Catholic Ceremonies – Sacred Vestments

vested priest pronouncing the Dominus Vobiscum, 1960's; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsPriestly Vestments

The Amice

This is a white linen cloth with which the priest covers his head, and then allows to fall upon his shoulders. Ancient customs teach us that the head of the criminal sentenced to death was enveloped in linen. The sentence was thus framed: “Go, lictor, bind his hands; cover his head; scourge him, and fasten him upon the cross.” The amice reminds us that a shameless servant in the house of Herod filled this office to Jesus even before His condemnation.

The Alb

At the sight of the white linen robe which covers the entire body of the priest, recollections of Thabor, of heaven, and of the passion should be presented to our mind. On the mount of the transfiguration, and in the vision of Saint John, Our Lord showed Himself in garments white as the snow and shining like the sun; in the court of Herod, abused by madmen, He was clothed with the white robe of innocence.

The Girdle

Here is again a memorial at once of glory and of humiliation. The shining robe of Our Lord in the vision of Saint John was bound by a girdle of gold, emblem of virginity; in the scourging we see the divine body of Jesus lashed to the column by cords.

The Maniple

The maniple, worn on the left arm of the priest, is an eloquent preacher, teaching him what he should expect from man. The servant is not greater than his master; now what was the recompense of Jesus Christ? Because He had dried tears, fed the poor, cured the blind and the dumb, caressed the children, raised the dead, His divine hands were covered with chains during the passion. They are bound by love when He could chastise. The priest also, who wears each day this maniple, should have his hands always open for kindness, but closed to vengeance; tied when he could punish, but open to absolve.

The Stole

The stole worn around the neck of the priest, and falling before him, takes the place of the rope which was used to lead the divine victim through the streets of Jerusalem to Calvary.

The Chasuble

This vestment, worn over all the others, has a meaning not less touching. The soldiery, in Pilate’s house, wished to mock Jesus with a caricature of a royal coronation. A scarlet cloak for a mantle, a reed for a sceptre, a crown of thorns for a diadem – these were the insignia of that derided majesty. Those murderers, tired at last of striking and torturing Him, threw a cross upon the torn shoulders of the Saviour, and led Him forth to Calvary.

See the priest at the altar: the chasuble recalls the mantle at the prsetorium; the tonsure, the crown of thorns. Nothing is wanting, not even the cross; see it, drawn large upon the chasuble; the celebrant, like his Master, carries it upon his shoulders.

This cross is formed of our iniquities. Let us not forget it when the priest comes forth to offer the sacrifice; let us say to him who stands in the place of Jesus Christ: “It belongs to me to carry that cross, which love has made you bear in my stead. I know that my weakness is too great for such a burden. But at least I will fill the place of Simon the Cyrenean, and will help you with the feeble aid of my prayers.” How few Christians pray for the priest as he goes to the altar, yet not only charity but justice renders this a duty.

Colors and Ornaments

The colors are: White, red, green, purple, and black.

White, emblem of purity, is consecrated to the feasts of Our Lord, except those which commemorate His sufferings. What color could be more suitable to Him Who is infinite sanctity, and Who showed Himself to His apostles on Thabor, and to Saint John in heaven, “clothed in a robe whiter than the snow “?

This color is also that of the feasts of Mary. After God there is nothing purer than the Blessed Virgin. The Holy Spirit compares her to a lily shining in whiteness, to a spotless dove, to a tower of ivory, aud to a limpid fountain.

White is worn on the solemnities of the angels because of their purity, and on the feasts of virgins, “sisters of angels in their innocence,” says Peter de Blois.

Red is the figure of blood and of fire. The Church clothes herself in it for those feasts which have connection with the passion of Our Lord, and on those days recalls to us that Jesus Christ has not feared for love of us to be reddened in His own blood, shed in torrents on the pavement of the prsetorium, on the road to Calvary, and on the wood of the cross. At Pentecost the Church wears red to figure forth the mystery of the tongues of fire on the heads of the apostles, and the effusion of that other interior fire with which the hearts of those generous messengers of good tidings were filled. Red, the color of blood, is also used on the feasts of martyrs.

Green, in the liturgy as in nature, is a symbol of hope; it is the emblem of good things to come. The Church uses it on the simple Sundays during the time called “of pilgrimage,” because it recalls the militant life of the Church, from the descent of the Holy Ghost to the end of the world.

This time comprehends the Sundays and weeks from Pentecost to Advent. From the octave of the Epiphany to Septuagesima we find green in use among the altar ornaments. Says Dom Gueranger: “This choice shows that in the birth of Our Lord, Who is the flower of the fields, is born also the hope of our salvation, and that after the winter of paganism and Judaism the green springtime of grace has begun in our hearts.”

Purple, the color of the mortification of the flesh by penitence, is reserved to the following periods: Advent, Lent, ember-days, vigils and rogations, and the procession of Saint Mark, to teach us that we should then expiate our sensual lives by fasting and mortification.

Black – It is hardly necessary to explain the signification of this color of death; even without speaking, the priest who mounts to the altar clad in these sad vestments is a preacher sufficiently eloquent. Let us listen to the voice of grace which cries: “Remember, man, that dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.”

Vestments of the Deacon, Subdeacon, and Acolytes

The Deacon

This word means servitor. One of the principal duties of this sacred minister is to assist the priest during the holy mysteries. He is always at bis side, and, by the place of honor which he occupies, he reminds us of the beloved disciple leaning on the heart of Jesus during the last supper, and standing under the cross on Calvary.

The deacon chants the gospel, and dismisses the people at the end of Mass by intoning: “Ite, Missa est.”

His vestments are the amice, alb, girdle, stole, and dalmatic; except the latter all are already understood. The dalmatic was originally worn in Dalmatia, whence it was brought to Rome. It is a long and ample garment, with very large sleeves, but short, descending only to the elbow. From the second century among the Romans it was the vestment of the emperors; the Church adopted it for the Sovereign Pontiff and the bishops. The deacons received it from Pope Sylvester, but the privilege of wearing it was confined to the deacons of the church at Rome, and for them only granted on festival-days as a sign of joy; consequently it was laid aside during Advent, Lent, and fast-days, periods of sadness and mourning in the Church.

The dalmatic is of the same color as the chasuble of the priest.

The bands of rich stuff, or even of gold or silver, which are laid perpendicularly on each side, were, in ancient times, reserved to persons of distinction. We find them again upon the chasuble of the priest, the dalmatic of the deacon, and the tunic of the subdeacon because of the elevated rank which these sacred ministers hold in the hierarchy; their duties bring them near to Our Lord in the Eucharist, and by the chastity which they have irrevocably sworn they are become like heavenly spirits. The short sleeves of the dalmatic, allowing the deacons to move more easily, remind us that, according to the etymology of their name of servitor, they assist, not only the priest at the altar, but the poor, the widows, and orphans. They find also in the large sleeves of their vestment a lesson of liberality toward the poor. The deacon does not wear the stole in the same manner as the priest; he places it on the left shoulder, and brings the extremities under the right arm. The stole being formerly a robe, the deacon necessarily had to roll it up under the right arm in order more easily to serve the priest at the altar.

The Subdeacon

This minister is charged with the preparation of the sacred vessels, the bread and wine of the sacrifice, giving the water to the celebrant when he washes his hands, and reading the epistle. His vestments are the amice, alb, girdle, maniple, and tunic. The tunic was formerly distinguished from the dalmatic by its form and material; now it is in all respects like it, hence it is unnecessary to speak of it.

The Acolytes

The ministers who carry the candles, prepare the incense, and serve the subdeacon and deacon at the altar are called acolytes. Samuels of the new law, they always wear in their functions a linen robe. Are they not also angels upon the earth? Their white vestments; the flowing sleeves with which they are adorned, like two wings; the censer swinging in their hands; their comings and goings in the sanctuary – do they not recall the celestial spirits around the throne of the Lamb? The white vestment of the acolyte is called a surplice, and covers a cassock generally black.

This striking contrast has not escaped the interpreters of our ceremonies, who have given us its meaning. Nearly all the religious Orders have adopted for their habit black or white, in remembrance of the glorious or sorrowful mysteries of the life of Jesus Christ. These two colors, united in the costume of the young levite, illustrate the great motto of Christianity: To die to one’s self, and live again in Jesus Christ.

– text taken from Catholic Ceremonies and Explanation of the Ecclesiastical Year, by Father Alfred Durand, published by Benziger Brothers, 1910; it has the Imprimatur of +Archbishop Michael Augustine Corrigan, New York, 23 July 1896