I am probably dipping into really dangerous waters here. There have been a lot of heated debates about modesty and what constitutes modesty, and I would rather not go there. However, yesterday I got into a forum scuffle because someone posted a link to their priest’s homily on Sunday where he spent 15 minutes talking about what constituted appropriate dress. It made me mad, not really at the priest but at the tone of the forum thread. In the interest of fairness, I will post the link to the homily and I will point out that I think the priest was trying to be gentle and generous in his words, he did not choose a warm, summer day when some might feel purposefully shamed to speak his words. However, I did find the topic inappropriate for a homily, especially because it was aimed predominantly at one segment of the parish population (women) and the talk came in conjunction with the reading about the Samaritan woman at the well. I also want to point out right now, I dress modestly and I believe we should dress modestly for Mass. I keep my girly parts covered well and good. However, modesty is in the eye of the beholder. Some might not think I dress modestly because my skirts (when I wear them) come only to my knees. I wear pants, and not only pants, but often wear jeans to Mass. You can see my neck and in the summer, I sometimes where sleeveless tops. (It’s hot in the state!) I think I am modest, you might not. I am not going to debate what is the “true” definition of modesty.
What I really would like to address is the attitude that made me mad. Sadly, I find it too much in Catholic circles. Being a convert from Evangelicalism and having experience in some Fundamentalist circles, I really thought that Catholics had a better understanding of grace and mercy. In fact, one reason I became Catholic is because of the grace which flows in and through our faith. So the numerous men and women who posted on the thread “atta boy Father, so glad you had the kohonees (did I spell that right? I was going to use a different word but it wouldn’t have been modest) to speak up about this because frankly we are so tired of women dressing like sluts in Mass and causing these poor men to stumble.” The vitriol and self-righteous tone really irked me.
Look, we’ve all been there and watched someone, most of the time a young woman, walk up to serve as a Lector or Extraordinary Minister and inwardly gasped “oh no.” I remember seeing a beautiful young woman one day in Mass walk to the front to do the first reading. I actually know this young woman so I know her and I can tell you that her intent in her dress is not to “seduce,” “tempt,” or in any other way make a man stumble. She was wearing a dress that was light-colored and unfortunately, she didn’t see the need to wear a slip or camisole under it, and so her undergarments were really quite visible. But the dress was beautiful, and she is a faithful Mass goer, and serves faithfully in the parish. Some of those on that thread yesterday would have denounced her as “a slut.” I will not. She is not. I am sure when she left her house she thought she looked pretty and well dressed to be a participant in the Mass.
Some people kept insisting that someone has to say something about these women who dress so provocatively and inappropriately for being in the Lord’s presence. Well, maybe. But I think a better way of addressing the issue is for the pastor to establish a dress code, or to write a pastoral letter addressed to both men and women (men wear shorts to Mass too!), or for someone in the parish to have a one-on-one conversation. But addressing it from the pulpit was just an invitation for the tongue-waggers to get their tongues moving. There was lots of laughing in the background during the homily. I am sure there was more than one person who was like “I am so glad that Father is talking about this because you know so-and-so dresses like a slut and she’s a Eucharistic Minister! At least I know how to dress appropriately for Our Lord.” All sorts of “tut-tutting” and “tsk-tsking” was probably going on afterward. Don’t even try to tell me that Father’s homily did not occasion the sin of gossip in some because you know that in every parish there are “those” people who gossip.
I think the congregation and the priest missed the point of Jesus’ encounter at the well. Yes, she was a “loose-living” woman. She’d been married to five other men and was shacking up with a sixth. The priest made a point to ask to the congregation what they thought she was wearing. But you know what? The story doesn’t say, because that isn’t the point. Jesus didn’t say to her “I have something really important to say to you, but your dress is inappropriate for talking to me and you might cause my disciples here to lust after you, so go home and change and then come back.” No. He met her right there, sinner that she was, and invited her to a new life. Does that mean she left Jesus’ presence the same as when she met Him? No. But nothing is said about how she dressed. She might have just gone on dressing the way she had always dressed, but she was following Jesus from that day onward.
I know that I should probably dress in something a little nicer than jeans for Mass. I know it. However, I don’t dress in jeans because I am intent of seducing men of the congregation (Lord have mercy that’s not going to happen even if I truly dressed like a hooker), or wanting poor, celibate Father to stumble in his commitment. I wear jeans because right now, that’s what I have to do in order to get to Mass. It’s fast, I don’t feel the need to put make up on if I all I feel like is a dash of lipstick, and I don’t have to make my hair look fabulous. Because I don’t always feel like going to Mass and if I felt like I had to go the whole nine yards, I wouldn’t. I show up anyway, and Jesus shows up to meet me at my well, and that is all that matters.