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Online Edition - Vol. VI, No. 8: November 2000

Dress, Demeanor, Discipline
Show how We Value Holy Mass

by Bishop Robert Vasa

Several years ago I had the opportunity, while visiting Washington, DC, to observe the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

I was so struck by the simple, deliberate elegance of the ceremony that I stayed for extra minutes simply to watch the young man march to and fro with that same simple, deliberate elegance. The uniforms were absolutely impeccable, the shoes shined to pure gloss, the faces of the guards set like granite, the measured steps precise, the entire person focused on the job at hand. It was clear from all of the above that the young men knew that what they were about was serious and important.

I have reflected repeatedly on the Arlington experience as it relates to what we do in our Catholic Churches. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the most significant event in the world. As the priest and ministers enter the church and proceed down the aisle, there is not the expectation that they imitate the guards at Arlington, but it would be most appropriate to do so. The guard at Arlington processes solemnly in front of a tomb of national significance, and he is rightfully dignified. Every altar in every Catholic Church has eternal significance and deserves a regard greater than that demanded by the national tomb.

I am not advocating a religious solemnity devoid of joy or humanity, but it appears that Arlington may have something which the Catholic Church needs. The dignity manifested by the guard points towards and accentuates the dignity of the place. Silence is observed at the National Tomb. Silence is a sign of respect for the place and the meaning of the place. Silence is appropriate and enforced vigorously there. Order is enforced there.

As I stood watching the guard making his seemingly routine and non-variable march, he suddenly broke out of line two steps at an angle to his right. He removed the rifle from his shoulder, held it in his hands, and said very forcefully, "Stay behind the barrier!" A couple of seconds later, he repeated the command, at which a woman who had crossed into forbidden territory to get a better picture retreated to the area reserved for visitors. He then returned to his line and resumed his march. No apology, no explanation; the sign said "No Trespassing"; what part of "No" was not understood?

The trespass onto sacred secular soil was deemed unacceptable. The dignity of the place demanded order and an observance of that order. Once again, I do not advocate this kind of rigid, cold enforcement, but the dignity of our churches needs to be fostered and preserved. The dignity of this sacred place will be lost as the sacredness of the area around the tomb would quickly be lost, if there is not a decided effort to preserve it.

Wouldn't it be cute if four or six little 5-year-olds dressed up like Marines and marched back and forth with the guard? It might be cute, but it would not befit the dignity of the place or the solemnity of the occasion. Yet time and again, we try to introduce people and behaviors into our churches which are deemed "cute" and therefore somehow mandatory. I suggest that "cute" has its place, but Arlington National Cemetery is not one of them, and neither are our churches which house Jesus Himself, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.

Several years ago, the Holy Father reinstituted a dress code for the churches of Rome, his diocese. No one in shorts or sleeveless shirts was to be admitted into the church building.

An American sense of rights and freedom rebels against such rules, calling them absurdities. Yet it was done and it was enforced. Tourists who had traveled across an ocean to see a church were turned back at the door unless they were properly attired. This was only to visit a church while no other liturgical action was going on. The Holy Father saw a need to institute a policy aimed at restoring, in a very concrete way, a proper sense of reverence for the house of God.

I have often heard the argument that the administrators of churches should be pleased to see that people come, regardless of how they are dressed. The other side of that is that people need to demonstrate in word and deed the proper disposition and attitude. I am certain the American people would be rightfully chagrined if the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier were to show up in plaid shorts, a tank top and half-laced tennis shoes. It is hard to imagine that he could have a proper interior attitude to the job at hand were he to come to "work" dressed like that.

Our liturgy is a sacred "work". How we come to that work is probably as important as the fact that we come. We must recognize that we come to church for sacred work, sacred worship. This demands a decorum commensurate with the dignity of the work to be done. Even if that "work" is to utter a private prayer, it still demands an appropriate decorum.

The soldiers at Arlington know the sacredness of the work which they do. Their dress, their demeanor, their discipline all speak of their recognition of that sacredness. Seeing them is a source of pride for me.

I am proud of what they represent, proud of the values which their discipline bespeaks, proud of the country which at heart still knows that honor and fidelity are worth defending.

For these values people live, and for these values people give their lives. The dress and demeanor of these troops says that they truly honor and respect the life and death of those represented at the Tomb of the Unknown.

Catholics likewise need to know the sacredness of the liturgical "work" which they do. Their dress, their demeanor, their discipline, ought all to speak of their recognition of that sacredness.

Seeing the dress and demeanor of Catholics in Church ought to be a source of pride. They ought to manifest a genuine respect for Jesus present, as well as for the values of the Catholic Church. For these values, saints, declared and not declared, gave their lives; for these values each Catholic must be willing to dress in a fashion which shows recognition and respect.

Bishop Vasa, a native of Lincoln, Nebraska, was made bishop of the Diocese of Baker, Oregon, in 1999.

This essay originally appeared in the Catholic Sentinel June 30, 2000. It is reprinted with permission.

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