Externals of the Catholic Church – Vestments

Man’s nature is such that he needs external helps to assist him in fixing his attention on sacred things. We are all impressed to a remarkable degree by “pomp and circumstance.” A king on his throne, clad in his royal robes, holding his sceptre and wearing his jeweled crown, is an imposing sight; all these accessories indicate his dignity and help us to realize his greatness. The same king without these trappings of royalty would possibly be a very insignificant object.

For this reason it has been customary in every age and country to invest those holding any position of dignity or practising certain avocations with some uniform or badge, by which their rank and duties are designated. The soldier wears his uniform, by which he is distinguished from the ordinary citizen. The policeman, the fireman, the railway employee, each has his special garb, marking him as set apart for some definite work.

This is done for a twofold purpose – that others may respect and obey him as far as is necessary, and that he may respect himself and be more conscious of his duties and more attentive to them, on account of the uniform he wears. This is even more true of the religious garb. The priest wears it that he may be thereby distinguished from other men, and that he himself may be always reminded by it that he is “taken from among men to offer sacrifices and holocausts for them” – to be a mediator between the Almighty and His creatures.

In every religion since the world began, the practice has been in vogue of wearing some form of vestment. The priest has had a distinctive dress, whether he was an uncouth “medicine-man” of some barbarous tribe, an augur of pagan Rome, or a priest of the Hebrew Jehovah. Here, as in many other cases, our Church has shown her wisdom by making use of a meritorious feature of other religions.

A Sacramental of the Church

The word “vestment” is from the Latin, and signifies simply clothing, but it is now used generally to denote the garments worn by the ministers of religion in the performance of their sacred duties.

Vestments are a sacramental – that is, they are set apart and blessed by the Church to excite good thoughts and to increase devotion in those who see and those who use them. They are the uniform of the priest when he is “on duty,” while he is exercising the functions of his ministry and using the sacred powers which he received at his ordination.

Among the Jews

Under the Jewish law every detail of the vestments used in the worship of God was provided for by divine command. The garb of the highpriest and his assistants was specified most minutely as to material and form, and observance of these rules was enjoined under the severest penalties. The veneration of the Jewish people for the vestments of the high-priest was so great that they kept a lamp constantly burning before the repository of the sacred robes, just as we do now before the Blessed Sacrament.

When Christianity arose, no divine command was given concerning the dress to be worn by the priests of God. This was left to the judgment of the heads of the Church, and in the different ages of her history many changes have been made in the number and form and material of the priestly vestments.

There is no record of any special form of them during the first four centuries. It is probable that the garb of the clergy in those times was the common dress of laymen. The outer garments worn by men of those days were long and flowing, a modified form of the old Roman toga; and consequently the vestments used in the divine service took the same general form. Gradually the custom was introduced of making them of rich and costly materials, to add greater beauty thereby to the rites of religion. When the hardy barbarians of the North had overwhelmed the luxurious nations of southern Europe and had brought in their own fashions of dress, the Church did not see fit to change the garb of her ministers as worn at the services of her ritual, but she permitted them to change their ordinary dress to some extent, and forbade them to wear their vestments except while officiating at sacred rites.

Colors of the Vestments

The Church ordinarily permits the use of five colors in the sacred vestments – white, red, green, violet and black. Rose-colored vestments are prescribed (when obtainable) at the solemn Mass on the third Sunday in Advent and the fourth in Lent. Gold may be used as a substitute for white, red or green.

Each of these colors has its own meaning. The Sacrifice of the Mass is offered for many purposes and in honor of many classes of saints; and these various purposes are all designated and symbolized by the color of the vestments which the Church prescribes for each Mass.

When are these colors used? When the Church wishes to denote purity, innocence or glory, she uses white; that is, on the feasts of our Lord and of the Blessed Virgin, on the festivals of angels and of all saints who were not martyrs. Red is the color of fire and of blood; it is used in Masses of the Holy Ghost, such as on Pentecost, to remind us of the tongues of fire – and on the feasts of all saints who shed their blood for their faith. The purple or violet is expressive of penance; it is used during Lent and Advent (except on saints’ days), and also on the sorrowful festival of the Holy Innocents. Black is the color of mourning for the dead; it is worn at all Masses of Requiem for the departed, and also on Good Friday. Green is the color which denotes the growth and increase of our holy Church, and is also symbolic of hope; it is used at various times of the year, on days that are not saints’ days.

A Priest’s Vestments

The black gown of the priest, called a cassock or soutane, is not a vestment. It is simply the ordinary outer garb of a cleric, and in Catholic countries it is worn on the street as well as indoors.

The biretta, or cap, is also not a part of the vestments, although it must be worn when the priest is going to and coming from the altar, and while he is seated at certain parts of the service. This peculiarly shaped head-covering has a history of its own. It was originally a brimless soft cap of medium height. In putting this on and taking it off it became indented into folds by the fingers; after a time these folds were so sewn that they made a convenient wing or handle. As the right hand is used mostly for removing one’s hat, the biretta often has no fold on the left side – although in some parts of Europe four-winged birettas are commonly used. The top is often ornamented with a “pompon” or a tassel.

The vestments worn by the priest at Mass are as follows: The amice, the alb, the cincture, the maniple, the stole and the chasuble; and at certain other services he uses the cope, the humeral veil and the surplice. Each of these has its own history and its own symbolical meaning, expressed in the prayers which the priest recites when he is putting on the vestments.

The Amice

When a priest begins to “vest” for Mass, he first puts on an amice.

This is an oblong piece of white linen, with strings attached by which it is fastened into place around the shoulders. It has been worn in the Mass since about the year 800, and takes its name from the Latin amictus, a wrapper. It was formerly worn covering the head, and certain religious orders still use it in this manner until the beginning of the Mass. It is looked upon as a symbol of a helmet, by which the priest is protected against the assaults of Satan.

The Alb

The long linen gown worn by the priest is called the alb, meaning simply the white garment. The lower part of it is frequently made of lace. It is a survival of the white Roman toga. As the vesting prayers tell us, its white color denotes the necessity of purity, both of soul and body, in him who offers the Immaculate Lamb of God to the Eternal Father.

The Cincture

This is the proper name for the girdle worn around the waist to bind the alb closely to the body. In some countries it is of the same color as the vestments used, but among us it is generally white. It is made of braided linen, or sometimes of wool, and is symbolic of continence, according to the prayer which the priest says while putting it on: “Gird me, O Lord, with the girdle of purity, and extinguish in me all concupiscence.”

The Maniple

We now come to the vestments which vary in color from day to day, according to the object for which the Mass is offered or the saint who is honored in it.

A small vestment of peculiar shape is worn by the priest on his left arm. This is the maniple, and it was originally nothing more nor less than a handkerchief; but it has been so changed in form that it is now merely an ornament.

The word maniple is from the Latin “manipulum,” Maniple which has various meanings – something carried in the hand, a small bundle, a handkerchief, a sheaf of grain; and therefore this vestment is considered as symbolical of good works. It is the special badge of the order of subdeaconship, and is not used by those in lower orders.

The Stole

At Mass, and also in nearly every other religious function, the priest wears around his neck a long narrow vestment, the ends hanging down in front When used at Mass, these ends are crossed. The deacon at a solemn Mass wears a similar vestment, but in a different manner – diagonally from his left shoulder to his right side. The stole came into use about the fourth century, and was originally a sort of robe or cloak; but its form was gradually modified until it became a narrow strip of doth. It is said by some to have been the court uniform of Roman judges, and to have been adopted by the Church to denote the authority of her ministers. According to the vesting prayer, it symbolizes immortality, and also the yoke of obedience under which the priest exercises his office.

The Chasuble

The most conspicuous part of the costume of the priest at Mass is the chasuble, the large vestment worn on the shoulders and hanging down in front and behind. The rear portion is often, though not always, ornamented with a large cross.

The word chasuble is from the late Latin “casula,” a little house, because it is, as it were, a shelter for the priest. It is considered as a symbol of protection, of preservation from evil – a spiritual suit of armor.

This vestment has been greatly altered during the centuries of its history. It was originally a large mantle or cloak, with an opening for the head in the centre, and had to be raised at the sides to allow the hands to be extended outside the cloak. The assistants at the Mass were obliged to help the priest by holding up the sides of the chasuble, and a trace of this practice may be noticed still in solemn Masses, where the deacon and subdeacon ceremoniously hold the edges of the priest’s chasuble, although there is no longer any need of their assistance.

The Cope and Veil

The cope, used at the Asperges before a high Mass and at many solemn functions of the Church, was originally worn only in outdoor processions, and was considered merely as a rain-cloak, as is shown by its Latin name, pluviale, a protection against rain. The cape attached to it, which now has no use whatever, is a reminder of the large hood formerly used to cover the head in stormy weather. Our English name, cope, is from the Latin “cappa,” a cape.

The humeral veil is worn on the shoulders of the priest at the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament when he holds the Sacred Host for the blessing of the people, and also when he carries the Blessed Sacrament in procession. It is also used by the subdeacon in solemn Masses, excepting those of Requiem.

The Surplice

It may be well also to say a word about this vestment, which is worn over the cassock at the administration of the Sacraments and at various services of the Church. It is the special garb of clerics not in sacred orders, and its use is tolerated for lay altar-boys, or acolytes, in our churches.

In its present form it is one of the most modem of vestments. The word surplice is from the Latin “superpellicium” – a dress worn over furs. In the Middle Ages it was allowed to the monks in cold countries to have fur garments, and over these a linen gown was worn in choir. It was later considered practically as an alb, and in the twelfth century it was usually so long that it reached the feet. Gradually it was made shorter, and about the seventeenth century the custom began of ornamenting it with lace.

The Tunic and the Dalmatic

The tunic is the vestment of subdeacons, the dalmatic of deacons. They are usually exactly alike, although, strictly speaking, the tunic should be of smaller size than the dalmatic. Each is of about the same length as the chasuble of the priest. These vestments hang from the shoulders, which are covered by projecting flaps; these are sometimes connected under the arms, so as to resemble short sleeves. The color, of course, varies according to the Mass, and on the back are usually two ornamental vertical stripes, but no cross.

A tunic signifies simply an outer garment. The dalmatic gets its name from a Roman garment made of wool from the province of Dalmatia, worn under the outer clothing in ancient times.

The tunic, according to the words used in conferring it at an ordination, signifies joy, while the dalmatic is looked upon as an emblem of righteousness and charity.

The Broad Stole

During the Lenten season, at High Masses, the deacon is directed by the rubrics to wear a broad stole, covering his other stole, instead of the usual dalmatic. This broad stole was not originally a stole at all; it was a folded chasuble – for, some centuries ago, the deacon wore a chasuble at Lenten Masses instead of a dalmatic, and was directed to take it off and fold it early in the Mass, putting it on again over his shoulder and wearing it thus during the chanting of the Gospel. For convenience, this folded chasuble was later replaced by a stole-like vestment, as we have it now.

The Vestments of a Bishop

These are numerous, and each has its own interesting history and its own symbolic meaning. The bishops are the links in the Apostolic chain, the pastors of Christ’s flock, the principal laborers in His vineyard. All the dignity which a bishop has by virtue of his office, and all the qualities which he should have to be worthy of his exalted position, are symbolized by the chief insignia which he is privileged to use.

The Mitre

This is the distinguishing mark of the episcopal office – a tall double-pointed cap, probably of Oriental origin, which can be traced back to pagan times; at least, something very similar was worn by kings in Persia and Assyria long before the Christian era. As an ecclesiastical vestment it came into general use about the year 1100, although some form of tall and dignified headdress was worn considerably earlier. The present double or cleft form was evolved gradually; it was at first low and concave, and was subsequently increased in height and more richly ornamented. Its two points or horns symbolize the Old and New Testaments, which the bishop is supposed to explain to his people.

The Crosier

This, the bishop’s pastoral staff, is, of course, not a vestment, but may be mentioned here. It typifies his duties as shepherd of the flock. It is a copy of the shepherd’s crook, used for the guidance and restraining of the sheep, and has been looked upon as the special badge of the episcopal office since the fifth century at least, and is so mentioned in the ritual of a bishop’s consecration. It signifies his power to sustain the weak, to confirm the wavering, and to lead back the erring. The upper part is often very beautifully moulded and enriched with images and symbolic ornaments.

The Ring

On the third finger of a bishop’s right hand he wears a large ring – a custom traceable to about the year 600. It was a signet ring originally, but is now considered as a symbol of faith or fidelity.

The Rochet

A vestment somewhat like a surplice, but with closely fitting sleeves, is worn by the bishop at certain functions. This is called a rochet , from a late Latin word meaning a coat It is made of white linen, and is usually ornamented with lace.

When a bishop is celebrating a ponftfical Mass, he is attired in three vestments – the chasuble of the priest, the dalmatic of the deacon and the tunic of the subdeacon, to signify that in his episcopal office all the various orders find their culmination and perfection. The last two vestments are necessarily made of thin material, so as not to be cumbersome.

The Cappa Magna

A long cope with a hood, the latter being lined with silk or fur, may be worn by the bishop at solemn functions. This is called the cappa magna – a large cope.

The Pectoral Cross

Attached to a chain which he wears around his neck is a cross of precious metal, which hangs on his breast, and thence derives its name, from the Latin pectus, the breast This badge of the episcopacy came into use about the twelfth century.

Gloves, Sandals, etc.

At a bishop’s consecration, gloves are blessed for him and placed on his hands. The practice of wearing them as a part of his vestments began probably about the eleventh century. They are worn only at a pontifical Mass, and then only to the washing of the hands. They are made of knitted silk, and are ornamented on the backs with crosses. They vary in color according to the Mass celebrated, but are not used in Requiem Masses.

At a pontifical Mass the bishop also wears stockings which are of woven silk and conform in color to the vestments, and low-heeled shoes called sandals, likewise of the liturgical color.

When he is seated during a Mass, or when he is conferring sacred orders, a sort of apron, called a gremiale, is laid upon his lap. Its original purpose was to keep his garments from being soiled; but after a time it became a vestment and is often adorned with gold lace and other ornaments.

A bishop’s cassock varies in color according to the occasion. On penitential days it is black with purple silk trimmings; but on other days he wears a purple cassock, called a choir cassock, with crimson trimmings, at church functions, and an ordinary cassock, of black with red trimmings and without train, on other occasions.

Over his cassock he wears a short cape, bearing the Italian name of mozzetta, buttoned over the breast and provided with a small hood.

Such, then, is a brief account of many of the ecclesiastical vestments which our Church prescribes for her prelates and other clergy in the functions of her liturgy, and of the garb which, at other times, points them out as “set apart.” We should reverence these things, for many of them are true sacramentals of our Church; and when we see them, we should endeavor to remember the dignity which God has given to their wearers, and the symbolism by which these consecrated garments set before us the virtues which He wishes His bishops and priests to manifest in fulfilling the duties of their holy and exalted state.