The meaning behind the Church’s liturgical fashion

August 16, 2016

HOUSTON — When it comes to clothing, what a person wears can make a dramatic statement.

The same can be said about Catholic priests who wear layers upon layers of vestments, specific garments that are worn when carrying out their priestly functions.

“The vestments, first and foremost, set Liturgy apart,” said Chris Labadie, associate director for Liturgical Formation, Office of Worship with the Archdiocese. “If a person, even a non-Catholic, walks into a room and sees a priest vested for Mass they know that something different is happening.”

For Mass, a priest wears vestments that consist of three to five items: alb, stole, chasuble, amice and cincture. 

An alb is the base layer, a white robe that reaches to the ankles. Placed over the alb is a stole, a narrow band of cloth worn around the neck and rests on the shoulders of the priest, explained Labadie.

Finally, the priest wears a chasuble, usually made from good fabric and likely adorned with ornamentation because it is the most visible of the vestments. 

Two other items are optional. The amice, worn under the alb and around the shoulders, and the cincture, a cord that is worn over the alb and serves the same function as a belt by keeping the alb gathered and in place.

If the alb does not completely cover the priest’s regular clothing at the neck and in order to help keep the alb clean, the priest may wear the amice. Also, if the alb is tailored in such a way, the priest may choose not to wear the belt-like cincture, Labadie said.

“There are also additional vestments worn in other liturgical settings or worn by deacons or bishops,” he added.

Liturgical vesture has been used since the early centuries of the Church and is an outgrowth of the Greco-Roman culture in which people who held important roles in the community — government and judicial figures in many cases — were identified by the dressings worn.

As Christianity began to spread and become accepted throughout the Roman Empire, it was possible to mark certain clothing as distinctively liturgical.

“As the secular fashions changed, the clothing used for Mass and other liturgies began to lose their secular connection and become primarily liturgical,” Labadie said. “As the vestments have continued to develop over the past 1,300 years or so they have become markedly different from our secular clothing and so the symbol they provide, of Liturgy being set apart from every-day life, has become more pronounced.”

Vestments serve different functions according to their meanings. The alb is white, the color of purity, and is the common vestment of the baptized — which is why people see altar servers and other lay liturgical ministers wearing albs.

The stole is a sign of the sacramental function and teaching authority carried out by the clergy — deacons, priests and bishops all wear the stole when celebrating a Sacrament or preaching the Word of God, Labadie said.

And the chasuble, which comes from the Latin casula or “little house,” symbolizes the yoke of Christ put on the shoulders of the priest so that he might lead the people of God. The chasuble was traditionally seen as a sign of the charity with which the priest was supposed to carry out his pastoral work. 

The two optional vestments, the amice and cincture, also have traditionally been understood, respectively, as a sign of God’s protection from the devil and as a symbol of chastity. 

Labadie noted these meanings developed over centuries as the vestments lost their secular functions and people began to assign theological meaning to the clothing worn by priests.

While all vestments are important, one piece, the stole, is likely the most important for priests. This narrow band of cloth worn around the neck symbolizes the priestly office. It is the common vestment between each of the Sacraments and among the three orders of clergy. 
“Many priests carry one in their pocket or have one in the car for emergencies,” Labadie said.

Colors are also associated with vestments. The color of the stole and chasuble will always match and these colors are determined by the season, feast day, or special ritual being celebrated. 

In the U.S., six liturgical colors are used: green, white, violet, red, rose and black. 

Green is used during Ordinary Time, and has at times been associated with the idea of growth and nourishment that takes place during the “ordinary” times of the year. 

White is used for festive occasions, such as the Christmas and Easter seasons, solemnities and feasts of most saints (other than martyrs), and weddings. In the U.S., priests may also use white vestments at funeral liturgies. 

Violet is a color used to symbolize penance or preparation, hence its use during Advent and Lent. It may also be used for funeral liturgies.

During Advent and Lent, the use of rose vestments on Gaudete Sunday (third Sunday of Advent) and Laetare Sunday (fourth Sunday of Lent) is seen.

“These Sundays are reminders of the joy that Christ has already come into the world at Christmas and has already been raised from the dead at Easter,” Labadie said.

The final principal liturgical color is red, which symbolizes both the Holy Spirit and the blood shed for the Church.

“We see red vestments at Pentecost, Palm Sunday, Good Friday and the feasts of martyrs, Apostles and evangelists, as well as Masses for the conferral of Confirmation,” he added. “The color black is not seen as often as it once was, but it is still an option for funerals and on All Souls’ Day.” 

According to the Church, vestments are significant because they not only help all to understand the celebration of Mass but the role of Church leaders.

A quote from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 335, reads: “In the Church, which is the Body of Christ, not all members have the same office. This variety of offices in the celebration of the Eucharist is shown outwardly by the diversity of sacred vestments, which should therefore be a sign of the office proper to each minister.

“At the same time, however, the sacred vestments should also contribute to the beauty of the sacred action itself,” the Roman Missal notes.
In addition, Holy Mass rituals, which include repeated prayers and colorful vestments worn by priests, are intended to help people of God remember the story.

“For Roman Catholics, ritual is a very important part of the way we worship, particularly with the Sacraments,” said Father James Burkart, pastor at Christ the Good Shepherd Catholic Community in Spring and chair of the Liturgical Commission.

“The various colors of the liturgical seasons, and thus the vesture, help the people of God remember the focus of that season. Going through the entire liturgical year gives Christians a sense of the cycle of Christianity and life itself,” Burkart said. 

“I don’t know if it is absolutely necessary that everyone know what all of the different vestments mean, but that they mean something is certainly an important part of the Liturgy that we celebrate.”