Last year, when the School of Religion classes were still being held in the Church, the kids would see me putting on and taking off my vestments before and after Mass. I was told that one of them went home and told his mom that I have a whole closet full of fancy capes and things, which is exactly right, they are basically just fancy robes and capes and things, but they’re also more than that. The word vestments simply means clothes. Chasuble is an ancient word for a coat, cincture is an old Latin word for belt, and cope comes from the same Latin word as cape, because that’s what it is. So, why don’t we just wear normal clothes for Mass? That’s what most protestant ministers do, but Catholic and Orthodox clergy, who can trace their origins back to the apostles themselves, wear fancy vestments for Mass and for the sacraments.
We wear vestments because it’s not about the priest, it’s about the sacrament. The vestments cover the priests own clothes from his collar all the way down to his ankles, and bishops even wear hats for Mass, to cover even more of themselves. The priest, in the Mass, is acting in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. He acts in the name of Christ and not in his own name and with Christ’s authority, not his own authority.
Wearing special clothing for religious rites goes all the way back to the Old Testament to the high priest Aaron. God gave the design for those vestments to Moses and they showed that Aaron stood before God on behalf of the people. Catholic vestments have meaning as well. The amice goes around the neck to cover the collar of the shirt, and it symbolizes the “helmet of salvation” (Eph 6:17). The white robe, traditionally made of linen (but not necessarily now), is the bottom layer of vestments and goes down to the ankle; it represents purity and reminds the priest or deacon of their baptism. The alb is secured by a rope called a cincture which represents continence and chastity.
Over the alb is worn the stole, in the color of the day or season, which represents the authority of the priest or deacon before God. The priests stole is worn hanging straight down, like the Jewish’s priests prayer shawl, and the deacon’s stole is worn across the chest, like the cord that held a Roman legionnaire’s sword. The prayer which is prayed while donning the stole reminds the clergyman of their need for God’s mercy. Over everything else, a deacon wears a dalmatic and a priest wears a chasuble in the color of the day or season. The deacon’s dalmatic represents asking the Lord to cover him in salvation, joy, and justice. The priest’s chasuble represents asking the Lord to cover him in charity or love. Nothing is allowed to be worn over the chasuble, as charity and love should go over everything else.
As we don our vestments and pray the appropriate vesting prayers, we also spiritually prepare ourselves to offer the sacrifice of the Mass, so the vestments, in addition to showing that the Mass is not about ourselves and symbolizing the role of the priest and deacon, also remind us that we are doing the most important thing that we will ever do, uniting ourselves to the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ through the Most Holy Eucharist.
Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.