History of Liturgical Vestments in the Catholic Church

The liturgical vestments that are worn by the priest and deacon during Mass have evolved to become a symbol of the Catholicism as a whole. Dating back to the Old Testament, the priests wore a different kind of vestment, not at all related to what the clergy in the Catholic Church uses today. Because of the time differences between the era of the Old and New Testaments, the vestments that the ordained in the Catholic Church wear today are based on the Graeco-Roman style, as opposed to the earlier Jewish rabbis cloak. Now, the priest wears the cincture, alb, amice, chasuble and stole.

The amice is a rectangular piece of white cloth that goes over the head, under the neck, and ties around to the back two white long ribbons. It is a small piece of cloth that is meant to cover any normal clothing that is worn underneath the priest’s garments. It also catches any perspiration that may form under the head and neck. During the Graeco-Roman times, it was a head covering, worn under the helmet, that was meant to absorb the sweat that formed while the soldier was active. It caught the sweat that was originally going to run down the soldier’s face, and potentially into his eyes, blinding him.

An alb is a medium length white garment that reaches from over the shoulders down to the shin. It is similar to the soutane, a cloak that was worn in the middle east and was also the commonplace outer cloak worn by citizens and soldiers during the Graeco-Roman era. The majority of modern garments, made in the likeness of the alb, has a stiff collar that removes the need to wear an amice underneath.

The cincture is a rope with two long tassels at each end, tying around the waist, that monks and friars use regularly. During the more standard Novus Ordo mass, the cincture is abandoned. However, during more traditional masses such as the low Latin mass, it is used by the priest, worn over the alb. In the Roman world, the cincture was used as a belt. It is referred to in a prayer that is said before the priest or deacon puts on his garments. “Gird me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity and extinguish in my heart the fire of concupiscence so that, the virtue of continence and chastity always abiding in my heart, I may better serve Thee.”

The stole is a colorful and adorned garment, carrying the likeness of a long scarf, that is secured by the cincture, and was traditionally placed across the chest in the form of X, that being St. Andrew’s Cross.

And finally, the chasuble is a colorful garment worn atop everything else. The name of the chasuble comes from the Latin word casula, which means house. It was similar to a cape, because it covered the rest of the clothing, and was usually made to be quite thicker. Regarding spirituality, it is meant to remind us of the priest’s charity.

You can see the various parts of the vestments as they are now worn demonstrated below:

During the dark and middle ages, two interpretations of the meaning of the liturgical vestments arose, those being polar opposites. One of them, the more popular, compared the individual pieces of the garments to symbols of the Passion; the amice being the blindfold, and the alb acting as the garment that Jesus was given after the scourging, and so forth.

In the end, the vestments serve two purposes; “These should, therefore, symbolize the function of each ministry; However at the same time the vestments should also contribute to the beauty of the rite.” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, #335) The vestments also inspire the priest, and all of the faithful that gaze upon it, to meditate on their rich symbolism.

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