Dressing for Mass


I am often asked if any of the liturgical books have rules about how readers and communion ministers should dress when they carry out their roles. This usually comes about because complaints have come from parishioners about the manner in which these liturgical ministers present themselves at Mass.

It would certainly simplify things if dress requirements were stipulated in the liturgical documents, but it is an impossible task to do this for a Church which encompasses such a diversity of cultures, customs and climatic conditions. Because of the different situations and locations in which liturgy is celebrated, it would be difficult to set dress standards even for a single country. What might be considered reasonable for Sunday Mass at the cathedral would look out of place at a holiday resort or in a remote indigenous community.

I know of a parish which stipulates that readers wear ties. Obviously this is an attempt to set a standard and is not meant to be taken literally, otherwise it would exclude women and perhaps young people from the ministry. Unless most people present wear ties, such a requirement also sets the readers apart from the rest of the assembly.

Another parish has a strict “no jeans” rule. Again, this seems to be a little unfair on young people whose only dress-up clothes might be a pair of smart jeans. Clean, presentable jeans are preferable to a pair of dirty, shabby trousers.

The Guidelines for Special Ministers of Communion in the Brisbane Diocese state that “ministers should be suitably dressed”. But how does a parish determine what is “suitable”, who makes the decision, and how are dress standards communicated and enforced?

A good place to begin tackling this question is to revisit the meaning of the word “ministry”. Readers and special ministers serve the liturgy and the gathered assembly by proclaiming the word of God and assisting in the distribution of the sacred elements. Their manner of dress should reflect the importance and dignity of the ministry in which they serve. The term “Sunday best” is sometimes used to describe what is acceptable. This means clothing that is neat, clean and reasonably modest rather than dress that is expensive or very formal. Outlandish or clattering jewellery, tee shirts with slogans or insignia, jogging outfits and overly revealing clothes are almost universally considered inappropriate.

Liturgical ministers become channels of God’s presence when they carry out their ministry. Anything that blocks that channel – whether gesture, demeanour or clothing – is out of place. If a reader’s dress attracts the attention of the assembly rather than what he or she is proclaiming, or if a communion minister’s outfit prevents communicants focussing on receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, then something is clearly amiss.

When these lay ministries were reintroduced after Vatican II, it was quite common for those performing them to vest in albs and sit in the sanctuary. This practice would now be considered inappropriate as it sets them apart from the assembly from which they are called and which they serve.

Making judgements and approaching a particular minister about the matter needs to be done with sensitivity and consideration. One should never assume that a particular form of dress is indicative of lack of respect or reverence.

Elizabeth Harrington