Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Liturgical Custom, Wilton-Style

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta -- the former USCCB president who contributed mightily to the church's response in the wake of the sex abuse crisis and earned the love of legions of reporters in the process -- enters the fray in a recent column on a question he "suspected would eventually come" to his desk: how young people dress for Mass.

People who express concern about this matter are people of real faith, and they deserve respect and Christian understanding. The topic, however, is fraught with difficulty. The norms that govern and set the standards for proper attire have changed significantly and repeatedly during the past generation.

Many of you may remember when a properly dressed gentleman was expected to wear a hat—felt in the winter and straw in summer. Ladies were expected to wear hats and gloves for all formal events. While some might lament the abandonment of such fashion, they are rarely followed today. Even business attire has been modified in the recent past. There is a clear shift to require or expect less and less formal attire in most situations. Whether this more casual practice is satisfactory to everyone is a question of debate and sometimes intense opinions—which prompts the e-mails and letters that occasionally comes to a bishop’s desk.

The Church is a public institution and subject to social mores and customs. This means that people who live in the society at-large typically take public customs into the Church. When all is said and done, the issue of what constitutes proper attire in Church has changed over the years. This is especially challenging for parents of young people who must persuade their youngsters to attend Church, but who may themselves have real qualms about the appropriateness of the dress of their children. The styles of young people change with even greater rapidity than clothing styles for the general population. Parents want their children to be properly dressed for Church, but how do they also allow their children to feel comfortable, to feel connected to their peers, and not to develop an aversion to going to Church simply because it always involves a painful encounter over apparel.

As the pastor of this local Church, I must confess that I have never been offended or scandalized by any attire that I have seen our kids wear to Church. I am so happy to see them at Mass that I generally don’t even notice what they are wearing. When I see those bright faces, I am grateful that these young people are found within the warm embrace of the Church. Braces and flip-flops are welcome wherever I am celebrant.

I'll gladly keep this in mind if I ever find myself in Atlanta.

Elsewhere in the chancery, the archbishop will have to fill a major slot on his administrative team: Chancellor Kathi Stearns is leaving.