Check out these cool shots:
My only hope is that I won’t get in trouble for infringing on copyright laws of some sort or other…Now that I’ve lured you in with cool shots of just how close we were to His Holiness, you may as well stick around and read the rest of what I’m about to say…
One of the things I’m beginning to learn about the Roman/Italian culture is that if you just sit around for awhile and watch, some fun and/or remarkable things will happen. Case in point: I’ve had conversations with Italians, Spaniards, Americans, Englishmen, Portuguese, and Germans, all of whom think I’m an expert in the city of Rome for the sole reason that I wear a Roman collar. Yes, all Catholic priests know everything about EVERY Church in Rome! (Thank to Google maps, it still holds true!) This has also been the cause of a number of adventures, including the one I recently posted regarding St. Peter in Chains and the tomb of the 7 sons from 2Maccabees.
That being said, it hasn’t all been fun and games, and thus we come to a rather interesting little discussion. First, note the image at left; this is a rather common image found on any number of Churches in Rome, Assisi, and (I presume) throughout Italy. Those of you who have visited such places will probably have at least a story or two about someone trying to take pictures of, say, the Sistine Chapel or the tombs of random saints. However, there’s another interesting rule that’s enforced, at least at the major Churches in Rome, which have people working on site for the majority of the day: I refer to the two icons on the bottom right of the picture above.
It’s a known rule that neither ladies nor gentlemen are allowed to have bare shoulders or wear short shorts (ie. basically, anything that doesn’t touch the kneecap) when entering these holy sites. For this reason, there’s a whole market with street vendors selling shawls and wraps outside nearly every Basilica in Rome – that might be the beginning of a whole ‘nother blog post… When these expectations are translated into English (and they often are), the term used is “modest” dress. That is, anyone entering these holy places is expected to dress in a way that is befitting for such a place.
Admittedly, many of the people who come to visit these places are not coming for Mass or for any other liturgy. They are mostly coming to admire these holy (and beautiful) Churches; a good number will (hopefully) stop for a moment of silent prayer of some form. The reasons for which people visit these locations is irrelevant to those who work here and enforce the rules; they insist that whoever comes in for whatever reason should be dressed appropriately. It begs the question: why? …And the obvious answer is based on the fact that we Catholics believe these sites to be Temples in which the Living God literally resides under the forms of bread and wine. We believe that our God is present in a real way in the Most Blessed Sacrament. You’re welcome to come in and check out the beautiful and awesome masterpieces of art and architecture, and we even hope that you’re drawn closer to God through these “catecheses in stone and art,” but we really want you to know that these man-made works of art are nothing compared with the Masterpiece created by the God who took assumed our flesh.
There’s a real, good sense of pride at root here which we could learn from, but also a duty and obligation that, because our God has so radically expressed His generosity toward the human race through His Presence in our midst that we should return our homage, however humble it might be. Yes, this will inevitably open the door to the discussion on what we wear at Mass, and according to the standards of the Diocese of Rome, it matters. It’s in this vein of thought that a line from St. Irenaeus of Lyon (2nd Century Father of the Church) from his great work Against Heresies, comes to mind:
It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times…Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we [simplify the matter] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul…For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.
Maybe St. Irenaeus wasn’t exactly thinking of standards of attire when he wrote this, but it’s definitely not outside the realm of reasonability. Yes, the customs of Rome are meant to set the standard for the rest of the Churches of the world. Thus, I would argue that our sense of pride in What we have been given and to Whom we are speaking should be reflected, not only in the noble and dignified words and songs of our liturgies, but also in the way that we – both priests and laity – present ourselves before the Lord. As the Psalmist says (Ps96:9): Adore the Lord in holy attire.
Am I suggesting that we should put on a dress and heels or a suit and tie for every holy hour? No. I am proposing that we challenge ourselves and those around us to be aware of the holy places we are entering and holy encounters we are having and to behave accordingly. This shouldn’t apply only to the stunning works of baroque architecture that are the churches of Italy, but to every church and chapel, no matter how humble, where we can encounter our God Who willingly resides there in the Eucharist.
A few weeks ago, while waiting at the back of one of the Basilicas of Rome to go to Confession, I watched a gentleman in shorts, flip-flops, and a tank top get kicked out while screaming at the sacristan/guard: It’s not like this is a theater! The gentleman, who was sadly mistaken regarding the importance of this building, was kicked out not because he was unwelcomed, but because even what we expect our guests to wear teaches something about what we hold to be true. It’s okay to have high standards. It suggests there’s Something or Someone valuable enough here to require those standards! In the words of our Lord (Luke11:31, 32): there is something greater than Solomon here…and there is something greater than Jonah here.