Vestments Used by the Catholic Priest at Mass

By Rev. John J. Burke.

BEFORE entering upon an explanation of the ceremonies of the Mass, which is our principal act of public worship, let us examine the meaning of the vestments worn by the priest during the celebration of that august sacrifice. First, it is well to remember that these vestments come down to us from the time of the apostles, and have the weight of antiquity hanging upon them. Hence, if they did not demand our respect as memorials of Christ, they are at least deserving of attention on account of their antiquity.

The 28th chapter of Exodus tells us the sacred vestments God wished the priests of the Old Law to wear during the public worship. "And these shall be the vestments which they shall make: a rational and an ephod, a tunic and a straight linen garment, a mitre and a girdle. They shall make the holy vestments for thy brother Aaron and his sons, that they may do the office of priesthood unto Me." As God in the Old Law prescribed vestments for the priests, so the Church, guided by God, prescribes sacred vestments to be worn by the priest of the New Law while engaged in the sacred mysteries.

The long black garment which the priest wears around the church in all the sacred functions is called a cassock. Kings and officers of the army wear a special uniform when performing their public duties; priests wear cassocks and other special garments when performing their public duties. These vestments are used to excite the minds of the faithful to the contemplation of heavenly things.

Who, for example, can behold the cross on the chasuble the priest wears without thinking of all Christ suffered for us on the cross? As the priest in celebrating Mass represents the person of Christ, and the Mass represents His passion, the vestments he wears represent those with which Christ was clothed at the time of the passion.

The first vestment the priest puts on over the cassock is called an amice. It is made of linen, and reminds us of the veil that covered the face of Jesus when His persecutors struck Him. (Luke xxii. 64.)

When the priest puts on the amice he first places it on his head, thus recalling to mind the crown of thorns that pierced the head of Jesus.

The alb (from albus, white) represents the white garment with which Christ was vested by Herod when sent back to Pilate dressed as a fool. (Luke xxii. 11.)

White is emblematic of purity. Hence the wearer is reminded of that purity of mind and body which he should have who serves the altar of the Most High.

The cincture, or girdle, as well as the maniple and stole, represent the cords and bands with which Christ was bound in the different stages of His passion. St. Matthew says in the 22d verse of the 27th chapter, "They brought Him bound and delivered Him to Pontius Pilate, the governor."

The chasuble, or outer vestment the priest wears, represents the purple garment with which Christ was clothed as a mock king. "And they clothed Him with purple" (Mark xv. 17). Upon the back of the chasuble you see a cross. This represents the cross Christ bore on His sacred shoulders to Calvary, and upon which He was crucified.

In these vestments, that is, in the chasublestole, and maniple, the Church uses five colors—white, red, purple, green, and black.

White, which is symbolic of purity and innocence, is used on the feasts of Our Lord, of the Blessed Virgin, of the angels, and of the saints that were not martyrs.

Red, the symbol of fortitude, is used on the feast of Pentecost, of the Exaltation of the Cross, of the apostles and martyrs.

Purple, or violet (the color of penance), is used in Advent and Lent.

Green (the color of hope) is used on all Sundays when no special feast is celebrated, except the Sundays of Lent and Advent.

Black (the color of mourning) is used on Good Friday and during the celebration of Mass for the dead.

Thus we see that each vestment and color used has a special significance.

All are calculated to attract our attention, elevate our minds to God, and fill us with a desire to do something for Him Who has done so much for us—to at least keep His commandments.

One word about the use of Latin in the celebration of Mass will perhaps be appropriate here. History tells us that when Christianity was established the Roman Empire had control of nearly all of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Wherever the Roman flag floated to the breeze the Latin language was spoken, just as English is spoken where the sovereign of Great Britain or the President of the United States holds sway. The Church naturally adopted in her liturgy the language spoken by the people.

In the beginning of the fifth century vast hordes of barbarians began to come from the north of Europe and spread desolation over the fairest portions of the Roman Empire. Soon the Empire was broken up. New kingdoms began to be formed, new languages to be developed. The Latin finally ceased to be a living language. The Church retained it in her liturgy, 1st, because, as her doctrine and liturgy are unchangeable, she wishes the language of her doctrine and liturgy to be unchangeable; 2d, because, as the Church is spread over the whole world, embracing in her fold children of all climes, nations, and languages—as she is universal—she must have a universal language; 3d, because the Catholic clergy are in constant communication with the Holy See, and this requires a uniform language.

Besides, when a priest says Mass the people, by their English Missals or other prayer-books, are able to follow him from beginning to end.

The Mass is a sacrifice. The prayers of the Mass are offered to God. Hence when the priest says Mass he is speaking not to the people, but to God, to whom all languages are equally intelligible. Are not these sufficient reasons for the use of the Latin language? Are not good Catholics more attentive, more devout at Mass than others at their prayer-meetings? The good Catholic knows that the Mass represents the passion and death of Christ; that the passion and death of Christ are the sinner's only refuge, the just man's only hope; that it can not but be good and wholesome to turn our minds and our hearts toward this subject; that frequent meditation on Christ's passion will move us to avoid sin, which caused it; and that nothing can more efficaciously cause us to think of Christ's passion and death than the holy sacrifice of the Mass.


This is taken from Reasonableness of Catholic Ceremonies and Practices.





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