The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Whys and Wherefores of Liturgical Vestments

Rev. Gerard Ellard, S.J., Jesuit priest, medievalist, and liturgist, was a major player in the early days of the liturgical movement in the United States that preceded the Second Vatican Council. He died in 1963, in the midst of that Council, at the age of 68. A man of true humility and quiet leadership, Father Ellard is probably best known for his textbook, Christian Life and Worship, read and studied by thousands of Catholic college students in years past.

Over the years, as a result of training sessions I have conducted for various lay liturgical ministers, I've concluded that most Catholics don't really have a clue when it comes to the vestments worn by priest or deacon. What are their names, their origins, their significance? Some can name perhaps one vestment -- usually the stole and perhaps the alb -- but many are unable to do even that. Here's an example...

A few weeks ago, as I was standing alongside our pastor greeting folks after Mass, a parishioner approached me and asked, very accusingly, "Deacon, why are you dressed like a priest?"

I was wearing a dalmatic, as I always do at Sunday Mass, and so I replied with a smile, "I'm not. I'm dressed like a deacon. This is a dalmatic, a vestment which should be worn at Mass by the deacon."

This didn't impress him in the least. "Well, it looks just like the thing Father's wearing."

And so I tried to explain further by saying, "You'll notice that my dalmatic has sleeves, while Father's chasuble doesn't."

Apparently this was a meaningless subtlety because he just shook his head and walked off, likely mentally accusing all deacons of being priest-wannabes.

And so, I thought it might be useful to share some of what Fr. Ellard wrote on the subject. The following, written 60 years ago, is his brief explanation of the Roman origins of the liturgical vestments worn by priest and deacon at Mass. I trust you'll find it interesting.

The ministers at the Sacrifice wear garments such as we now see nowhere else. These are modifications of the ordinary civil dress of the late Empire, say, of the 4th Century. Some of the priestly vestments are garments properly so-called, others are insignia of office.

Amice. In the order in which the vestments are put on, the first is a white, rectangular linen cloth put upon the shoulders and wrapped about the neck. This vestment is called an amice (amicta). It is a survival of the customary neckerchief or scarf of the ancients; by the older authors it is often called 'the protection of the voice'. Originally meant to serve purely practical purposes, to cover the neck and to protect the other vestments from the hair, the amice becomes a very conspicuous item in the Middle Ages, when it was decorated with a wide, rich band of embroidery and allowed to show outside the other garments. Up to a certain point in the Mass it was even worn over the head, a usage that survives still in some monastic orders. With the disappearance of this rich ornamentation, the amice went back to its original, humbler form.
Alb. In the whole of the Roman Empire of the 4th Century the customary body-garment of both sexes and all classes was a sleeved tunic reaching well below the knees and caught at the waist by a girdle. It was of white linen. Later, a short tunic became commoner in civil life, but churchmen kept to the longer form in their official functions. This old tunic lives on in our alb (Latin for white)...The use of lace on the alb is a modern departure from tradition, and destined, it would seem, to disappear before long.

Tunic and Dalmatic. The decorated outer vestment worn by the subdeacon, called a tunic as well as the vesture of the deacon, called a dalmatic, are, in origin, outer tunics, with shorter, wider sleeves, and shorter body. The dalmatic is so called because this style of highly ornamented tunic came from Dalmatia (Croatia region).

Maniple. The maniple, a band of colored, decorated fabric laid across the left forearm, is a relic of a handkerchief carried as an emblem of office by Roman officials. The consul carried such a ceremonial handkerchief and with it gave the signal for the opening of games and other functions. In the first detailed description of a Roman Mass we have, the Pope's handkerchief is used to give the signal to begin Mass. The maniple was formerly made of linen, and by reason of its humble origin was called a sudarium, a sweat cloth, or, because carried in the hand, a manual. Until about the year 1000 this clerical emblem of office was carried in the hand (usually the left); then began the custom of wearing it on the wrist or forearm. When that happened, its original purpose was lost sight of, and instead of white linen it was made of a colored and ornamented fabric.

Stole. Quite a different mark of the clerical order is what is now called a stole ( a Greek word for garment in general). This was in ancient times called the orarium (literally, mouth-cloth). How it was that a long, flowing band, slung over one or both shoulders and hanging loosely bout the body, and originally destined for such humble purposes, should have become a highly prized symbol of the clerical order remains in the present state of our knowledge, an unanswerable question. Old mosaics and pictures show the stole worn in many different ways, even as it is now worn in distinctive ways by bishop, priest and deacon respectively.

Chasuble. The most conspicuous of the sacrificial garments is the chasuble, as we say from the Latin casula, a little house; so called, said St Isidore of Seville, because it covered the whole man. It is a modified form of the ancient paenula, a cone-shaped outer garment reaching down, more or less, the full length of the body all around, and provided with an opening and hood for the head. Designed for protection against all weathers in traveling, it finally became the ordinary outer garment for all wear, even replacing the toga of the high officials. At Rome it continued to be the ordinary outer garment for both sexes and all classes until the end of the 6th Century or later.

Thus, everyone in a Roman church then wore a chasuble. St Augustine speaks of it as the clothing of even the poor, but, of course, it could be something very fine, and only a generation or so later St Fulgentius will not have a colored chasuble because he thought that something for wealthy people. But Fulgentius was a monk and wore his monk's robe at the altar.

In the new European nations the chasuble was at first the ordinary garment of clerical attire for church, street and domestic uses. In the course of time it became reserved for priests and, later still, for priests only at the time of Mass.

The ordinary chasuble of today represents a very truncated form of the ample 'little house' of former ages. The garment, to allow freedom to the hands, had to be caught up over the forearms. Even in classical antiquity the chasuble was often cut somewhat shorter at the sides to facilitate freer movement. As long as pliable silk, the prescribed material for this vestment, continued to be used in making it, there was no great need for radical altering, but it was another thing entirely when stiff, brocaded velvets, themselves heavily embroidered, began to be substituted for silk. Then it was necessary to trim and cut away all that should have been folded. The nadir of the trimming process was reached in the 18th Century. Since that day a gradual reversion to the traditional garment has been making itself felt. This movement will probably be slow in progressing, because it depends in the last instance upon the slow-growing, inner religious sentiment, to which all change in external features of worship corresponds."

Of course, you won't see many maniples these days, and few priests or deacons even wear the amice. (I wear one occasionally, with a particular alb that doesn't adequately cover the collar of my "civilian" attire.) But alb, stole, dalmatic and chasuble should be familiar vestments to most Catholics.

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