One of the aspects that most people don’t even think about on a daily or weekly basis while attending Mass is the liturgical vestments of the priest and deacon. The chasuble and dalmatic are proper vestments to the order of priest and deacon respectively. Also common to those ordained ministers is the stole, which in the case of the priest is placed over the shoulders and around the neck. The deacon drapes it diagonally from the left shoulder. For the most part their significance is to identify which role the celebrants and assistants of the Sacraments are playing. Usually in our Catholic parishes, no one explains the meaning of the stole; it is just taken for granted. However it is important to understand that the stole of priest, bishop and deacon is a symbol of the authority they possess as part of the sacrament of Holy Orders. The most recognizable vestment we encounter each Sunday is the chasuble. It is the main vestment the priest wears while celebrating Mass. With the recent revival of the Mass of Blessed John XXIII, one most likely is unfamiliar with the style of vestment worn for this celebration. The chasuble, dalmatic and tunic worn by the priest, deacon and sub-deacon are called “Roman” vestments, and are the normal vestments worn for Mass. Their style and appearance are based upon clothing and ceremonial attire at the time of the Roman Empire, worn especially by the ruling aristocracy and important civil dignitaries. Roman vestments are usually ornately designed on the back, simply because the congregation sees the back of the priest while he is celebrating the Eucharistic Sacrifice.
With the advent of the Second Vatican Council and the practice of celebrating the liturgy ad populum, vestments that had their historical roots in “Gothic” countries became more common and prevalent. Gothic chasubles and dalmatics are cut fuller and are more like a garment that resembles a cape or our modern poncho. These are the vestments we are most used to seeing since the 1960’s. However both varieties can be worn for liturgical celebrations.
With this brief description, my goal is to suggest that parishioners and priests alike pay particular attention to the quality of the materials and the detail to craftsmanship of all of these vestments. They are very visible signs and symbols of our efforts to praise God and to worship as a faithful community.
Very often, parishes receive donations of vestments from different sources. For example, when an individual dies, relatives and friends of the deceased purchase a set of vestments for the parish. This is an extremely admirable practice. However it might be better for pastors and parishes to institute a specific fund designed to procure and design sacred liturgical vestments and instruments. If a parish establishes a fund, pastors and priests would not be surprised and shocked with the gift that a parishioner has made. Just like Christmas morning, even our parish priests open gifts they would like to hastily return! If fund was set up for sacred materials, the pastor and the parish liturgical committee could research artisans who provide liturgical vestments. Vestments are not just accessories for ordained ministers; they are essential to fulfilling their sacred obligations. Just as other professions, the necessary tools and instruments should be part of the daily wardrobe and routine.
Commissioning sacred vestments for a parish is starting to occur on a more regular basis. Craftsmen and artisans who work in the fabric arts are happy to provide their services to help parishes design visually attractive, high qualityvestments for use during the Sacred liturgy.
For the most part, designing and having liturgical vestments made to order is like having a new suit made especially for an individual. The fabrics, style, color and even the quantity of vestments to be made are determined by the parish. Parish leadership should consider concelebrants and large groups of priests sometimes join a parish in a special celebration. Multiple sets of vestments lend a distinctive harmony and consistent visual appeal during the Liturgy. It makes sense to balance all aspects of the liturgy, so that the visual, spoken and musical aspects of the Mass all come together for one significant event of worship and praise.
Once again it is a question of providing “quality” resources in our parishes for all sacred celebrations. In a technological age, when most everything we use on a daily basis is mass-produced, it is a pleasant change to experience something uniquely and individually made for a parish community. Our celebration of the liturgy expresses our communal appreciation and communal expressions of our most sacred sentiments. We utilize our liturgical vestments as instruments to convey a sense of sacredness and holiness during our rituals. As Catholics we need to be ever mindful of the assent of our spiritual expectations to our heavenly Father. Our sacred vestments not only help us focus on the spiritual actions that are taking place at our Liturgies, they enhance our abilities to actively appreciate the rituals and symbols of the ancient Catholic liturgy that occur in the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.