St James Cathedral - Seattle, WA

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Does God Care What We Wear to Church?

"God doesn't care what we wear to church, He's just happy we're there."  Who ever believes this might be a little naive, maybe even fooling themselves.  It sounds good at first, reminding us to be thankful that people are coming to church.  But it also implies that people can't do any better, that we should just settle for the pews being occupied, and that's not true at all. 

(I actually avoided writing about this topic for some time.  It's already talked about frequently, and I wasn't sure if I could make any impact.  However, after receiving several prompts from a close colleague and reading comments from the last blog entry connecting what people wear to being properly disposed for Holy Communion, it's definitely a worthy topic.)

When people aren't dressed well for church, I doubt they are trying to be inappropriate, they just haven't put much thought into it.  I'm talking about that lady who wears those very short, bright green gym shorts where the bottom of her butt cheeks peek out, that middle-aged woman with cellulite who shouldn't be wearing a mini-skirt, or that guy wearing a T-shirt with the yellow arm pits that commemorates the last concert tour of a certain grunge band in the late 1990s.  I wonder if their mothers be embarrassed to see what they are wearing to church.

Something else I wonder-  If they were stopped for speeding on the way to church, would the police officer believe that they were on their way to church based on the clothes they're wearing?

Jennifer Fulwiler offers some good insight on this.  She says we aren't dressing up anymore because as a society, we've lost a sense of value and gratitude.  Flying on an airplane, going out to eat at a fancy restaurant, even attending certain sporting events used to be considered a privilege or an honor, so you wore your best attire.  Now that we as a society have less respect and gratitude for things, we've put less effort into our clothing.  When it comes to the Eucharist and what we're wearing, the same thing has happened.  We have devalued what is really the greatest privilege of all, being able to Communicate in such a unique way with God; and it's reflected out in the clothes that Catholics wear to church.

Disproportionate values can also share some blame, especially if someone spends an hour or two getting ready to go out on a Friday/Saturday night, yet can't afford more than 15 minutes to get ready for church on Sunday morning.  There's also that family that goes to church first, then goes home and changes into nice clothes to go out to eat.  Talk about having priorities ordered all wrong!

Not to long ago, Relevant Radio's Fr Francis Hoffman was asked about why more priests don't preach more about the length of a woman's skirt from the pulpit.  He responded jokingly, "Because we fear for our lives!"  It's true- it's hard for a male homilist to tell certain female parishioners what to wear, especially in light of the other issues that have to be waged.  A bulletin insert seems much safer. 

Therefore, a lot of this effort might be up to us lay people.  After all, it is lay people that don't know how to dress up for church.  Of course, please be careful how you go about telling others about this problem.  My wife and I once watched a woman come into church wearing a hoodie, gym shorts, and flip flops.  Shortly after she sat down, another woman approached her with an angry look on her face and said something to the mal-dressed women.  The woman, obviously embarrassed, cried for a few moments and left as Mass started.  I haven't seen her in church since.

If you're in a position to be able to say something to someone else, please do so charitably and with encouragement.  Point out that the individual deserves more, and God does, too.  How much (or how little) effort one prepares externally for church could be an indicator of how much effort they are prepared spiritually.  If you love God, and you're looking forward to the Eucharist, let it show in your attire.  

Women, if you wear nice clothes, other women will notice and follow your example.  Men, tell all your buddies to man up, and dress better for church.  Parents, start now with your kids.  I know it's hard (I have two small kids), but they won't learn it if you don't teach it. 

Lastly, if you're one of those people that actually believes God doesn't care what you wear to church: I don't know if He cares or not (since there are bigger issues out there), but I sure do.  If you don't see the need to do it for God, then please wear appropriate attire in church for the rest of us.  I'm trying to set a good example for my kids and would appreciate your help.

On a side note, since we've been talking about what lay people wear, I thought it would be fun to briefly describe the most frequently used vestments worn by the clergy during Mass.

The outer garment that the priest/celebrant wears is called a chasuble.  The most commonly used style looks like a poncho.  It's color will be that of the Mass.  A deacon wears a similar garment called a dalmatic, but it has sleeves and tends to look a little more like a tunic. 

The next vestment is the stole.  This indicates the rank of the cleric.  A bishop/priest wears it hanging from both shoulders (like an untied scarf or necktie).  A deacon wears it over the left shoulder and fastened at the right hip.  It usually matches the chasuble/dalmatic and is the color of the Mass.  It's worn underneath the outer vestment so you won't really see it unless the cleric isn't wearing a chasuble or dalmatic.

The last garment is the alb.  It's white or off white, worn over the individual's secular clothes (the stole and chasuble/dalmatic are worn over the alb).  It represents the white garment given at baptism.  The alb worn by both clergy and laity that are ministers in the liturgy (such as altar servers).  It can be secured at the waist by a cincture, a cord which acts like a belt.  The cincture can be white or the color of the Mass.  There is an additional piece called an amice, but this is less common and/or often not visible.

One last piece of liturgical vestment trivia.  A priest who is present but is not a concelebrant doesn't have to wear a stole or chasuble.  This if often the case when the priest is acting as an acolyte or master of ceremonies for the bishop.  You'll see a priest don a stole if he takes a priestly ministry such as proclaiming the gospel or assisting with the distribution of Holy Communion.  The same goes with a deacon who is in the sanctuary- if he takes one of the roles proper to a deacon, he will wear a stole.  If he doesn't, the alb (or surplice with cassock) is sufficient.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Right Way to Receive Holy Communion

Perhaps this might seem rudimentary for some, but I can tell you it's something we need to talk about.  I don't think it matters where you live, the problem is there- some Catholics simply don't know the right way to receive the Eucharist.

To be clear, the Church desires that everyone to receive Holy Communion.  (Wait, don't call me a heretic yet.) However, the Church wants everyone to receive Holy Communion the right way.  (See, I'm not a heretic.) Receiving the Eucharist is a big deal.  It's such a big deal, that there's all sorts of rules about it and we don't just let anybody do it.  Things like nuclear power plants, space shuttle launches, and British royalty are other examples of big deal things with a lot of particular rules.  (Yes, that was quite random, but you get my point.)

Before talking about how to receive Holy Communion properly, let's talk about being properly disposed first.  If you're not properly prepared, then you shouldn't receive Communion.  This means being free from mortal sin and having followed the communion fast (in addition to being a practicing Catholic).

Being free from mortal sin is self-explanatory: don't commit grave sin.  If you happen to, then refrain from receiving Communion until you've been able to make Reconciliation (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1415).  An extra reminder of this is needed in the United States where the tendency is for everyone to automatically get up and go to Communion.  It's rare for someone to stay behind in the pew- they might even get funny looks if they do.  In many other parts of the world, not everyone goes to Communion and it's more common to see people remaining at their seat.  Is it because there are more sinners in other countries?  I doubt it; I think they are just being more mindful about being properly disposed.

Following the communion fast is also something that needs emphasis.  For Latin rite Catholics, this means refraining from food and beverage for one hour before receiving the Eucharist (Canon 919).  Some people say this means they can eat up to 30 minutes before Mass starts since the Communion rite is typically 30-45 minutes into the liturgy.  Personally, I prefer to refrain 1 hour from the start of the Mass.  It's weird to walk into a Church on a full stomach.  Besides, what if a daily Mass takes only 25 minutes, then eating 30 minutes prior doesn't work! 

So now let's talk about how to receive Holy Communion.  Having served as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion in different parts of the United States, I should say that for the most part Catholics do this well.  However, there have been times where I've done a jaw drop or double take because someone didn't receive Communion properly (and I suspect they were regular attending Catholics).

With the decree Norms for the Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion Under Both Kinds in the United States of America, the USCCB permits the reception of Holy Communion in the hand.  The decree refers to St Cyril of Jerusalem who wrote:
"When you approach, take care not to do so with your hand stretched out and your fingers open or apart, but rather place your left hand as a throne beneath your right, as befits one who is about to receive the King. Then receive him, taking care that nothing is lost."  (Paragraph 41)
Unfortunately, the contrary does happen.  As a Eucharistic Minister, it's gut wrenching when the sacred host is snatched out of my hand, or if the communicant casually shuffles the sacred host from the palm to the finger tip of the same hand like a poker chip before they shoot it into their mouth.  On the other end of the spectrum, I'm also not a fan of waving the host in a large cross-like fashion before consuming it.  That might seem pious, but the best thing to do is to just place the sacred host in your mouth- you don't get more grace by doing anything else.

Removing the chewing gum from your mouth before receiving is also advisable!  (Why would you want anything in your mouth besides the Eucharist?)

It's necessary to point out that while receiving Holy Communion in the hand is permitted by decree in the United States (and many English speaking countries), it isn't the norm in the rest of the world.  So for Americans traveling internationally, never assume that you can receive in the hand where ever you go. Follow the norms of the local place. If you don't know them, then play it safe and receive on the tongue. If you're not used to it, it's actually quite reverent.

Lastly about receiving in the hand, parents should make sure their kids are receiving Communion correctly. It's hard for the minister when you have an 8 year old holding his/her hands down at their waist. (The minister can't see the hands when they are that low and then has to bend down.) Whether you're a child or an adult, the communicant's hands should be held up and out, closer to the ciborium or patent so that the sacred host doesn't have to travel far.  This way, there is less risk of the Body & Blood of our Lord falling to the ground.

There's much more that could be said, but I'll conclude by talking about the appropriate response to the prompt, "The Body of Christ" or "The Blood of Christ."  It isn't silence.  It isn't "We are," or  "Yes it is," or even "Thank you Jesus."  The best response is "Amen."  I know- it's simple, yet profound.  It's also what the Church asks us to do.

Here's some neat Catholic cocktail party talk:

Want to know why the first meal of the day is called breakfast?  For hundreds of years, the communion fast started at midnight before receiving Holy Communion.  So people would get up early, go to church, and then break their fast with eating afterward.  This was also one of the reasons why Mass would be said so early in the morning.  Many people still remember this.

In 1953, Pope Pius XII reduced the communion fast to refraining 3 hours for food, 1 hour for beverage, primarily for when Mass was going to be celebrated in the evenings (which was a new thing back then).  Pope Paul VI reduced the fast on November 21, 1964 to what we observe today.

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