The Symbolism of Priestly Vestments

Why This Matters

Before discussing the Church’s rubrics on the use of vestments in the Sacred Liturgy, Fr. John Laux, in The Mass and the Sacraments, reminds us why this topic matters:

“The sacred vestments, the altar, the inclinations, the genuflections, the outstretched arms – all speak to us of Christ’s Passion and Death. Follow the priest with open eye and ear and heart, and he will bring you from Gethsemane to Calvary and from Calvary to the stillness of the Sepulcher.”

God Himself was explicit in His requirements for how the Temple in the Old Testament was to be furnished and how worship to Him was to be observed. Exodus 39:41, Numbers 20:26, and Ezra 3:10, among others, all describe the use of liturgical vestments. And at the Last Supper, Our Lord – when He instituted the Sacrament of Holy Orders – made use of vestments, as described in the detailed accounts of the visions of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich in The Dolorous Passion:[1]

“James the Less, Andrew, James the Greater, and Bartholomew, were also consecrated. I saw likewise that on Peter’s bosom he crossed a sort of stole worn round the neck, whilst on the others he simply placed it crosswise, from the right shoulder to the left side. I do not know whether this was done at the time of the institution of the Blessed Sacrament, or only for the anointing… Whether Peter and John were both consecrated bishops, or Peter alone as bishop and John as priest, or to what dignity the other four Apostles were raised, I cannot pretend to say. But the different ways in which our Lord arranged the Apostles’ stoles appear to indicate different degrees of consecration.”

What Kinds of Vestments Do Priests Need to Wear?

Turning to the clarity of the Baltimore Catechism, we read of the 6 vestments used by a priest at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass:

    1. What vestments does the priest use at Mass and what do they signify?
    2. The Amice, a white cloth around the shoulders to signify Resistance to Temptation;
    3. The Alb, a long white garment to signify Innocence;
    4. The Cincture, a cord about the waist, to signify Chastity;
    5. The Maniple or hanging vestment on the left arm, to signify Penance;
    6. The Stole or long vestment about the neck, to signify Immortality;
    7. The Chasuble or long vestment over all, to signify Love and remind the priest, by its cross on front and back, of the Passion of Our Lord.

Fr. John Laux mentions several other points of symbolism for these vestments, tying them back to Our Lord’s Sacrifice on the Cross:

  1. Symbolism of the amice is two-fold: (a) The linen cloth that the soldiers put over Our Lord’s head before Our Lord was blindfolded and struck by His assailants. (b) The helmet of Salvation (cf. Ephes. 6:17).
  2. Symbolism of the alb: (a) It is representing the garment with which Herod clothed Our Lord during His cruel Passion. (b) Signifies the purity of conscience demanded of God’s priests.
  3. Symbolism of the cincture: (a) The cincture symbolizes the cord that bound Our Lord to the pillar when He was being scourged. (b) Symbolizes modesty and readiness for hard work in God’s service.
  4. Symbolism of the maniple: (a) The rope whereby Our Lord was led, and the chains which bound His sacred hands. (b) An emblem of the tears of penance, the fatigue of the priestly office, and its joyful reward in Heaven.
  5. Symbolism of the stole: (a) The cords with which Jesus was tied. Worn as it is over the shoulders, it reminds us, too, of the cross Our Lord carried. (b) A reminder of the yoke of Christ. The priest’s burden is a heavy one, which Christ nevertheless makes sweet.
  6. Symbolism of the chasuble: (a) The purple cloak worn by Our Lord when He stood before Pilate. (b) An emblem of love. When the ordaining bishop gives it to the new priest, he says: “Receive the priestly garment, for the Lord is powerful to increase in you love and perfection.”

Modern Changes Negatively Affected the Priests’ Vestments

Sadly, the maniple fell into disuse after Vatican II – though it was never abrogated – and is now only seen by priests who offer the Traditional Latin Mass.

Even worse, the prayers which a priest said in the sacristy as he vested himself are no longer promoted. These prayers reflect the theology and symbolism of each vestment. They help the priest recollect himself and focus on the greatness and gravity of the Sacrifice he is about to offer in persona Christi. Simply reading and meditating upon these prayers can be very fruitful prayer, for priest and laity alike.[2]

Priests who offer the Traditional Latin Mass continue to say these prayers before they offer Mass. However, priests who only offer the New Mass rarely ever say these prayers. In fact, most of them do not even know of their existence. Father Michael Rodríguez, known by many readers of this website, testifies to never having been introduced to these prayers during his seminary years (1988-1996). In explaining his own ‘conversion’ to Tradition, Fr. Rodríguez has explained that the discovery of these prayers – years after his ordination – had an extremely profound influence upon him. They helped open his eyes to how much of the Catholic Faith in general, and the priesthood in particular, had been lost. It has helped fuel his commitment and urgency in recovering and restoring all of our Sacred Tradition.

What Color Vestments Do Priests Need to Wear?

There is important symbolism in the colors used. While other Rites of the Church use different colors, the five colors in place for the Roman Rite are as follows:[3]

  1. White signifies innocence and glory. It is used on the feasts of Our Blessed Lord, of the Blessed Virgin, and of some saints. (Gold is often used instead of white on great feasts. Since it is equivalent to white, it does not formally constitute its own sixth color.)
  2. Red naturally signifies love, fire, and blood. It is used on the feasts of the Holy Ghost and of martyrs.
  3. Green signifies hope and growth, and is generally used on Sundays from Epiphany to Septuagesima and from the Sunday after Pentecost until Advent.
  4. Violet signifies penance, and is used in Lent and Advent.
  5. Black signifies sorrow, and is used on Good Friday and at Masses for the dead.

There are some traditional exceptions, as Fr. Laux mentions: “Gold vestments may be used as substitute for white, red, or green.” A priest who is travelling therefore often carries gold vestments so that he is able to offer any Mass outside of Lent and Advent. Father Laux then continues by mentioning the well-known rose (i.e., not pink) exception: “Rose colored vestments may be used at solemn Masses on the Third Sunday in Advent [Gaudete Sunday] and the Fourth Sunday in Lent [Lætare Sunday], because these Sundays are of a somewhat joyful character…”

Sadly, these rubrics experienced changes after Vatican II as well. Today, black is virtually eliminated as funerals now use white, virtually canonizing the deceased person and thereby depriving his/her soul of prayers for deliverance from Purgatory. Since so very few souls go straight to Heaven, if that person has averted eternal fire, it is almost certain that prayers are needed for the soul of that person. We have a responsibility to offer them prayers and Masses, and when white vestments are used and funerals turn into de facto canonizations, we lose that.

This is a terrible loss and the spiritual devastation is incalculable. As devotees of Our Lady of Fatima, we should recall that Her Message emphasizes the Four Last Things and Purgatory. For example, She asked us to pray at the end of each Rosary decade: “O My Jesus, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those most in need.” This prayer includes intercession for the poor souls in Purgatory. After all, they must be included in the phrase ‘those most in need’ since they can no longer help themselves. Moreover, Catholic teaching holds that the fires of Purgatory are the same as the fires of hell, so the context makes it clear that we are asking God to speedily take all the souls from Purgatory into Heaven.

What a beautiful Catholic prayer! With it, Our Lady does not let us, Her children, forget the truths of Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell. Sadly, many Catholics do not think of the holy souls in Purgatory when they recite this prayer. (Perhaps this is connected to the virtual canonization of every deceased person and the absence of black vestments in the new liturgy?)

There were also other significant changes after Vatican II, such as changing Good Friday from black vestments to red. Changes were plentiful too for Holy Week in the 1950s.

Are Blue Vestments Allowed?

The blue chasuble may only be worn by priests in Spain and its dominions beyond the sea. It was a privilege originally given by Pope Pius VII to the Church in Spain in 1817, and later reaffirmed by Pope Pius IX in 1864, in recognition of the centuries-old Hispanic defense of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. It spread to other places formerly under the Spanish Crown as well, as seen in the indult granted by Pope St. Pius X on February 11, 1910, to the First Provincial Council of Manila for their use in the Philippine Islands.

While we often call these vestments “blue vestments” they are technically “Cerulean,” which is why the indult is known in liturgical circles as the Cerulean Indult. As Father Edward McNamara clarifies in an EWTN article on this topic,

“By blue vestments we mean those manufactured from cerulean fabric. White vestments with blue motifs or trimmings are not subject to any restriction.”

No other nations are authorized to use these vestments in the Roman Rite, with the rare exception of a dispensation that was given temporarily to Marian shrines on special occasions. To wear the improper vestment constitutes a liturgical abuse, so blue vestments are for most places in the world not permitted.


ENDNOTES:

[1] While these are private revelations and not de fide, there is nothing contrary to faith or reason in them. Moreover, they do further Catholic piety and are in harmony with the sensus fidelium. In our contemporary milieu, what Catholics have to resist strongly is the heavy influence of Protestantism and Rationalism. Too often we think, ‘If it is not in the Bible I don’t have to believe it.’ This is not a Catholic mindset. Anti-Catholic sentiment has created an image of Christ as an itinerant preacher who acted spontaneously, and who refrained from instituting rites and administering the Sacraments. This runs contrary to the Faith. It is de fide that Christ instituted the Sacraments. He was deliberate in all that He did and He intentionally established His one Catholic Church.

[2] Many traditional missals contain these prayers. They can also be found online by searching for ‘priest’s traditional vesting prayers.’ We reproduce them here for our reader’s edification:

Washing hands: Da, Dómine, virtútem mánibus meis ad abstergéndam omnem máculam; ut sine pollutióne mentis et córporis váleam tibi servíre.

Purify me, O Lord, and cleanse my heart, so that, washed in the Blood of the Lamb, I may enjoy eternal bliss.

Amice: Impóne, Dómine, cápiti meo gáleam salútis, ad expugnándos diabólicos incúrsus.

Place upon me, O Lord, the helmet of salvation, that I may overcome the assaults of the devil.

Alb: Deálba me, Dómine, et munda cor meum; ut, in sánguine Agni dealbátus, gáudiis pérfruar sempitérnis.

Purify me, O Lord, and cleanse my heart, so that, washed in the Blood of the Lamb, I may enjoy eternal bliss.

Cincture: Præcínge me, Dómine, cíngulo puritátis, et exstíngue in lumbis meis humórem libídinis; ut maneat in me virtus continéntiæ et castitátis.

Gird me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity, and quench in my heart the fire of concupiscence, that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide in me.

Maniple: Mérear, Dómine, portáre manípulum fletus et dolóris; ut cum exsultatióne recípiam mercédem labóris.

May I deserve, O Lord, to bear the maniple of weeping and sorrow, that I may receive the reward for my labors with rejoicing.

Stole: Redde mihi, Dómine, stolam immortalitátis, quam pérdidi in prævaricatióne primi paréntis: et, quamvis indígnus accédo ad tuum sacrum mystérium, mérear tamen gáudium sempitérnum.

Restore unto me, O Lord, the stole of immortality, which was lost through the guilt of our first parents: and, although I am unworthy to approach Thy sacred Mysteries, nevertheless grant unto me eternal joy.

Dalmatic: Índue me, Dómine, induménto salútis et vestiménto lætítiæ; et dalmática justítiæ circúmda me semper.

Lord, endow me with the garment of salvation, the vestment of joy; and with the dalmatic of justice ever encompass me.

Chasuble: Dómine, qui dixísti: Jugum meam suáve est et onus meum leve: fac, ut istud portáre sic váleam, quod cónsequar tuam grátiam. Amen.

O Lord, Who said, “My yoke is easy and My burden light”: grant that I may bear it well and follow after Thee with thanksgiving. Amen.

[3] See also question #943 of the Baltimore Catechism.

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