Wednesday, 2 June 2010

The vestments of the traditional Roman rite

The vestments worn by the clergy of our rite are for the most part very ancient. Most of them derive from the normal wear of ancient Romans, and have acquired a symbolism over the centuries. In the tenth century Bishop Ratherius forbade any priest to celebrate Mass without wearing amice, alb, stole, maniple and chasuble.

The Amice
A rectangle of white linen with two tapes, one at each of its top corners. The priest places it on his head in commemoration of the fact that it originates as a headcovering. He then lowers it onto his shoulders and secures it by tying it around his waist with the tapes. Monks and friars wear, the monastic amice which is made in the shape of a hood. Its origins as a headcovering are recalled in the prayer the priest says as he puts it on, in which he refers to it as "the helmet of salvation".

The Alb

Originally the everyday garment of the ancient Romans. At first, it was sleeveless, but as it comes down to us, it has close sleeves. This linen garment the name of which comes from the Latin albus, white and it is now always that colour, although during the middle ages coloured silk or linen was sometimes worn, generally with the disapproval of the bishops. The alb is probably the vestment which has come nearest to keeping its ancient shape as a simple, linen tunic reaching to the ankles.

It is worn by the priest under his chasuble, by the deacon under his dalmatic and by the subdeacon under his tunicle. On feasts, the alb is customary trimmed with lace, but with black or violet vestments, plain linen alone is worn.
The Girdle
The girdle or cincture is a rope belt, with a tassel at each end, used to tie the alb into the waist. It is made of white linen thread, although may be of the same colour as the sacred vestments. The prayer the priest says when tying it around his waist asks for chastity.
The Stole

This is now a scarf like vestment of silk fabric and of the liturgical colour of the day. There is considerable uncertainty as to the origin of this vestment. One opinion is that, like the maniple it was at first a sort of handkerchief, its alternative name orarium suggests its purpose was to wipe the face. It is also suggested as being a neck cloth.

A further theory is that it was the decorated edge of the toga. The toga was a long, semi-circular garment which was worn falling down the front from the left shoulder, passed down the back of the wearer, the other end being brought under the right arm, and thrown back over the left shoulder to fall down the wearer's back. It was of obligation as the outdoor garment of all adult male Roman citizens, it was their distinguishing garment.

In the later Empire, it fell into disuse among the ordinary people, but remained the obligatory, formal garment of magistrates. It is suggested that, for convenience and comfort, the toga came to be made of thinner and lighter material with only its decorative border being of any weight. The thin material was then folded behind the border and eventually was dispensed with altogether.

The fact that eastern rite deacons wear their stoles in just the same manner the toga was worn, and that the stole became a symbol of authority, lends weight to this theory. Because it is a symbol of authority, popes down the ages have worn a stole at all times, bishops too wear it quite frequently, but priests wear it differently from bishops, crossed on the breast while bishops wear it straight down, and priests only wear it for Mass and when giving the sacraments.

Exceptionally, a priest who is preaching in the presence of a bishop wears a stole, indicating that he is exercising the bishop's teaching authority. Other preachers should not wear the stole.

Deacons also wear a stole, but again differently from other clerics. The diaconal stole is worn over the left shoulder, across the body, both in front and behind and being secured under the right arm. Eastern rite deacons wear it over their other vestments, again suggesting that it was originally the upper garment which was the toga.
The Maniple

This vestment, which is now shaped like a small stole, was in origin a simple napkin or handkerchief, carried in the hand by ancient Romans (who had no pockets). Perhaps because Consuls used to signal the start of the Games in stadia by waving their handkerchiefs, they became symbols of rank. In the seventh century the Pope gave the signal for the start of the Stational Mass in a similar manner.

Roman deacons carried a mappa (folded handkerchief) in their left hands. By the ninth century it had developed into the maniple. Stigand, the Anglo-Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury, is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, at the coronation of King Harold, holding his maniple in his left hand. It later came to be worn, as now, on the left arm, below the elbow. Even as late as 1100, Ivo of Chartres mentioned the maniple as being used at Mass for wiping the eyes. Only gradually did it become stiffened and unusable for its original purpose. It began to be made of silk or velvet and decorated with gold and embroidery. Sometimes in the Middle Ages it was decorated with bells at the end.

Since the eleventh century, the Subdeacon has received the maniple as the insignia of his order. It is the distinguishing mark of those who have received major orders; accordingly when, in the absence of someone in major orders to act as subdeacon at Mass, a clerk in minor orders performs the office of subdeacon, he does not assume the maniple.
The origin of the maniple as a napkin for wiping the face is recalled in the prayers said by a priest as he is vesting for Mass: ''May I be worthy, Lord, to wear the maniple of tears and sorrow; that with joy, I may receive the reward of my labour''.

It is a vestment used exclusively for the Eucharistic liturgy. A Bishop receives the maniple at the end of the Preparatory Prayers. These precede, but are not actually a part of, the Mass. If any prayer or hymn is to follow Mass, eg: the Prayer for the Sovereign, the Sacred Ministers remove their maniples, the prayer not being part of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. They should also set aside their maniples during a sermon which is not considered a part of the old Mass, but an interruption of it.
Because of its connection with the celebration of the Sacrifice, the Deacons of Honour at a Pontifical Mass, although they wear dalmatics, do not wear either stole or maniple with them, nor do the Canons who may assist in choir at Pontifical Mass wearing chasubles. Exceptionally, the twelve priests who assist the Bishop at the blessing of Holy Oils at the Chrism Mass on Maundy Thursday do wear stole and maniple with their chasubles, because in earlier times they concelebrated the Mass with the Bishop.
The Chasuble
The most familiar of the vestments to the average Catholic in the pew has its origins in the great travelling cloak worn by the ancient Romans. In form it was a large circular piece of woollen material with a hole for the head in the middle of the circle. The cloak enveloped its wearer completely from shoulders to ankles. Because of its size it became known as the ''little house'', in Latin: casula, from this comes our word chasuble.
As a liturgical garment the travelling cloak was unwieldy and the deacon and subdeacon had to hold the garment back off of the celebrant's arms. For convenience, the sides of the vestment came to be cut away, until, by the Middle Ages, the chasuble had taken on the straight sided, fiddle front shape with which we are familiar today.

In the nineteenth century, the ''Gothic Revivalists'', notably Augustus Welbey Pugin, redesigned the chasuble which had come to be worn by some Anglican ministers, to make it conform to what they believed was the form worn in Mediaeval England. They widened the part which rests on the shoulders and cut the garment so it came to a point at the bottom.

When Pugin became a Catholic, he brought with him the ''Gothic'' style of chasuble. However, the Sacred Congregation of Rites forbade its use in Catholic churches. This did not, of course, stop the clergy from using them, but, in obedience to liturgical law and because they are the actual vestment of our rite, traditional Catholics ought to prefer the correct style of chasuble for use at our Masses.

The Cope

Another name for this vestment is pluviale or pluvial which gives a clue as to its origin. Pluvial means "relating to rain''. It was a mediaeval rain cloak to wear out of doors. For this reason it is worn in processions, which frequently go out into the rainy outdoors. Like the chasuble, it is now made of silk fabric and is of the liturgical colour of the day, except that it is usually white for Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

It is worn for the Asperges ceremony before the main Mass on Sundays, at Solemn Vespers and
Lauds and funerals, processions and the like. If Benediction immediately follows Mass or Vespers, without the officiant leaving the sanctuary, the cope for Benediction may be of the colour of the vestments of the Mass, or the officiant of Vespers may retain the cope he has worn for that office.
It is forbidden for laymen to wear the cope, excepting only Auditors of the Holy Roman Rota walking in a Papal Procession, but I do not suppose they either walk in processions or wear the cope these days.


The square, black, stiff cap with three ridges on top worn by clerics. The biretta of a secular priest has a tassel in the centre of the top. Some religious have no tassel and nor do Cardinals have them on their scarlet birettas. Bishops wear a violet biretta with a violet tassel, while monsignori have a black biretta with variously crimson or violet tassels according to their rank.

The Surplice

This is a modification of the alb. During the middle ages when churches were cold and clergy sat or stood long hours in the churches singing the Divine Office, to keep warm they wore fur lining to their cassocks, but this meant their albs were too tight for them. These were then made fuller and given wider sleeves; giving the surplice, superpellicium meaning over fur. The shorter square necked form called the cotta is the more common form worn in Catholic churches.


A wide sleeved, loose tunic deriving from Dalmatia, a Greek province. In the later years of the Roman Empire it came to be worn in place of the toga. In Christian times it became the distinctive dress of deacons. Two bands of fabric, clavi, originally purple, run down each side. They are not decoration, but an integral part of the vestment. The dalmatic is also worn by a Bishop under his chasuble.


The tunicle is worn by the subdeacon as his outer garment. Originally, it was probably an undergarment. Although it is now frequently indistinguishable from the dalmatic. It is worn by a Bishop under the dalmatic. The dalmatic and tunicle worn by a bishop are usually made of very thin silk.

Humeral veil

A large oblong veil worn as the name suggests, around the shoulders (latin: humerus shoulder)by the subdeacon at High Mass to cover his hands in which he is holding the paten from the Offertory until the Pater noster. It is also worn by the officiating priest at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and during Blessed Sacrament processions to help support the monstrance while he is holding it. At Mass it is the same colour as the other sacred vestments and at Benediction is always white.

Chalice veil

A square veil, of the same material and colour as the rest of the vestments which covers the chalice when it is not in use.


A square stiffened purse to hold the corporal when it is not required on the altar. The Burse matches the other vestments in colour and fabric. At Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament a white Burse is used.


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