Put on Your Sunday Best

This post is part of a series on Getting the Most Out of Mass: tips to best dispose yourself to receive the graces available during Mass (this will be specifically about Sunday Mass, but some of these ideas will also apply to daily Mass). We're in the section on preparing yourself before Mass.

What:

Catholics try to wear their best clothes to Sunday Mass. Often they have special Sunday outfits.

On Sunday everyone puts on his finery. The Sunday dress is exactly what its name implies—clothing reserved to be worn only on Sunday. We may have one or the other “better dress” besides. We may have evening gowns, party dresses—but this one is our Sunday best, set aside for the day of the Lord. When we put it on, we invariably feel some of the Sunday spirit come over us.

von Trapp, Maria, Around the Year With the Trapp Family

While we do wear good clothes, we try not to wear “flashy” clothes, and we definitely avoid anything immodest.

Women may cover their heads at Mass with a hat or a mantilla, etc., but men may not.

Why:

Why Dress up for Mass?

Sunday Mass is a formal event. We are going to the King of Kings. We would dress up to see the president or the Pope. Even more so, we ought to dress up to visit God in His house.

Wearing your “Sunday best” shows a special honor for God, the Catholic Church, the Mass, and the specific place where you are worshipping. It also gives the other people who might see you a good example of how to show that respect.

We avoid any clothing that might draw attention to ourselves during Mass. For example, a nice suit is great Mass attire, but a tuxedo is over the top. It would draw too much attention to the wearer unless he is involved in the Mass (e.g. groom at a wedding Mass, Knight of Columbus color guard, etc.). I’ve seen young people attending Mass prior to a formal dance, dressed in their tuxes and dresses. This seemed to me to be an appropriate exception to not wearing flashy clothing to Mass, but I’m open to other opinions.

Study to be neat, and let nothing about you be slovenly or disorderly. It is an affront to those with whom you associate to be unsuitably dressed, but avoid all conceits, vanities, finery, and affectation. Adhere as far as possible to modesty and simplicity, which doubtless are the best ornaments of beauty and the best atonement for its deficiency.

St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, III.25

Modesty

A risque outfit is never appropriate in public, but it is especially inappropriate at Mass.

Modesty in dress and bodily adornments inclines a person to avoid not only whatever is offensive to others but whatever is not necessary.

Modern Catholic Dictionary: Modesty

Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.

Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love. It encourages patience and moderation in loving relationships; it requires that the conditions for the definitive giving and commitment of man and woman to one another be fulfilled. Modesty is decency. It inspires one’s choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet.

CCC 2521-2522

While Church is a good place to find a spouse, you will not attract the right kind of spouse by dressing immodestly.

Head Coverings

Hats off to the men

For men, wearing something on one’s head is traditionally a sign of position and authority. In times past men had different kinds of hats depending on what position they had in society. However, before God, we are all equal. To show this, men don’t wear hats in church (except for those involved in the Mass: during certain parts of the Mass, priests may wear a biretta, bishops wear a miter, Knights of Columbus might wear their regalia hats, etc., but they all take their hats off during the Eucharistic prayer). “Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head…” (1 Corinthians 11:4)

Not too long ago, it was customary for a man to “doff his cap” (tip/lift his hat) as a “cultural expression of recognition, respect, gratitude or simple salutation and acknowledgment between two persons.” (See Wikipedia on Hat Tip”) A man removing his cap for Mass is doing the same for God’s presence in the church. Yes, God is present everywhere, but He is most especially present in the Eucharist (CCC 1373), so we men remove our hats as a sign of respect for the house in which His True Presence remains.

An A-Veil-Able Option

For women, wearing something on one’s head is a sign of humility. “Any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head.” (1 Corinthians 11:5) In the past, it was mandatory for women to cover their heads in Mass. While it is not mentioned in the current Code of Canon Law, it is still a commendable practice. Many women wear a veil or hat as one more way of marking Mass time as special. (e.g. They don’t normally wear a veil, but they do for this special time in God’s house.) Veils can particularly also act as partial blinders (to keep out distractions and focus one on the Mass). Lastly, veils can also help keep other people’s attention on God by covering a woman’s hair, which can be a distraction because of its beauty.

A man removes his hat in Church to show those same signs of respect, gratitude, and submission to Almighty God. He recognizes that particularly in this place, God is present. Yes, he knows God is everywhere, but God is particularly present at Mass, most especially in the Eucharist. (see also CCC 1373)

Dressing for Daily Mass

Daily Mass is a different etiquette. Many people attending daily Mass are taking time out of their work and so will probably be dressed in their work clothes, tradesmen and businessmen alike. If a mechanic takes the time on his lunch break to participate in Mass, he probably doesn’t have much more time than it takes to clean his hands. I wouldn’t expect him to change for Mass.

In the Church, we have a concept of “progressive solemnity.” More or less: the higher the celebration, the fancier the Mass. On the highest days (Sundays and solemnities), we put out all the stops. On medium days (feasts), we have many extras, but not always all of them. On lower days (memorials, optional memorials, and weekdays) we tend to have more reserved celebrations. One simple example that many parishes so to express this is the number of candles lot at the altar. Six for high days, four for feasts, and two for lower days. We can reflect this idea in our choice of attire. Sunday best for Sundays and solemnities, next best outfits for feasts, and something nice for lower days.

Going Deeper:

Ask God to help you choose and/or acquire good clothes that will honor Him when you wear them to Mass.

Show intentionality by putting your clothes out the night before. You could even pray over your Sunday clothes and ask God’s blessing on them. I have not found an official Catholic prayer of this sort, but you can always ask God that through you wearing these special clothes, He might draw you and those around you closer to Himself.

As you get dressed, you might think of some of the scripture verses about being spiritually clothed:

  • “…clothed with power from on high” [in reference to the Holy Spirit] (Luke 24:49)
  • “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:11-17)
  • “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Colossians 3:12-14)
  • “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5)

Suiting Up:

Growing up, I attended a Catholic school with a dress code. What I wore to any given Sunday Mass wasn’t much different from what I wore to school. If you would have asked me, I would have been able to say that yes, the church building was a special place, but I had no idea how special of a place the church really was. Naturally, my choice of Mass attire didn’t really distinguish what I was doing at Sunday Mass from what I was doing the rest of the week.

As I grew in my understanding of what the Mass is, I wanted to find ways of consciously making Mass (especially Sunday Mass) extra special. I decided to start wearing some blazers I was given. Later, I had to purchase a suit as a groomsman in a wedding party. After that wedding, I wore that suit to almost every Sunday Mass. I eventually wore holes in the knees of the pants from kneeling in them so often. That simple act of changing my wardrobe to reflect the nature of the action in which I was taking part affected my experience of the Mass. Granted, it wasn’t a seismic shift, but it was, like many of these ideas, one extra piece contributing to an ever-opening disposition, allowing me to receive more and more grace.

What About You?

  • Do you have any tips for dressing up in your Sunday best for Church?
  • Do you have any stories about dressing up for Church?
  • How has dressing up affected your experience of Mass and/or recognition of the True Presence of God in the Eucharist?

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