It happens twice a year, in March and in December, and somehow it always catches me off-guard. I’m talking about the unofficial Catholic ritual that I call Toxic Masculinity Sunday. Surely you’ve had this experience: You join the assembly to celebrate Mass in the midst of a penitential season, whether Advent or Lent. Mass begins with an invitation to rejoice and sing. These intimations of joy are stirring, inspiring. And then the celebrant wrinkles his nose and says something like, “I bet you’re wondering why I’m wearing all this pink.”
I’ve heard many versions of this routine on many Gaudete and Laetare Sundays. The near-universal urge to make an anxious joke about wearing pink vestments makes me wonder if our priests are really that hung up on gender, or if they just believe the rest of us are. “Whoa, what’s with the girl colors? I thought the priest was a man!” Is anyone really thinking that? Is any of us so fragile or so easily thrown for a loop that we can’t handle a change in chasuble?
I know it’s a joke. I think it’s meant to be self-deprecating. But what it is actually deprecating is femininity, or at least the cultural signifiers of femininity. And even in a Church that loves its gender binaries, this biannual disavowal of girl stuff feels gratuitously insulting to those of us who happen to be girls.
To be clear, my beef is with casual misogyny, not liturgical pedantry. I love to consult the GIRM as much as the next gal. So I’ll allow a fussy “it’s not pink, it’s rose” if it comes without the “girls are gross” subtext. It’s just that it hardly ever does. And while we’re consulting the regulations, Father, it says here, “The color rose may be used, where it is the practice”—“may,” not “must.” If you really find it so uncomfortable, you can just stick with the violet vestments. That would be a shame, though, because I don’t want you to give up on liturgical variety, not even during Lent. I just want you to give up hating on pink and making a joke of the feminine qualities it is imagined to represent.
Last December, when we arrived at church on Gaudete Sunday, my six-year-old son lit up, so to speak, when he saw the lighted candles on the Advent wreath in front of us. “We get to light the pink candle today!” he crowed. He knew it meant we were one week closer to Christmas. He understood the color as a sign of joyful hope. So what did he make of it when, ten minutes later, the celebrant launched into his traditional “Don’t you dare call it ‘pink’” routine?
I hope my son tuned it all out. I hope it didn’t steal his joy. I have to admit, it puts a dent in mine, to walk into Mass needing to hear a word that will rouse me and get jokey insults instead. I don’t even like “girly” stuff all that much. But I do like liturgy, and beauty, and centering joy, however briefly, in a season of gloom. And I like aspiring to be the community St. Paul describes, with neither Greek nor Jew, neither man nor woman, but all one in Christ Jesus—even if it’s only for an hour a week.
I am ready to give up fragile masculinity as a part of my Laetare Sunday experience. My brother priests, can I convince you to give it up too? I promise, no one thinks you look silly (or, at least, no more than you normally do). Femininity poses no threat to you. Embrace the wardrobe, be a sign of joy, and maybe you can help us all to see, in the sudden irruption of pink—or rose—a glimpse of the coming dawn of Easter, instead of just another reason to be afraid.