HAT IS THE PURPOSE of sacred vestments, and what is their origin? These are questions that most ordinary Catholics probably could not answer. A very good (and very concise) explanation of liturgical vesture is given by Fr. Mauro Gagliardi, consultor to the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff (available from the Vatican webpage). His article is well worth a look.
The Roman Rite could have developed in such a way that the Sacraments are celebrated by priests who dress in the clothes common to their culture, but it did not. Instead, a system of sacred vestments worn only for worship arose. I would argue that this development has two major advantages over the wearing of profane clothing.
First, wearing sacred garments reserved for the liturgy helps the sacred ministers to adopt a sense of detachment from the secular sphere and the ordinary concerns of daily life. The external vesture, in other words, produces a positive interior effect.
Secondly, sacred vestments serve to emphasize the ministerial role of the one who wears them. As the above-mentioned Vatican webpage puts it:
One might say that the “camouflaging” of the minister’s body by the vestments depersonalizes him in a way; it is that healthy depersonalization that de-centers the celebrating minister and recognizes the true protagonist of the liturgical action: Christ. The form of the vestments, therefore, says that the liturgy is celebrated in persona Christi and not in the priest’s own name. He who performs a liturgical function does not do so as a private person, but as a minister of the Church and an instrument in the hands of Jesus Christ.
These are two of the strongest reasons why the Church adopted sacred vestments for the liturgy and continues their usage to the modern day.
Clerical vestments derive from the regular clothing of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In the earliest days of the Church, therefore, it was not the external form of the vestments that distinguished them from secular clothing; it was, rather, the quality of the garments. Only the highest quality fabrics and handiwork were used for liturgical vestments, and these vestments were used only for worship.
Later, after invasions, demographic shifts, and the simple passage of time, the common dress among Westerners underwent alterations. Clerical garb and liturgical vestments, however, remained unchanged. Secular clothing was thereby further distinguished from liturgical vesture.
Then, in the Carolingian period (circa 8th Century), new distinctions arose within the liturgical garments. These changes were meant to distinguish the three levels of Holy Orders (for example, chasubles as different from dalmatics). It was in this time that the sacred vestments reached their definitive form, remaining essentially unchanged in the centuries since.
Each of the vestments worn by the priest at Mass is accompanied by a prayer to be said as it is donned. These prayers are biblically, theologically, and spiritually quite rich. Over the coming weeks, I will present these vesting prayers along with a reflection on the prayer, itself, and the significance of the particular vestment.
Part 1 • Introduction
Part 2 • The Hand Washing
Part 3 • The Amice
Part 4 • The Alb
Part 5 • The Cincture
Part 6 • The Maniple
Part 7 • The Stole
Part 8 • The Chasuble