February 5, 2022 Column Father De Celles

Mass Vestments. Normally the priest wears simple black clothing with a white collar. Black is the absence of color, so the black clothing represents that in himself the priest is nothing compared to the light of Christ that must shine forth from him.

            But during the Mass that changes. Here we are reminded of the priest’s sacramental gift of standing “in persona Christi,” in the person of Christ, and so, as an instrument of His power and grace, the priest dons the sacred vestments. Unlike his simple black daily vestiture, these vestments symbolize that he is acting for Christ in the most profound way, and so should be beautiful, giving glory to God and drawing us closer to Him.

            Cassock. The cassock is not really a liturgical vestment, but is the traditional daily “habit” of the priest, so it is normally worn by the priest when serving in the sanctuary. Other ministers, i.e., servers, also where the cassock at Mass. It is not a “dress,” but a robe or coat, with origins similar to the coats (e.g. today’s suitcoat) worn by lay men.

Amice. The amice is the first vestment the priest puts on for Mass. It is a piece of linen or cotton cloth, about 30” by 20”, that is draped over the shoulders and wrapped around the neck to completely cover the collar, and tied in place by two attached cords/ribbons that tie in front of the chest.

            The origins of the amice date at least to the 10th century, as it was probably introduced to cover the regular clothing of the priest, to protect the costlier vestments from perspiration, and as a winter muffler protecting the throat of the priest for singing the Mass. It was also often ample enough to be used to cover the head of priest at certain points of the Mass, like a hood. From this it derives its spiritual symbolism as a spiritual helmet of the “armor of God.” So today, the priest lays the amice first over his head before sliding it to his shoulders, as he prays, “Place upon me, O Lord, the helmet of salvation, that I may overcome the assaults of the devil.”

            Note the amice is required, unless the alb is designed to “completely cover the ordinary clothing at the neck” (i.e., the black and white “roman collar” of the priest should not be visible).

            Alb. Next the priest puts on the alb, a white lightweight robe (preferably of cotton or linen) with sleeves, reaching just above the ground. The word “alb” comes from “alba,” Latin for “white.” It is the most ancient and common of priestly vestments, and represents the baptismal garment of the priest, signifying that he is first a member of the baptized before he is a priest. In a similar way the priest and altar servers will wear a surplice (the shorter white vestment) to cover their cassocks. The practical purpose of the alb is to entirely cover the priests normal clothing. The spiritual meaning of baptism is expressed in the vesting prayer, “Purify me, Lord, and cleanse my heart so that, washed in the Blood of the Lamb, I may enjoy eternal bliss.”

            Cincture. He then puts on the cincture, or belt. It is a cord, normally made of cotton, and white in color, although it may be of the same color as the chasuble. Practically it is meant to pull the alb (and the stole) close to the body. Spiritually it signifies the priest preparing to courageously serve the Lord, as ancient soldiers would gather up their robes at the waist so as not to encumber their movements (“gird your loins for battle”). From this it also symbolizes chastity and self-control, as the priest prays, “Lord, gird me with the cincture of purity and extinguish my fleshly desires, that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide within me.”

            Stole. The stole comes next. It is a strip of fabric, usually two to four inches wide, that hangs around the priest’s neck and down his chest to below his waist. It is usually of the same fabric, design and color of the chasuble. A small cross is generally embroidered at both ends and in the middle (at the back of the neck). This is also of very ancient origin, as the stole was used as a symbol of rank or office in the Roman Empire. Thus, the priest’s stole symbolizes his  authority and dignity as a priest and is worn any time he exercises his liturgical role as priest, i.e., during confession, assisting in distributing Communion. Traditionally it was worn crisscrossing his chest, as once Roman soldiers wore crisscrossed belts: one holding his sword (a symbol of the Word of God), and the other holding a purse with supplies (symbolic of feeding his people). The priest kisses the stole as he puts it on, praying, “Lord, restore the stole of immortality, which I lost through the collusion of our first parents, and, unworthy as I am to approach Thy sacred mysteries, may I yet gain eternal joy.”

Maniple. This vestment is about yard long and 3-5 inches wide and is worn over the priest’s left forearm. Historically, it probably derives from the small towel or handkerchief, a “mappula,” than ancient Romans wore on their left arms to wipe away sweat or tears. St. Alphonsus Liguori tells us that it, “was introduced for the purpose of wiping away the tears of devotion that flowed from the eyes of the priest….during the celebration of the Mass.” The maniple is not required in the Ordinary Form of Mass, and so you seldom see it worn today. Even so, it was never abrogated and may still be worn. One reason it fell into disuse is that it is a bit cumbersome/awkward to wear. But this can serve as a constant reminder that priestly ministry must involve hard work and suffering (sweat and tears), and that the priest must say Mass with profound reverence and devotion (“tears of devotion”). And so the priest prays, “May I deserve, O Lord, to bear the maniple of weeping and sorrow in order that I may joyfully reap the reward of my labors.”

            Chasuble. Last but not least, the chasuble is put on. This is also ancient, taken from the ancient Roman garment worn as an overcoat. In the church, it originally had the practical purpose of keeping the priest warm during Mass, but continued in use as vestment covering and surpassing the other vestments in beauty as the symbol of charity. As St. Paul writes, “”Above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfection” (Col 3:14). Moreover, as charity it symbolizes the “yoke” of Christ, Who tells us, “My yoke is sweet and My burden light.” And so the priest prays, “O Lord, who has said, ‘My yoke is sweet and My burden light,’ grant that I may so carry it as to merit Thy grace.” Note, the stole may never be worn over the chasuble, lest the symbol be that the priest’s authority is more important than his charity.

Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles