SPIRIT AND TRUTH
By Father Aaron Williams
People are always complimenting my vestments after Mass. Kids at the school recognize the certain vestments that I only pull out on big feasts. Parishioners like to tell me which vestment is their “favorite.” When I was preparing for ordination, I gave some time to consider what sort of vestments I was going to order or who would make them. I noticed a lot of my classmates buying matching vestments in each color from various catalogue producers—the church equivalent of off-the-rack clothing companies. I just wasn’t too excited about the idea of spending a large amount of money on standard vestments which everyone else had and honestly weren’t too impressive. So, I began to consider the directives of the Church.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says, “sacred vestments should contribute to the beauty of the sacred action itself” (335). This is further developed in a later paragraph reading, “It is fitting that the beauty and nobility of each vestment derive not from abundance of overly lavish ornamentation, but rather from the material that is used and from the design. Ornamentation on vestments should, moreover, consist of figures, that is, of images or symbols, that evoke sacred use, avoiding thereby anything unbecoming” (344).
So, from this we learn that the intention of the Church is that the vestments used at Mass are themselves beautiful—but that their beauty is derived not from being elaborate or lavish but their material and design. This is further explained by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council: “[Bishops], by the encouragement and favor they show to art which is truly sacred, should strive after noble beauty rather than mere sumptuous display. This principle is to apply also in the matter of sacred vestments and ornaments.”
Thus we see the Church desires a glance between sumptuous/gaudy vestments, but also vestments that are noble and beautiful. Now, God is beauty itself. St. Augustine praises this in his Confessions. “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient ever new.” If vestments are beautiful, it is because they reveal to us the beauty of God. And, here we find the purpose of church vesture at all. We use vestments in the liturgy not to honor the minister, but to honor God—or, more explicitly, to reveal God’s beauty to humanity.
And, this was the approach that God himself used in defining the vesture and ornamentation of the liturgy in the old covenant. In commanding Moses to make vestments for Aaron, God declares, “And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty” (Ex 28:2). Later in the same chapter, God described each vestment in detail—which threads will be used, which colors, how they are ornamented (cf. Ex 28:31-38).
When you consider the prescribed design of these vestments in light of the whole of the Old Testament, it’s easy to see why God demanded these figures. The colors, fabrics, styles and ornaments are all evocative of the Garden of Eden. The same was true of the decoration on the walls of the temple itself, which included designs of trees and flowers. The whole purpose of these ornaments was not “art for the sake of art,” but so that the worshiper would be drawn in to the act of worship by the beauty surrounding him, and even more so, to be taken back to the Garden—to the paradise of God.
In a similar way, the Church exhorts us to build beautiful churches, have beautiful music and wear beautiful vestments not simply because it makes the Mass more dignified, but because this beauty is meant to invoke in our minds a longing for the beauty of heaven.
Regrettably, in recent years it has not been uncommon to find sacristies which once housed beautiful and historic vestments now filled with simple and mass-produced polyester counterparts—often equally or even more expensive than vestments purchased from sellers who today are using truly noble fabrics and designs such as silks or damask fabrics with patterns of flowers, angels, crosses and crowns.
Often these catalogue vestments are bought because of a myth that they must be cheaper than the custom option. The reality is that most of the mass-produce sellers use very inexpensive fabrics but overcharge. My most expensive vestment, which was custom designed by a one-man company in Poland, was less expensive than the average vestment sold by the largest vestment seller in America—a Belgian-based company that exclusively uses factory-made artificial fabrics, many of which are simply plain polyester with printed designs, if any.
I remember one of my professors at the Liturgical Institute was speaking about the need for beauty in the liturgy today. He proposed the question of whether, in a society with such poverty, we should invest in beautiful churches or vestments. He said, “The poor today live under concrete bridges, and in parks, and see ugliness all around them both in their surroundings and in how they are treated. But, the riches of the Church are their riches. There’s a reason you find the poor at churches and not a government buildings. Everything at the church is theirs and they deserve something beautiful.”
Nobility is not the enemy of beauty. We can have beauty without becoming ornate and extravagant. “And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty” (Ex 28:2).
(Father Aaron Williams is the Director of Seminarians and Parochial vicar at Greenville St. Joseph Parish)