Sunday Best? Church Leaders Blush at "Casual Catholic" Dress

VIDEO: Father Edward L. Beck discusses appropriate attire for attending church services.
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"Casual Friday" has become a staple of American office culture. But what about "Casual Sunday"?

For decades, houses of worship have been consecrated by tidy congregations in their very best dress. Trim suits and ties pulled straight enough to choke the fidgety young parishioner were the norm, anything less being sure to draw the scorn of the flock.

But the culture has changed, and with it the Church. For some preachers and priests, word of this "new day" is written not in any holy book, but rather on the T-shirts young worshippers now wear to Sunday Mass.

Not everyone has taken so heartily to leisure wear in "God's house." One couple, says Deacon Greg Kandra, wanted to dress their dog in a tuxedo. The canine was slated to walk down the aisle as a member of the wedding party. (Their request was denied.)

But that tale ranks on the more modest end of the spectrum.

"I had a friend, a priest, who while offering communion to a woman in a low cut shirt … dropped the Host down the front of her shirt," Deacon Kandra recalls, half-laughing.

"She didn't want to grab at 'the body of Christ,' but she eventually did. He certainly wasn't going to get it."

Then there was the woman in the Hooters shirt.

The deacon was distributing the Holy Communion to some of his 3,000-member-strong parish in Forest Hill, N.Y., when he was faced with a young woman in a shirt bearing the restaurant's distinctive logo. He kept quiet as they came face-to-face, but later sent out a series of gentle reminders to the congregation.

Among them, this bulletin announced, "BRITNEY SPEARS CONCERT CANCELLED... Modest church-going attire will do nicely. We will notify you if the situation changes."

And it's not just a New York thing. "Catholics now have a more easy-going attitude," says Rev. Gregory Pilcher, pastor of Holy Redeemer Church in El Dorado in southern Arkansas.

"I, of course, I have to wear the vestment. So it's not too much to ask."

Or is it?

"I'll say it from the pulpit," Rev. Pilcher declares. "This isn't the camper's mass, this isn't the hunter's mass, it's the Holy Mass."

Speaking with Our Sunday Visitor, a religious publication, Father Pilcher described one uncomfortable showdown with a young woman and her family.

She had worn a "skimpy" dress to a church service. When asked, privately, if she would take a more conservative tack for future engagements, the woman angrily refused, citing other churches that had welcomed her particular style. The young lady's parents were soon in Father Pilcher's office, defending their daughter's right to bare arms, among other things.

"I asked them if it would be O.K. if I wore only a bathing suit with the right liturgical colors and thongs to celebrate Mass. But my argument didn't work," he said. Appropriate or not, the family held their line, inviting the pastor to do just that.

The family still worships with Rev. Pilcher, though he said he can feel their tense glare from the pews.

For Rev. Edward Beck, the tradition of wearing one's "Sunday best" is over.

"It's more like 'Sunday worst,' sometimes," proper dresses and suits having given way to beach wear and flip-flops.

"Sometimes, women in particular – it can be a little distracting. Distracting for everyone; for the worshipper, and also for me as the priest, giving out communion."

Rev. Beck splits his time between St. Malachy's in Midtown Manhattan and Chappaqua, a suburb of New York City. The problems tend to arise at the former, a church located in the heart of the city's tourist center.

"Just this past Sunday, two women came to communion– and it wasn't quite Hooters shirts, but it was close," Rev. Beck says, "I thought, this is just not correct."

"People can be neat and comfortable, just not sloppy and overly suggestive."

All three men were sure to point out that a simple shift in popular culture was not enough to explain their congregations' change in dress.

Some Church Leaders Fear Alienating Their Flock With Strict Dress Codes

They agreed that, with attendance at record lows, their peers are reluctant to alienate potential congregants with dress code warnings.

Deacon Kandra also points out that geography can have a lot to do with the way churchgoers choose their pants. He was in the Nashville area recently and said he felt like he'd been whisked back to his more formal childhood.

"But there's been this psychic change in the culture," Kandra says. "It's a different ethos."

Indeed, but that doesn't mean the men of the cloth are giving in just yet. Deacon Kandra has posted a series of parish bulletins asking for a renewed sense of decorum.

Rev. Beck sums it up this way: "Casual comfort is not a bad thing – I don't think the liturgy has to be overly formalized, but there is a line between comfortable and inappropriate."

Perhaps Rev. Pilcher makes the most economic argument. Dress nicely, he says, "we are putting on these clothes to see our King."

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