There is a tendency in the modern world to minimize the use of vestments in the liturgy. In my early days as a Catholic, it was not unusual to see a priest celebrate Mass wearing only an alb and a stole. Often, this was taken as a sign of humility on the part of the celebrant. It is, in fact, exactly the opposite.
To decide that you know better than the Church – that you know better than the rubrics of the Missal or the full weight of liturgical law and tradition – is not a mark of humility. It is naked pride.
Saint Benedict says it plainly: “The first degree of humility is obedience without delay” (Holy Rule, Ch. v).
Dear priest, the Mass is not about you. It is about Christ. It is not you we clothe in beauty and majesty, but rather Christ our High Priest and King. So suck it up. We are all called to pick up our cross and follow Him. If this is yours, pick it up with joy.
It seems that the ultimate expression of this minimalism has bourne full flower in the Anglican Communion, for this week the General Synod of the Church of England has dispensed with the mandatory use vestments altogether.
Clergy have been given the go-ahead to ditch their robes and dress down for services following a vote by the church’s General Synod.
Priests should be allowed flexibility to wear what they want to make the church more accessible and relevant to the modern world, members said.
This means that clergy are now officially allowed to lead services in casual clothing such as jeans and trainers.
The changes would help the church by “reflecting the way society has gone in the way of informality”, said Leyland vicar Alistair McHaffie.
This is entirely wrong-headed, and I am grateful that the Catholic Church has never given the slightest official nod of moving in this direction.
It is the right of the community of Christ’s faithful that especially in the Sunday celebration there should customarily be true and suitable sacred music, and that there should always be an altar, vestments and sacred linens that are dignified, proper, and clean, in accordance with the norms.
People are rarely attracted by the slovenly and informal. It is the mystery and majesty (to quote our new pastor) of the celebration of the Eucharist that draws people to the liturgy. That draws people to the Church.
And, as the Second Vatican Council reminds us, the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life1.”
Coincidentally, my attention was also drawn today to an essay by Brian Williams (Liturgy Guy) about liturgical vestments and the glorification of God. The entire article is worth a read. Of particular interest is this quote from Rev. David Baier O.F.M. on the purpose of vestments:
The principal purpose of liturgy is the glorification of God. The liturgical vestments must also contribute to the glory of God. Our internal acts must find expression in our outward appearance, for man is not only spirit, but also flesh. Acts of adoration and reverence, which proceed directly from the soul, are expressed by acts of the body, such as genuflecting and inclinations.
Likewise, the garments worn by clerics in presenting themselves before God to give Him public honor are an outward expression of their feeling of reverence in the presence of God. In this respect they are no less a means of glorifying God than the bending of the knee and similar acts of respect.
So vestments should not only be merely worn, they should also be beautiful. Dignified.
Vestments, like everything else we use in the sacred liturgy, should demonstrate in a concrete way the honour and glory we joyfully owe to God.
In vesting themselves with the liturgical costumes, the sacred ministers cannot but be reminded that they are withdrawing themselves temporarily from the world to enter the sanctuary of God and devote themselves entirely to His service.
During Holy Mass we ourselves participate in some small way in the great Heavenly Liturgy, in that moment where heaven and earth kiss, and we must, therefore, endow our earthly liturgy with as much beauty as we can.
Beauty, then, is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God Himself and His revelation. These considerations should make us realize the care which is needed, if the liturgical action is to reflect its innate splendour.
The Church so values its vesture, that there are special blessings that must be done before a vestment is used in the sacred liturgy.
Indeed, there are even vesting prayers that one prays before donning any piece of vesture. We have them hanging up in our sacristies for use by the Priest and other liturgical ministers. Here are the PDFs we made, if you’re interested.
Sadly, my parish of Holy Rosary does not own particularly beautiful vestments. For years, perhaps decades, we’ve been mostly reliant on our pastor bringing his own vestments.
Oh, we have a few things here and there, including a lovely white Mass set (with matching baldachin, no less) that dates back to at least the 1940s. You can see them in the photo of our first annual Corpus Christi procession to the right.
We also have a red chasuble and stole with matching cope that is quite nice, and a brand new violet cope for use during Lenten and Advent Vespers.
While we have other vestments, nothing matches and nothing really rises to the level of “beautiful”. Some of them are solid and serviceable, but let’s just say that our Liturgy Commission has had an action item of “new priestly vestments” near the top of our “to-do” list for quite some time.
And the need has now become acute.
On Saturday, Father Wagner gave the Liturgy Commission permission to begin raising money for new vestments. Stay tuned!
- Lumen Gentium, Ch. 11.