Catholic CornucopiadCheney

XXV. Sacred Vestments

The Sacramentals of the Holy Catholic Church

In treating of the holy sacrifice of the Mass the Council of Trent uses the following words: “Whereas such is the nature of man that, without external helps, he cannot easily be raised to the meditation of divine things, therefore has holy mother Church instituted certain rites, to wit, that certain things be pronounced in the Mass in a low and others in a louder tone. She has likewise employed ceremonies, such as mystic benedictions, lights, incense, vestments, and many other things of this kind, derived from an apostolical tradition, whereby both the majesty of so great a sacrifice might be recommended and the minds of the faithful be excited by those visible signs of religion and piety to the contemplation of those most sublime things which are hidden in this sacrifice.”1

This passage reveals a very important truth of which we are all conscious, but to which perhaps we too seldom advert; yet it exercises an influence on our civil, religious, and military life. The simple dais on which the school-teacher sits gives him an influence which he would not have without it. So, too, the elevation of the royal throne, the pulpit, etc. The effect with regard to a uniform or a religious habit is still more marked, because its influence is both objective and subjective: it not only impresses others with the position of the person who wears it, but it also reminds him that he should “walk worthy of the vocation whereunto he is called.” For this reason it is that soldiers, policemen, firemen, and others are uniformed, that they may respect themselves and may the better command the respect of those around them. Much more is this true of religious; for, though there is a saying that the habit does not make the monk, it is nevertheless true that it has a great deal to do with making him. All this is in perfect harmony with right reason; and whatever is in harmony with reason is pleasing to God, the Author of reason.

While the sacred vestments are sacramentals, answering all the requirements of the definition, they are something besides, which the other sacramentals are not. They are an appropriate dress, fitting the minister of God to perform his sacred functions in a more dignified and becoming manner. And here it may not be out of place to correct an erroneous impression on the minds of not a few Catholics: that, namely, that the vestments give the priest power. They do not. He receives all his powers directly from God, through the ministry of the bishop, in his ordination. But it is for the bishop of the diocese in which he is to labor to define the limits and the circumstances in which he shall exercise some of these powers, such, for example, as hearing confessions.

We have but meagre information regarding what may be called the priesthood of the Patriarchal Church; all that we know is that the patriarch, or some one designated by him, officiated at the sacrifices; but whether he wore a distinctive dress or insignia during the sacrifice, or whether his venerable appearance was sufficiently characteristic of his office, we have no means of knowing at the present time. But I am of opinion that even then there must have been some peculiarity in his dress, from the fact that among all nations, no matter how civilized or how barbarous, the priest—who among the latter was generally the medicine-man—was and still is dressed differently from the rest of the people when performing his religious rites. And, as I have frequently insisted in these pages, paganism is a corruption of true revelation, and even in its greatest deformity it bears evidence to that fact.

When it pleased Almighty God to give a fuller revelation of His holy will, in the establishment of the Mosaic law, He prescribed in the minutest manner the material and form of the sacerdotal vestments, and enjoined them under the severest penalties; and so deeply did the people venerate the vestments of the high-priest that Josephus tells us they had a light constantly burning before them in the place in which they were kept. The kind and form of the vestments of the New Law were not prescribed by a divine command, and this for two reasons: in the first place, because by a miracle of omnipotence our divine Redeemer gave to the head of His Church the plenitude of power, promising the sanction of Heaven to his enactments; and, in the second, because the Christian Church, unlike the Jewish, was not intended for one nation only, but for the world, and for all time; and must vary somewhat in external matters, according to times and peoples, in the lapse of time in which it is to exist, and the countless variety of nations to which it is to be preached.

The word vestment, like most of the terms used in the liturgy, is of Latin origin, and has, derivatively, the same meaning as the English word clothing; but usage has long since restricted it to garments worn by the ministers of religion during the performance of their sacred functions.

In the first four or five centuries the vestments worn by the clergy were the common dress of men in the Roman Empire; and it was not till the repeated incursions of the barbarians had wholly changed the customs of southern Europe, and introduced new fashions in dress, that sacerdotal vestments became peculiar to one class and to religious functions. This change was effected gradually, of course, and rather by the force of circumstances than by the decrees of ecclesiastical authority. But though this is true, two points are to be noticed: in the first place, that the uses to which vestments were devoted would cause them, though conforming in pattern to the every-day dress of men, to be made of more costly material than other garments and to be more richly ornamented; and, in the second place, that the use for which they were intended would suggest the propriety of reserving them for sacred functions only. History confirms what propriety suggests; for about the middle of the third century Pope Stephen ordained that the Levites should not wear the consecrated vestments in common life, but only in the church.

There are five colors of vestments: white, red, green, violet, and black. There is also gold-cloth; but this, in the sense of the rubrics, is no color, but only a substitute for certain other colors. Different writers on liturgy held different opinions as to what colors gold-cloth is permitted to represent, but by a decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites of April 28, 1866, it is permitted to be used for white, red, and green, according to the custom of the place. But the decree supposes that it is real gold-cloth, and not an imitation. In some places rose-colored vestments are worn on the third Sunday of Advent, the fourth of Lent, and the feast of the Holy Innocents, when it does not fall on a Sunday. Formerly this color was also worn in some places on the feasts of martyrs. The various colors came gradually into use. At first, and up to the sixth century, only white was used. About that time other colors were added, but violet does not appear to have been worn till about the beginning of the thirteenth century. Pope Innocent III. is the first writer to mention four colors. The necessity the early missionaries of this and other countries were under of making the parcel which they were required to carry from one missionary station to another as small as possible, led to the use of vestments which combined two colors, as red and white, the cross on the back and the bar in the middle in front being of one color, and the rest of the vestment of another. This has been forbidden by the Holy See, and is seldom or never seen at present. Beyond these remarks it is not the intention to refer to any of the numerous local customs of churches, dioceses, or countries. While the existence of these customs tends to show the tolerant spirit of the Church in matters not essential, they also show the unity in variety of the Church’s liturgy; for if order is heaven’s first law, variety is the second. There can be no success without the one, and there can be no pleasure without the other.

Examining the vestments worn by the priest in the light of ecclesiastical tradition, we find them to have a practical use and a mystic signification, both of which will appear as we proceed. The mystic holds so important a place in the liturgy of the Church that an inquiry into the signification of the several colors will be in structive. Says O’Brien: “White, being symbolic of purity, innocence, and glory, is, as a general rule, employed on the special feasts of Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin, and on those of the angels, virgins, and confessors. Red, the symbol of fortitude, is the color proper to Pentecost, in memory of the tongues of fire; it is also used on the feasts of the apostles and martyrs, and on those of Our Lord’s Passion. Green, symbolic of hope, is used as the color of the time from the octave of the Epiphany to Septuagesima, and from the octave of Pentecost to Advent. Violet, the penitential color, is used on all occasions of public affliction and sorrow, in time of fasting and penance, and in all those processions which do not immediately concern the Blessed Sacrament. This color is also used on the feast of the Holy Innocents, on account of the lamentations and weepings heard through Jerusalem when they were massacred by order of Herod. But should this feast fall on Sunday, the color of the occasion is red, as also the color of the octave, from the fact that the lamentations taken up are supposed to have ceased by this time, and the eighth day is always significant of beatitude and glory. Black, from its gloomy appearance, and because it is the negation of all color, is used in Masses and Offices of the Dead, and on Good Friday in memory of the profound darkness that covered the land when Our Lord was crucified.”2

It is the intention to speak of those vestments only which the people are accustomed to see the priest wear; for it is thought more interesting and instructive for them to understand these than to be told, for example, of the archbishop’s pallium, or something which they seldom or never see. The cassock, being the ordinary dress of the priest, does not come under the name of a vestment. The vestments proper are the amice, the alb, the cincture, the maniple, the stole, and the chasuble; to which will here be added the cope, the shoulder-veil, and the surplice, as being in common use in religious functions.

Propriety would dictate that the vestments used in the service of religion should first receive an appropriate blessing. This is confirmed both by the custom of the Church to bless all things which she makes use of, and also by the fact that God Himself directed that the vestments employed in the service of religion in the Mosaic law should be consecrated with a solemn ceremony. It is not known with certainty when the custom of blessing them was first introduced, but it must be very ancient. The first mention of it is found in the Gregorian “Sacramentary”; and the Council of Poitiers, held in the year 1100, forbids anyone but bishops to give this blessing, and Pope Innocent III. confirmed this decree. Bishops, however, very often impart this faculty to their priests in missionary countries.

Worn-out vestments are not to be turned to profane uses, but are to be devoted to some other purpose in the church, or else be burnt, and the ashes thrown into the sacrarium, on the general principle that whatever has been consecrated to God cannot be turned to the use of man.

Turning to the several vestments, we have first to treat of the amice, which is an oblong piece of white linen with strings at two of its corners by which it is to be adjusted. The name is derived from the Latin word amictus, which means to wrap around or about; and the amice is intended, with the alb, to conceal the everyday dress of the priest, so that, on approaching the altar, he may lay aside all that savors of the world, and may in very truth appear what St. Paul calls him—” a man of God.” At first the amice was not worn, but it appears to have come into general use about the commencement of the eighth century. Formerly it covered the head, and it is so worn at present by several religious Orders till the beginning of the Mass. Nor was it first invariably made of linen as now, but occasionally of silk or other material, and it was sometimes richly ornamented.

Inquiring into the symbolical meaning of the amice, we need not be surprised that writers have assigned various significations, as they have also done with regard to the other sacred vestments. But the best means of arriving at a correct idea of the mind of the Church is to examine the prayer recited by the priest while clothing himself with the amice. He says: “Place, O Lord, on my head the helmet of salvation, for repelling the attacks of the Evil One.” From this it appears that the amice is symbolical of the helmet worn by soldiers to protect them from the blows of their adversaries.

The alb derives its name from the Latin word alba, white, because it is always of that color. It is simply the undergarment formerly worn by both the Greeks and Romans. The name was not incorporated into ecclesiastical terminology before the end of the third century, although the garment itself was in use from the beginning. Nor was it always made of linen, as at present, but was sometimes of other material, and more or less richly ornamented. The use of lace for the lower part of the alb is of still more recent introduction. The prayer recited by the priest while putting on the alb affords the most correct idea of the mystic signification of the garment. It is couched in the following terms: “Purify me, O Lord, and make me clean of heart, that, washed in the blood of the Lamb, I may possess eternal joys.” In vesting himself, then, with the alb the priest is reminded of those “who washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb,” and of the purity of soul and body with which he should approach the altar to offer the same immaculate Lamb to the Eternal Father for his sins and those of the whole world.

The girdle or cincture, with which the priest or other sacred minister secures the alb about his person, was in use among both the Greeks and Romans, and was introduced as a matter of necessity into the list of sacred vestments. In the Middle Ages cinctures were richly ornamented, and were made of various materials. The shape, too, was more or less arbitrary ; and they were sometimes found in the form of lampreys, eels, etc. According to the present discipline of the Church it should be of linen rather than of other material, but it may also be of wool, and may vary in color with the vestments.3 It is the symbol of continence and self-restraint, as is expressed in the prayer which the priest says while girding himself: “Gird me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity, and extinguish within me the humors of concupiscence, that the virtues of continence and chastity may abide in me.”

The next vestment which the priest puts on, and which is also worn by the deacon and subdeacon, is the maniple, which is of the same material and color as the stole and chasuble. It is worn, as is well known, on the left arm, and is fastened just below the elbow by a tape or pin. It is not until the eighth or ninth century that any trace of the maniple is found. As its name—manipulus— indicates, it was originally simply a handkerchief for wiping away perspiration or the tears of devotion shed by the pious celebrant; but it has undergone various changes in the course of time, such as being enriched with ornaments, so that its original use has altogether been lost sight of, and it is now nothing more than an ornament. But the original use of the maniple is still referred to in the prayer recited by the priest while putting it on: “May I merit, O Lord, to bear the maniple of weeping and sorrow, that I may revive with joy the reward of labor.”

After the maniple comes the stole, a vestment which has undergone many changes, and has been the subject of no little controversy among liturgists. The word is derived from the Greek, and means a robe of any kind, while the Latin term designated the outer garment worn by women of rank. In the earlier ages it was frequently, and indeed generally, called the orarium, which means a handkerchief; and it is mentioned by this name as early as the middle of the fourth century in the decrees of the Council of Leodicea. From that time forward frequent mention is made of it in the canons of councils. But the first mention of it by the now familiar name of stole does not occur before the ninth century. Its use was gradually restricted both as to the functions in which it should be worn and the persons who were permitted to make use of it, till the present discipline was finally adopted. This was about the time of Charlemagne, that is, near the close of the eighth century. It is the most frequently worn of all the sacred vestments; and it is the privilege of the Pope to wear it all the time. With the adoption of the name stole that of orarium fell into disuse; but just why the one was substituted for the other it is at present impossible to determine.

Among the vestments the stole is the symbol of immortality, and also of the obedience of our divine Redeemer. The prayer recited while the priest vests himself with it refers both to the original signification of the Greek term and to the mystic meaning of the word. It reads: “Restore unto me, O Lord, the stole of immortality, which I lost by the fall of our first parents, that, although I am unworthy to approach Thy holy mysteries, I may, notwithstanding, merit an eternal reward.”

Lastly comes the chasuble, about which more has been written, wisely and unwisely, than about any other vestment. Its material, its shape, its size, its uses, etc., have been subjected to an endless torture. But, inasmuch as this essay is written for the general reader rather than for the learned antiquarian, such points only will be dwelt upon as are believed to be of general interest and instruction. The more learned will readily know where to look for fuller information. The word chasuble is of Latin origin, although it is not found in the writings of the classic authors of that vigorous and polished tongue. In its stead they use the word pœnula, which means a mantle or cloak, and was the outer garment worn by the Romans when on journeys or in military service. The Latin word casual, which is translated chasuble, is the diminutive of casa, and literally means a little house, because, in its original form, the garment covered the entire body, like a little house. The term is first met with in the will of Cæsarius of Arles, near the middle of the sixth century, and in the biography of his contemporary Fulgentius of Ruspe; but in both cases it means a garment used in every-day life. It is also called planeta, from a Greek word which signifies to wander, because, as St. Isidore of Seville remarks, its ample folds seem to wander over the body rather than to fit it closely. It was only in the early half of the sixth century that it became exclusively a sacerdotal vestment. It was then a very ample garment, having a hole in the centre for passing the head through. It retained this shape till about the eleventh century, when it began to undergo changes, the first of which was introduced for the sake of convenience, tbe sides being cut away to give the arms of the celebrant freer action. It is needless to enlarge on the numerous changes that have taken place in the form of the chasuble till at present it scarcely retains a vestige of its original appearance; of the attempts that have been made by well-meaning persons to bring it back to its primitive form; of the manner in which it came to be made of stiff material and ornamented; or of the many other points that might prove interesting and instructive to the learned, but which are of little practical use to the general reader. It remains to remark briefly on its mystic signification.

Early writers have attributed several mystic significations to the chasuble, based for the most part on the fact that it originally covered the entire body. The first and most generally adopted was charity; but it is also regarded as the emblem of justice, humility, and peace, which should, as it were, cover the priest as the minister of Him in whom all these virtues shone with a lustre infinitely perfect. But the prayer recited by the priest while vesting himself with it regards it rather as symbolical of the yoke of Christ. He says: “O Lord, who hast said, My yoke is sweet and My burden light, grant that I may so bear it as to obtain Thy grace. Amen.”

The cope, which is called pluviale in the Latin liturgical language, as a protection against rain, from the Latin word pluvial—rain—does not appear to have had its equivalent among the garments of the ancient Romans. But strictly speaking it is only another form of the chasuble, better adopted to processions and outdoor religious functions, and the cape on it is a remnant of the hood which those who wore it were formerly accustomed to draw over their heads in inclement weather. It is so well known to the faithful that nothing need be said of its form or material. It is not, however, an exclusively sacerdotal vestment, as it is worn by the chanters at Vespers, where Vespers are celebrated according to the strict requirements of the ceremonial. It would be difficult to determine the time when it became a vestment distinct in form and use from the chasuble; but it is mentioned in one of the Roman Ordos. No special blessing is given for the cope, and whether it is to be blessed or not is disputed by liturgical writers. Nor is any prayer to be recited by the priest while putting it on.4

The humeral, or shoulder-veil, is made of the same material as the cope, and is used by the subdeacon in solemn Masses to hold the paten, from the Offertory to the Pater Noster, in imitation of the Levites of the Old Law, who were not permitted to carry the sacred vessels till they had been wrapped up in the coverings by the priests. It is also worn by the priest while giving benediction with the Most Blessed Sacrament, and when carrying the same Holy Sacrament in procession. It is impossible to fix the date of its introduction; but from the use to which it is put by the subdeacon it or a substitute for it must have been early brought into requisition. No blessing is required for it, and nothing is said while putting it on.

Much more, however, is to be said of the surplice. This term, derived from the Latin word superpelicium, literally means a garment worn over another made of skins. It is related of many of the anchorites of the early ages that they had outer garments made of the skins of animals, as well as of other materials; and, indeed, it is but natural for the pioneers of any country, who have often to subsist to a great extent on the flesh of animals killed in the chase, to clothe themselves with the skins of the same animals. Persons familiar with the history of our country need not be told of this. Obeying this law of necessity, as well as carrying out a cherished spirit of poverty, it was but natural that the anchorites and monks of early times, who are well known to have been the pioneers of civilization as well as of religion in many parts of Europe, should, in the absence of a better outfit, have clothed themselves with the skins of the animals they were obliged to kill in order to prevent them from destroying their fields or flocks. These rustic garments were admirably suited to protect the monks in the north of Europe, or in other cold climates, from the severity of the winters, when they entered their chapels in the dead of night to recite the Divine Office. But their sense of what was becoming the house of God, however humble it may have been, and much more their ideas of propriety in approaching the sacraments, would suggest some sort of covering for this humble garb on such occasions. Hence the introduction and the name of surplice—something worn over this ruder garment of skins. The important Synod of Aix-la-Chapelle, held in 817, decreed that each monk should have two garments of fur. Over this the linen garment, or surplice, was worn; but it is uncertain when this latter custom was introduced, although it is mentioned by the Council of Coyaca, in 1050. Durandus, who flourished near the close of the thirteenth century, and who had a most extraordinary talent for discovering mystic significations, speaks of it as already ancient, though not universal. At first it was longer than at present, resembling rather an alb than a surplice; and it was made of linen instead of lace, as it is generally made in our day. In other words, the useful feature predominated over the ornamental, which is not the case in our time. The use of lace for the mere purpose of adding effect does not date further back, perhaps, than two centuries. At first it was the exception, now it is the rule.

In the conferring of Orders, the giving of the surplice with the right to wear it in religious functions is found in the conferring of tonsure, the step by which a person ceases to be a layman and becomes an ecclesiastic, and which is neither one of the Minor nor of the Holy Orders. The bishop recites the following words, adapted from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (iv. 24): “May the Lord clothe thee with the new man, who according to God is created in justice and in the holiness of truth.”

No blessing is required for the surplice; and it is needless to remark that the altar-boys of our churches, who wear it in serving at Mass or Vespers, do so by a privilege which custom has sanctioned and of which the Church tacitly approves.

1 Session xxii., chapter v., Waterworth’s translation.
2 “History of the Mass,” p. 63.
3 Decrees, January 22, 1701; January 8, 1709; and December 28, 1862.
4 London Tablet, 1891, p. 941.