The Vesture of the Ministers: Part I

Discourses on Solemn Mass: Part II

Throughout the ages, it has been natural that man will don special vesture to denote that he is exercising a public function (or office) that transcends his own person. As witnessed via the Old Testament, Almighty God Himself prescribed a type of dress that the priests, Levites and High Priest were to wear while ministering in the Temple at Jerusalem.

Unlike with the Old Covenant, apparently the Holy Apostles were not minutely instructed as to what type or form of vesture they should wear while celebrating the Divine Mysteries. Thus to our knowledge, it seems they most likely wore the usual clothes of civilians, though perhaps of better quality to signify the importance of the fractio panis.

But over time, while fashions changed, the ancient forms of civilian dress were retained by the Church which she slowly developed into the types and forms that we still see worn today during the sacred liturgy. What is also interesting is that while the vestment forms slightly differ, the types are nearly identical in the West and the East (e.g., all have a type of stole), thus giving another attestation to the Church’s universality.

In describing the various vestments, we will only briefly touch on their history, while giving the typical symbolism ascribed to each – though it should be noted that the significations attributed to each piece came much later and so were not the cause of their origin.

We will start with the vestments worn by the sacred ministers (celebrant, deacon and subdeacon) and in vesting order. It begins with those made of linen, a costly fabric that in ancient times was associated with the rich – it was also prescribed by God to be utilized in various ways in the Temple rites and was the textile for Our Lord’s burial cloth, the famous Shroud of Turin.

First there is the linen amice, a rectangular piece with two long ribbons attached, which is kissed and placed over the head momentarily, then the long side with the ribbons is tucked around the neck thus hiding the upper portion of the clerical “street clothes” (the cassock and clerical collar). This allows the amice to act as a type of neckerchief (from whence it most likely originated), thus protecting the vestments. The two ribbons are then crossed in front of the torso, drawn behind and back around to the front – much like a trussed-up lamb – and tied. In monastic orders, the back portion of the amice is arranged and worn as a hood in procession, thus perhaps owing to its symbolic reference as the “helmet of salvation” – however, the secular clergy use the biretta as their head covering instead.

Next is the alb, a long white linen tunic that closes around the neck (thus covering the flattened back of the amice), whose hem should barely touch the cleric’s shoes – again, covering his “street dress”. The alb signifies how the ministers should be clothed in innocence or purity. Today, it is common to see the hem and sleeves adorned with lace, though this practice is of a rather later date. In medieval times (before lace was invented), the festive alb was adorned with a square of colored fabric near the hem and embroidered standing collar – sometimes the cuffs were likewise decorated. While the use of lace is allowed, it should be graduated in length according to the degree of the solemnity, though being a symbol of joy, it should be omitted for Masses of a penitential or mourning character.

In concluding this discourse, it is appropriate to mention here that the surplice worn by the acolytes is a shortened version of the tunic worn by the sacred ministers. This practice continues with certain religious orders (such as the Benedictines and Dominicans), where the acolytes continue to wear the alb and with a cincture. In the secular Roman Rite though, the plain linen surplice is the common outer vestment of the altar server, its pure whiteness signifying the putting on the New Man (Who is Christ).

To be continued, the vesture of the ministers of Solemn Mass….

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