it’s a cultural thing and its their culture to do so.

It’s different if it’s the culture of the people to come forward at the offertory or receive Holy Communion with nary a thing on as the images below from the Papal Mass in Papua New Guinea show. The woman below is bringing the offertory gifts to the hands to beloved Pope John Paul II of blessed memory.

In that culture, being bare breasted is fine. Even for a Mass when the Supreme Pontiff is present and celebrating.

But our Asian culture, our Catholic culture and our common sense and decency does not permit that here in Malaysia.

But here, these priests are telling our young that they can ignore Catholic customs and sensibilities and the feelings of their fellow Catholics. These priests are telling our young to abuse their legitimate freedom in Christ to the detriment of others causing them to fall.

Scripture says this:

But if someone tells you, "This food was offered to idols," then do not eat that food, for the sake of the one who told you and for conscience' sake--- that is, not your own conscience, but the other person's conscience. "Well, then," someone asks, "why should my freedom to act be limited by another person's conscience? If I thank God for my food, why should anyone criticize me about food for which I give thanks?" Well, whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, do it all for God's glory.
(1Co 10:28-31)

St. Paul might have easily have said ‘Whatever way you dress as well, do it all for God’s glory’. Think about it. Does dressing skimpily really give glory to God? [Regardless of the praise due to the Creator of certain voluptuous curves. =)]

These same priests who would not dream of entering a Malay home with their shoes on as it contravenes Malay custom, would not dream of entering a Sikh temple with their head uncovered, would not dream of entering a Mosque in shorts and a singlet as Moslem religious law prohibits it are now telling our young that their Churches, which they know and preach to be the place where God’s dwells corporeally in the Most Holy Eucharist does not deserve the same respect that they would accord to mere buildings built to house wood and stone idols. What hypocrisy. What an outrage on reason.

The images below show women with their heads covered when in a Sikh temple in respect of the Sikhs religious sensibilities.

Men too have to wrap a handkerchief over their heads before being permitted to enter.

Many mosques that are tourist sites post a dress code outside and lend out or sell leg/head coverings for those who want to enter.

The dress code seen below is from the Putra Mosque in Putrajaya, the administrative capital of Malaysia.

Women entering mosques all over the world have no trouble adhering to these norms out of respect for their hosts.

Here are some who are using temporary leg coverings before being admitted to a mosque.
Temporary head coverings are often available as well as at this mosque in Istanbul.

People surprise me when they have no trouble adhering to the dress code when visiting a Malays house, a Sikh temple or a mosque but would raise a din to high heaven when asked to exercise some restraint and proper decorum in their own parish Church.
The Pope himself removed his shoes on his recent trip to a Turkish mosque, respecting their custom.

Even the Vatican does not allow skimpily dressed people to enter and has a certain dress code even when Mass is not being celebrated. You had to buy paper pants before you’re allowed entry.

These dress code signs are posted all over the place.

People have to wear skirts that fall below the knee.

These paper pants are sold for those who do not come prepared.

I'm not advocating the full face burqa or the niqab but come on people, some decency please.

These same priests would not visit the King in shorts as it would mean disrespect for His Majesty. And yet, they would counsel that it’s ok and perfectly legitimate that our Catholic young treat the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords in a way that would not befit and earthly king or lord. This is ridiculous. And this is being taught in catechism.

I challenge our priests who repeat this nonsense from the pulpit to appear before their Bishop or His Holiness the Pope or their local civil authority when they’re petitioning for approval for a new Church extension or a Church building permit to dress in shorts and slippers. I challenge them to tell the offended Bishop/Pope/Civil Ruler that their heart is in the right place and that if His Lordship/His Holiness/His Excellency is offended, His Lordship/His Holiness/His Excellency needs change himself and look not at shorts with offense in his heart.

Try it and see what happens. I’m sure they wouldn’t dare as not only will it be considered extremely rude and a sign of bad upbringing, whatever petition or request being brought will also be considered twice.

And here, we’re gathered for Mass and bringing our petitions to God our Almighty Father who is infinitely greater than His Holiness the Pope or any civil ruler and we’re told its ok. Yes, perhaps God would not mind. Yes, God looks into the heart. But what kind of message are we sending our young about the Majesty and Holiness of God? Is God less worthy of our respect because He is understanding and merciful, forgiving and loving? Are those not reasons to be even more respectful to Him, to honour Him more for His loving-kindness and be more jealous of His glory rather than to presume at His mercy. Remember, God is Love, God is Mercy but He is not only Holy, and not only Holy Holy but Holy! Holy! Holy! before Whom the Seraphim shield their eyes and the angels and saints prostrate to the ground.

Very often, we hear the rejoinder ‘It does not matter what you wear as long as your heart is in the right place’. This absolutely true and at the same time, it’s absolutely nonsense as it creates a false dichotomy that does not and should not exist. Why can’t your heart be in the right place and dress properly at the same time? If your heart is in the right place and you recognized your creatureliness before the Creator, would you really want to dress in such a manner?

I find that if people are fully catechesized on the reasons why respectful dress is proper, they will often acquiesce and dress appropriately. But all my catechesis and thoughtful reasoning can be undone by one loose word from the priest from the pulpit and ‘Father says its ok. Change yourself instead’ becomes the new rallying cry and a big stick to beat well meaning parents and teachers who try to educate them on etiquette.

Scripture has this to say:

My friends, not many of you should become teachers. As you know, we teachers will be judged with greater strictness than others.
Jam 3:1)

And in another place:

"If anyone should cause one of these little ones to lose his faith in me, it would be better for that person to have a large millstone tied around his neck and be drowned in the deep sea. How terrible for the world that there are things that make people lose their faith! Such things will always happen---but how terrible for the one who causes them!
(Mat 18:6-7)

By saying that its ok to dress inappropriately in God’s House, we are indirectly telling our young that God deserves less respect than the Prime Minister or the King whom we should dress appropriately before we appear before them and the Church in which God dwells deserves less respect than, lets say a Mosque or a Temple where because we should dress appropriately before we are allowed to enter. If this makes any of our young lose faith in God or erodes their Faith or even makes one of the elderly people who are little ones in Faith lose Faith in God or His Church because of their harmful teachings, then the Scripture above applies to them as well and that puts them in no small danger.


M@rK said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew said...

The names shall remain a secret to protect the innocent, namely me.

But, I'm going to emphasize that the most Reverend Father shouted and thumped his fist during his sermon.

You may hazard a guess. =)

M@rK said...

let me rephrase my question... did this really happen during the sermon of a catholic mass?

Andrew said...

In a word, yes.

I imagined the earlier part of the old ladies going to see him, but the sermon was delivered in Mass.

More verbatim as written than not.