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Church of the Pious, Church of the Poor

One warm evening in Lent, at Mass at Our Lady of X in my favorite blue sundress, I was roused from devout drowsiness when the priest—my favorite canon lawyer—uttered the words “dress code.”

The dress code for Catholic Masses may have been on his mind because the Inquirer recently reported a bishop’s gentle reminder that summer heat does not justify beachwear at Mass. In the Archdiocese of Manila, a dress code has been in force—if generally unenforced—since 2007, and has been adopted by some parishes in its suffragan sees.

My favorite canon lawyer did not discuss the fine points of The Dress Code. He expressed no explicit opinion on it. But he spoke of it in a homily which also spoke of Jesus’ habit of breaking Sabbath rules, and of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who condemned Jesus for this. That may explain why he is my favorite canon lawyer.

Sometime later, I finally noticed, at the entrance to Our Lady of X, a poster on The Dress Code, issued by the Archdiocese of Manila’s Ministry of Liturgical Affairs. It may have been there for years. I was a bit disconcerted to discover that the guidelines excommunicated my favorite blue sundress, indeed half my wardrobe, and four-fifths of the wardrobe of my teenage niece Angelica.

This discovery was all the more disconcerting because at Our Lady of X, or so my parochial spies tell me, there are self-appointed liturgical vigilantes. These zealous guardians of the faith watch whether one genuflects or bows toward the tabernacle when one enters; whether one stands or kneels at the proper points of the liturgy; and surely, whether one is violating The Dress Code. Reports of offenses are dutifully made to (though unsolicited by) the parish priest, with the expectation that he will issue an admonition. My blue sundress may have been on their radar all these years.

Contesting The Dress Code is not a priority of mine. There are larger battles to fight. But those larger battles are why The Dress Code—or, at least, the stress given it by liturgical vigilantes—may make some Catholics rend their garments. These ask: When so many Filipinos are worrying about where to get the money to clothe themselves and their children, should we be worrying about what they wear to church?

At a Lenten recollection of the National Clergy Discernment Group, held the same day my favorite canon lawyer mentioned The Dress Code, no one was worried about what people wear to church. Some worried that the youth, in whatever state of dress, do not come to church at all. Some worried that the Church, which declared its intent 21 years ago to be a Church of the Poor, is too concerned about internal matters—The Dress Code, for instance—to be truly concerned with those too poor to worry about what to wear to church.

None of the main speakers at the recollection mentioned The Dress Code. Fr. Amado L. Picardal, CSsR, executive secretary of the Committee on Basic Ecclesial Communities of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, talked about Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) as a way of empowering the poor to become critical and committed citizens of the Church, of their communities, and of society.

Msgr. Albert R. Rabe, director of the BEC Program of the Archdiocese of Nueva Segovia, told how the poor of Sinait, Ilocos Sur, are forced into usury and prostitution, sicken without medical care, and go to school in inadequate clothing—if they go to school. He spoke of how the poor of Sinait’s BECs challenge the stranglehold of politico-economic “lords” and the culture of dependency and patronage that prevents them from achieving their full potential.

Cagayan de Oro Archbishop Antonio J. Ledesma, SJ spoke of how economic inequality today is at the same level as 50 years ago: half the nation’s families earning 80 percent of the nation’s income, the rest earning 20 percent. He told of a civil society initiative called “Poverty Assessment and Development Visioning” (PADV), which has brought organizations of the poor into dialogue with Church and government agencies in six regions of the country. PADV seeks to construct a collective analysis of the causes of poverty and inequality, and to launch a collective search for remedies.

That recollection on the fourth Tuesday of Lent was a manifestation of a nascent Church of the Poor. On the other hand, The Dress Code, and the vigilance with which some monitor its observance, are manifestations of a long-standing Church of the Pious. Looking at those two faces of the Church, we may be forgiven some cognitive dissonance.

But the two are united by reverence for Christ’s presence. The Church of the Pious reverences Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. The Church of the Poor reverences Christ’s presence among those whose sufferings demand from us the solidarity that He embodied in the sacrifice we celebrate in the Eucharist.

Maybe we are not asked to choose between one and the other. But if we had to set priorities, Matthew shows us what Jesus the rule-breaker would choose. While telling the crowds to obey the Pharisees, the authorized interpreters of Mosaic law, Jesus also says:

“How terrible for you, teachers of the Law and Pharisees! … You lock the door to the Kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. … But you neglect to obey the really important teachings of the Law, such as justice and mercy and honesty. These you should practice, without neglecting the others” (Mt 23: 13, 23).

Still, I am on the hunt for a little cover-up for my favorite blue sundress.

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