Why do they wear that? A look at vestments

By Ruth Powers
It is a common feature of our culture that we expect different forms of dress depending on the setting – one would expect to see different attire at a formal wedding than at a backyard barbeque. Catholics are certainly used to seeing our clergy and others who serve on the altar wear special clothing during the celebration of the Mass. The question then arises: Why do they wear that and what is the history behind that clothing?

Ruth Powers

One would think that the priestly vestments of today had their root in the vestments described in the Old Testament book of Exodus (28:2-4), but this is not the case. Those vestments were used in Jewish Temple worship, but not in the early Christian church. In fact, the beginning of our priestly vestments was the everyday clothing of the Greco-Roman world. Originally the clothing of the presider was no different from anyone else, as everyone wore their “Sunday best” for worship. The basic pieces worn in the first century were generally a tunic, which could be long or short, and a mantle or cloak worn over it. Secular fashions evolved gradually, but it took until the fourth century for priestly dress to become separated from the clothing of everyday life. It was at this time that the stole began to be used as an official symbol of the priesthood. By the ninth century, the plainer vestments of an earlier time came to be more richly ornamented; and as the church gained wealth and power, vestments became even more elaborate, sometimes reflecting the richness of the dress of the secular nobility. Today the form of the vestments used by the priests is meant to take him away as the center of the liturgical action and point us toward the true center of the liturgy – Jesus Christ.
Each part of the vestment has developed a symbolic meaning over time; and as the priest puts on each part, there is a vesting prayer to be said.
• The first vestment is the amice, which many people don’t ever see. It is a rectangular cloth with cords coming out of the sides. It developed out of a hood that covered the head outdoors and was lowered inside. It represents the “helmet of salvation.” (Ephesians 6:17) Its function now is to be worn around the shoulders and neck to protect the chasuble and stole, and to cover any ordinary clothing showing at the neck.
• Next is the alb, a long white garment which grew out of the tunic worn in the first century. It represents the white garment given at baptism. Any member of the baptized can wear an alb when performing a liturgical role, so altar servers, lay masters of ceremony, and sometimes lay people in other liturgical roles may wear an alb.
• A cincture is a cord that may be used as a belt to hold the alb and stole in place. It is no longer required but can be used. For the priest, the cincture is a symbol of chastity. If the priest is a member of a religious order, the cincture can have three knots in it, symbolizing the three evangelical counsels/vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
• The stole is a long narrow piece of cloth that matches the liturgical color of the chasuble. The priest wears it over his shoulders either with the ends hanging down on both sides or crossed over his chest. It is a symbol of his priestly authority and is meant to be a reminder of the cross Jesus bore over his shoulders.
• The final vestment is the chasuble. This developed out of the mantles worn as outer clothing. It represents the virtue of charity, since it is to be the primary virtue of the priest and the core of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. When the chasuble is worn over the stole, it symbolizes that the priest should cloak his authority with charity.
• The cope is another vestment that developed out of the cloak or mantle. It is a semicircular cape fastened at the neck. Earlier in history it also sometimes had an attached hood. The cope is used, for example, in processions, in the greater blessings and consecrations, at the solemnly celebrated Liturgy of the Hours, and in giving Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
A deacon also has some vestments particular to his role. Over the alb he wears a stole diagonally across his body and fastened at his hip. He may also wear a dalmatic, which is a wide sleeved knee length tunic. This garment was originally worn as a substitute for the toga by the Roman Senatorial class and was adapted as the vestment proper to deacons in the fourth century.
As you can see, vestments are about more than making the priest stand out as he celebrates the liturgy. Each vestment has its own meaning and reinforces the idea that in the Sacrifice of the Mass he acts, not as himself, but in the person of Christ.

(Ruth Powers is the Program Coordinator for St. Mary Basilica in Natchez.)