Aquinas, Jeans, and Neck-Ties
As a child, it was generally expected of me that I would dress better for Mass than for running around in the woods behind the house. That often meant that I would put on long pants (unholey-jeans) rather than shorts or torn-up jeans, and maybe a sweater instead of a short-sleeve t-shirt. After all, in the region of the nation in which I grew up, a short-sleeved collared shirt with jeans was basically considered formal attire. A matching suit was something you wore to your own wedding or funeral, it seemed to me.
Still, it at least made a slight modicum of sense to dress differently for Mass, and as I grew older and my faith developed, I came to understand that what was happening at the celebration of the Eucharist made Mass much more than just a worship service. But I was still at an age where I really did not like to dress up in formal attire. Or even semi-formal attire.
However, in going to college at a small, Catholic school, a dress-code was enforced to classes and at Masses, which really did not leave much of a choice. The code itself was set up along the following lines:
“Campus dress is more formal than that at a typical college or university. For classes, Mass, and weekday meals, slacks and collared shirts are required for men, as are skirts or dresses with semi-formal tops for women.”
Class formality I could understand. Elevated discourse, elevated dress. Got it. If you require that for class, makes sense you would require it for Mass.
But I have to say that, at first, I missed the down-home, welcoming, loving, and jean-wearing environment of the parish communities in which I grew up, in which my father, an attorney, was one of the only people (old people) in the congregation who would regularly wear a tie. Over time though, as I became attenuated to the formality of the environment I was in, I increasingly wore slacks1 and polo shirts to Masses outside of school.
It was a little later on in my undergraduate days that I was introduced to a particular prayer by St. Thomas Aquinas, which radically advanced my own understanding of the Eucharist. This also had the non-accidental effect of improving my own Mass attire, or at least my mindset towards it. The prayer itself is too long to post in its entirety here, but here’s part of it:
Almighty and Eternal God, behold I come to the sacrament of Your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. As one sick I come to the Physician of life; unclean, to the Fountain of mercy; blind, to the Light of eternal splendor; poor and needy to the Lord of heaven and earth. Therefore, I beg of You, through Your infinite mercy and generosity, heal my weakness, wash my uncleanness, give light to my blindness, enrich my poverty, and clothe my nakedness. May I thus receive the Bread of Angels, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, with such reverence and humility, contrition and devotion, purity and faith, purpose and intention, as shall aid my soul’s salvation…2
In habitually reflecting on this prayer, and later, with reading St. Thomas’ Treatise on the Sacraments, any latent elements of my compliant-but-begrudging attitude towards outward (and inward) formality at Mass were really blown away. These things, together, forced an even much deeper understanding of what was happening at Mass — and Mass was never the same to me afterwards.
Still, it wasn’t until I became a teacher, and was required to wear a tie to class that I really began to wear one in earnest to Mass.
It clearly struck me at some point early on in my first year teaching Middle School that wearing a tie set me apart from my students, in a way that visually conveyed a certain hierarchy, as my dress code did not match theirs. Furthermore, it became apparent to me that wearing a tie to class was a way of showing courtesy and respect to both my students and colleagues.
Still, when I got to thinking about it a bit more, I realized that, if I was wearing a tie to school, for my job, every day, out of respect for my students and colleagues…then would it be all that much more of a burden to wear a tie to Mass on Sunday? Where God Himself is present? “The Bread of Angels, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords…?” So began a particular emphasis on neck apparel for me at Sunday Mass, in response to my recognition of what was actually happening there, according to my means of doing so.
Now, this is not to say that every man must-needs wear a tie to Mass. After all, you want to be sure you are proficient in tie-tying before you dedicate yourself to making this a concrete routine, lest you find yourself running late to Mass on this account.3 I’ll freely admit, wearing ties at this point for me is more usual than not, and I have more ties than I know what to do with, so I’m hopelessly habituated to having a silken strangling-device wrapped around my neck.4
More importantly in all this, we do not want our dress to become something more than it is, to become the singular thing that in itself defines us as Catholics, rather than as an outward extension of our beliefs, and our beliefs in charitable expression. I’ve certainly come across my fair share of whitened sepulchers, where all the outward devotionals (and neckties) are present, but any visible charity is completely lacking, replaced by strident judgment on anybody and everybody who does not dress in exactly the same way. The temptation to judgment of others’ souls, quickly, simply, and uncharitably on account of what material enwraps the mortal husk, is a real temptation.
Nevertheless, it is absolutely clear that if we Catholics, on an individual basis, consider what is happening at Mass is really what we say is happening, then an outward change from our casual dress does not seem amiss - in fact, it is proper. Simply. We wouldn’t dress up for an audience with the President in gym shorts or an Under Armor workout shirt.5
Ultimately, what I am getting at is exactly this: Jesus in the Eucharist is more worthy of respect than any and all other secular potentates on earth.
As a result, some sort of outward change of dress, some sort of show of formality or step in that direction, is completely in line with our attendance at Holy Mass, at the very least. Furthermore, for Catholic fathers, if we want to instill a healthy respect in our sons and daughters for what we believe is going on at the Eucharist, we can consider this as an opportunity to show to our children what it means to show a measure of due respect for Christ Pantocrator, King of the Universe.
Now, I’m not calling for some-sort of tie-wearing Crusade, or a pontifical mandate for tie-wearing for all Catholic men - as to whether I would object on that note if such a mandate were to be issued…well, that’s a different question entirely. For many folks, wearing long pants instead of shorts is that change, that step upwards; for others, a necktie.6 Depending on what our ordinary, every-day casual dress or work-attire is, a step up is, minimally, the right thing. For me, that means a collared-shirt. And a tie.
1 Can we just call them Dockers? In the same sense that certain local sub-dialects of American English refer to all soft drinks as Coke? “I’ll have an Orange Coke!”
2 This prayer is awesome. Follow this link.
3 Trust me on this.
4 I am now one of those poor fellows who feels rather helpless if I am out in public, at a non-athletic event, not wearing some sort of collar. To think, it has come to this…
5 …though we might be tempted to do so…
6 I’m reminded of an incident from my youth, when one of my Protestant female family members invited an unchurched, down-on-his-luck/school-of-hard-knocks-graduate/day-laborer to an Easter Service. The family member was wearing her Easter Sunday best. He, on the other hand, showed up in a long-sleeved sweat-shirt, with sweat pants. To put this in perspective, and to give him the benefit of the doubt, this was probably the cleanest, best article of clothing he had — given that he was accustomed to wearing dirty jeans and t-shirts on a work crew for a good part of his waking hours. Over the years, I learned a lot from him, and in many ways he became like a brother to me. May God bless him and keep him, all his days.