The beautiful, ornate vestments worn by priests are one of the most visual elements of the Mass. Different colors and decorations, often embroidered in rich, glimmering fabrics add to the mystery of the Eucharist, remind us of the season we are in, and enhance our experience of the celebration.
Vestments signify the role the priest plays in the life of the Church.
But how much do you know about those symbolic garments?
What are the vestments called?
All priests must wear three garments to celebrate Mass, according to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal.
ALB: The alb is a white, long-sleeved garment that is cinched at the waist. It derives from the classic Roman tunic and its name comes from the Latin for white, albus, according to author Sarah Bailey in her book Sacred Vestments. This was one of the earliest garments adopted by Christians, primarily because of its similarity to much of the clothing that was worn in the first centuries of the church.
STOLE: Evans writes that the stole, which is draped around the neck, has its origins in the Roman orarium, which was worn by people to designate their membership in certain organizations and rank within the group. Deacons in Eastern churches adopted the orarium as a vestment in the fourth century, and Western churches adopted it a little later. The term “stole” did not come into common use until the 12th century. By the 16th century, the stole was recognizable as a vestment worn by bishops, priests and deacons. Priests wear a stole around the neck and hanging in front of the chest.
CHASUBLE: This is a circular garment that reaches the hands and has an open neck. It is the most decorative item worn by the priest and is placed over the alb and stole. It evolved from long outer garments worn for travel during the later years of the Roman Empire, and started in a poncho-style known originally as a casula, or “little house” in Latin. The shape of the chasuble has evolved over the centuries.
What color should vestments be?
According to the General Instruction (345), different colors are worn “to give more effective expression … whether to the specific character of the mysteries of the faith to be celebrated or to a sense of Christian life’s passage through the liturgical year.”
Specific colors have been used for different liturgical seasons since at least the 12th century in Rome. The main colors for the Roman Rite were established during the office of Pope Pius V in the 16th century.
Father Ray Carlo, pastor of Corpus Christi Church in Lexington, said the priest’s vestments can help the faithful be more aware of the significance of a celebration.
“It’s really a wonderful tradition to have the changing colors,” he said. “For instance, we just had Pentecost Sunday, and the red vestments of Pentecost help remind the people of the fire of the Holy Spirit. It adds a lot to the celebration.”
Here are the traditional colors and when they can be worn as described in the General Instruction (346):
WHITE: During Christmas, Easter, the feast of the Holy Trinity, and celebrations of Mary and saints who were not martyrs. White can also be worn on All Saints, Nativity of St. John the Baptist, and feasts of St. John the Evangelist, Chair of St. Peter and Conversion of St. Paul. It is sometimes worn at funerals.
RED: On Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Pentecost, celebrations of the Passion, and for saints who were martyrs.
GREEN: Ordinary Time.
VIOLET OR PURPLE: During Advent or Lent. Also, it is sometimes used in Masses for the dead.
BLACK: Funerals or other Masses for the dead.
ROSE: The Third Sunday of Advent, also known as Gaudete Sunday, and the fourth Sunday of Lent, or Laetare Sunday.
GOLD OR SILVER: In U.S. dioceses, these can be worn on solemn occasions.
BLUE: Blue vestments are not generally approved. On Marian feast days or at Masses dedicated to Mary, priests may wear white vestments with blue trim or ornamentation.
Where do priests buy their vestments?
Most of the time, they are bought from stores or supply houses that specialize in clerical vestments. Parishes provide vestments for all priests, but priests may also purchase them using their own money. Religious orders also make vestments, including cloistered groups of nuns and monks, said Father Timothy Gahan, pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Spartanburg. Sometimes the garments are made to order for the priest and given as gifts by family or friends, especially at ordinations.
Father Gahan was given two sets of vestments made for him when he was ordained in 2007.
“One set was made by the mother of Father Jeffrey Kirby, who made a set for all six of us who were ordained that year,” he said. “Another was given to me by a friend who had them made by a group of Vietnamese nuns.”
Father Gahan said he used those vestments when he celebrated his first Mass that year.
As for Father Carlo, he has two sets of vestments, one for regular use and one for Marian celebrations. They are very special to him because they were made by his late mother.
When do priests get their vestments?
The alb is worn by deacons and priests. Then, at his ordination, a priest is vested with a stole and chasuble after the Prayer of Ordination. Father Carlo said vesting is customarily done by one or two fellow priests who have played an important role, such as a friend, teacher or spiritual advisor.