Catholics who have the opportunity of participating at Mass in various churches will certainly notice a variety in the vestments worn by the celebrants. An amice of plain cloth first may be placed around the priest’s neck and shoulders. Then, a full-length white alb is secured in place by a cincture or rope, most often white, around the priest’s waist. This fastener also holds in place a stole matching the color of the day, worn over the priest’s shoulders and extending below the waist, symbolizing a priest’s unique role in the Christian community. Placed lastly over all these traditional garments is the chasuble, a cape or mantle, again matching the color of the day and completing the presbyteral attire.
The chasuble, or outer garment, is the most obvious vesture witnessed by worshippers at Mass. Up until the mid-twentieth century, the most frequent chasuble design in the United States was labelled “Roman.” A Roman style chasuble consists of an oblong piece of fabric hanging from the priest’s shoulders to just above his knees. This style vestment was often made of silken material and heavily ornamented. Hence it was sometimes indented at the shoulders to give the celebrant more room to maneuver during Mass. The custom of having an altar boy hold up the edge of priest’s chasuble when going up steps or genuflecting also derives from the weighty nature of this hefty apparel.
In the mid-twentieth century, the “Gothic” chasuble was welcomed by many into the American liturgical scene. The full Gothic chasuble extends from the opening at the priest’s neck to his wrists and often down to his ankles. With the priest’s hands fully extended, a Gothic chasuble appears as a half-circle. There might be some trim on the edges of the garment and often a liturgical symbol on the front (or the back) of the attire. For those who found Gothic attire too cumbersome, a chasuble that extended only to the priest’s elbows, (labelled “semi-Gothic”) was handily available. Probably these Gothic vestments are the style most frequently seen in American churches today, although Roman vestments have been resurrected by some American clergy as symbolic of happier ecclesiastical times.
As the last century experienced the challenging transition from the Tridentine era to the Vatican II era, much informality was evidenced within the celebration of Mass. Chalices made from material of little substance, novel Eucharistic prayers, loaf-like Communion breads, and other assorted liturgical abuses were not infrequent. And forsaking the chasuble in favor a simple (but always colorful) stole was endorsed by some as a statement of community with the laity, a democratic gesture that renounced the triumphalism of the pre-Vatican II church.
But let’s not sell the chasuble short, whether it be Roman or Gothic. Jerusalem-based Dominican Friar Anthony Giambrone has traced convincingly the ceremonial roots of the New Testament priesthood back to the Old Testament priesthood. Father sees the liturgical garments worn by the High Priest when serving at the Jerusalem temple as an anticipation of garments worn by Jesus Christ himself at key moments in his ministry and in the priestly attire worn now by the Catholic clergy at Mass. Saints Matthew, Mark, and Luke deliberately include a glowing description of the clothing worn by Christ at his Transfiguration: “and his clothes became as white as the light” (Matt. 17); “His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them” (Mark 9); “his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.” (Luke 9) Yet, it was also at this moment that Jesus began to reveal the sacrificial nature of his earthly ministry: “…the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” (Mt.17:11) Christ’s gleaming attire testified to his priestly work just as the Jewish high priest’s temple apparel affirmed his ranking ministry. Grand clothing underlined a priestly message.
St. John finds similar significance in other attire worn by Jesus: the seamless garment. The under vestment of the Jewish high priest worn at Temple sacrifices was made from a whole piece of cloth and was put on over the head. It was seamless. On Golgatha, when Jesus offered his life as a sacrifice, he had worn a seamless garment: “But the tunic was without seam, woven from top to bottom.” (Jn19:23) Again, a garment brings out the priestly nature of Jesus’ work. Calvary was indeed a sacrifice atoning for sin.
Proper attire at the altar today is a powerful statement about the priestly ministry that reverts certainly to Christ and even into the Old Testament. Liturgical apparel is not mere finery. It is a visual assertion that sacrifice has always been integral to God’s message from Sinai to Calvary to daily Mass.
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