St. PeterVestments
[Some modern Americans might think vestments are odd but we use them in our society too. A judge wears a special robe derived from an academic robe to signify his education and knowledge of the law but also that his role in the court is different from the other participants. He is the person who is called on to objectively apply the law to the proceedings. The robe is similar to that used by some Protestant clergy and serves to subconsciously bring religious overtones, because truth and justice are concerns of God who is just.]

"MAN'S nature is such that he needs external helps to assist him in fixing his attention on sacred things. We are all impressed to a remarkable degree by "pomp and circumstance." A king on his throne, clad in his royal robes, holding his scepter and wearing his jeweled crown, is an imposing sight; all these accessories indicate his dignity and help us to realize his greatness. The same king without these trappings of royalty would possibly be a very insignificant object.

For this reason it has been customary in every age and country to invest those holding any position of dignity or practicing certain avocations with some uniform or badge, by which their rank and duties are designated. The soldier wears his uniform, by which he is distinguished from the ordinary citizen. The policeman, the fireman... each has his special garb, marking him as set apart for some definite work.

This is done for a twofold purpose -- that others may respect and obey him as far as is necessary, and that he may respect himself and be more conscious of his duties and more attentive to them, on account of the uniform he wears. This is even more true of the religious garb. The priest wears it that he may be thereby distinguished from other men, and that he himself may be always reminded by it that he is "taken from among men to offer sacrifices and holocausts for them "-- to be a mediator between the Almighty and His creatures.

In every religion since the world began, the practice has been in vogue of wearing some form of vestment. The priest has had a distinctive dress, whether he was a..."medicine-man" of some... tribe, an augur of pagan Rome, or a priest of the Hebrew [religion]. Here, as in many other cases, our Church has shown her wisdom by making use of a meritorious feature of other religions.

A Sacramental of the Church.

The word "vestment" is from the Latin, and signifies simply clothing, but it is now used generally to denote the garments worn by the ministers of religion in the performance of their sacred duties.

Vestments are a sacramental -- that is, they are set apart and blessed by the Church to excite good thoughts and to increase devotion in those who see and those who use them. They are the uniform of the priest when he is "on duty," while he is exercising the functions of his ministry and using the sacred powers which he received at his ordination.

Among the Jews.

Under the Jewish law every detail of the vestments used in the worship of God was provided for by divine command. The garb of the high priest and his assistants was specified most minutely as to material and form, and observance of these rules was enjoined under the severest penalties. The veneration of the Jewish people for the vestments of the high-priest was so great that they kept a lamp constantly burning before the repository of the sacred robes, just as we do now before the Blessed Sacrament.

When Christianity arose, no divine command was given concerning the dress to be worn by the priests of God. This was left to the judgment of the heads of the Church, and in the different ages of her history many changes have been made in the number and form and material of the priestly vestments.

There is no record of any special form of them during the first four centuries. It is probable that the garb of the clergy in those times was the common dress of laymen. The outer garments worn by men of those days were long and flowing, a modified form of the old Roman toga; and consequently the vestments used in the divine service took the same general form. Gradually the custom was introduced of making them of rich and costly materials, to add greater beauty thereby to the rites of religion. When the hardy barbarians of the North had overwhelmed the luxurious nations of southern Europe and had brought in their own fashions of dress, the Church did not see fit to change the garb of her ministers as worn at the services of her ritual, but she permitted them to change their ordinary dress to some extent, and forbade them to wear their vestments except while officiating at sacred rites.

Colors of the Vestments.

The Church ordinarily permits the use of [four] colors in the sacred vestments -- white, red, green, [and] violet... Gold may be used as a substitute for white, red or green.

Each of these colors has its own meaning. The Sacrifice of the Mass is offered for many purposes and in honor of many classes of saints; and these various purposes are all designated and symbolized by the color of the vestments which the Church prescribes for each Mass.

When are these colors used? When the Church wishes to denote purity, innocence or glory, she uses white; that is, on the feasts of our Lord and of the Blessed Virgin, on the festivals of angels and of all saints who were not martyrs. Red is the color of fire and of blood; it is used in Masses of the Holy Ghost, such as on Pentecost, to remind us of the tongues of fire -- and on the feasts of all saints who shed their blood for their faith. The purple or violet is expressive of penance; it is used during Lent and Advent (except on saints' days), and also on the sorrowful festival of the Holy Innocents. [White] is the color of [the resurrection and so is used in masses] for the dead. Red is used on Good Friday and Palm Sunday. Green is the color which denotes the growth and increase of our holy Church, and is also symbolic of hope; it is used at various times of the year, on days that are not saints' days.

A Priest's Vestments.
[1562 "The function of the bishops' ministry was handed over in a subordinate degree to priests so that they might be appointed in the order of the priesthood and be co- workers of the episcapal order for the proper fulfillment of the apostolic mission that had been entrusted to it by Christ." Catechism of the Catholic Church.]
[You will notice some significant editing of Fr. Sullivan's text
because vestments changed after the Second Vatican Council.
Some have been discontinued. Others are not used as often.]

The black gown of the priest, called a cassock or soutane, is not a vestment. It is simply the ordinary outer garb [of a priest used frequently in the past. The Columbia Encyclopedia states: "The cassock, a close-fitting gown buttoning down the front and reaching to the feet, is not a vestment so much as the daily uniform of the Western priest."

"[In the past Clergy] must wear a costume suited to their state. While the common canon law does not determine in every detail what the dress of clerics should be, yet many and various prescriptions on the subject are found in the canons, the pontifical constitutions, and the decrees of councils. These ordain that the clerics are not to wear the dress of laymen. They must abstain from gaudy colours, unbecoming their state. The wearing of the soutane or cassock on all occasions, even in public, is prescribed forclerics living in Rome, and bishops may command the same in their dioceses. In non-Catholic countries, synods generally prescribe that for public use the dress of clerics should be such as to distinguish them from laymen; that is of black or of a sober colour, and that the so-called Roman collar be worn."  Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913.

clergy shirt

Today a priest might be seen in regular "street clothing", or in a shirt with a Roman collar, and in a more formal setting a suit with a clerical shirt. The color is usually black. This is his normal working uniform when he is not officiating at a liturgy or performing a sacrament.]

The vestments worn by the priest at Mass are as follows: the alb, the cincture, the stole, and the chasuble; and at certain other services he may use the cope, the humeral veil and the surplice. Each of these has its own history and its own symbolical meaning...

The Alb. The long linen gown worn by the priest is called the alb, meaning simply the white garment... It is a survival of the white Roman toga. Its white color denotes the necessity of purity, both of soul and body, in him who offers the Lam of God to the Father.

cinctureThe Cincture. This is the proper name for the girdle worn around the waist to bind the alb closely to the body. In some countries it is of the same color as the vestments used, but among us it is generally white. It is made of braided linen, or sometimes of wool... [Exod. 29:9 "and you shall gird [Aaron and his sons] with sashes and tie headdresses on them; and the priesthood shall be theirs by a perpetual ordinance." NRSV]

The Stole. At Mass, and also in nearly every other religious function, the priest wears around his neck a long narrow vestment, the ends hanging down in front. The deaconstole at ... Mass wears a similar vestment, but in a different manner -- diagonally from his left shoulder to his right side. The stole came into use about the fourth century, and was originally a sort of robe or cloak; but its form was gradually modified until it became a narrow strip. It is said by some to have been the court uniform of Roman judges, and to have been adopted by the Church to denote the authority of her ministers...

chasubleThe Chasuble. The most conspicuous part of the costume of the priest at Mass is the chasuble, the large vestment worn on the shoulders and hanging down in front and behind. The rear portion is often, though not always, ornamented with a large cross.

The word chasuble is from the late Latin "casula," a little house, because it is, as it were, a shelter for the priest...

This vestment has been greatly altered during the centuries of its history. It was originally a large mantle or cloak, with an opening for the head in the center, and had to be raised at the sides to allow the hands to be extended outside the cloak. The assistants at the Mass were obliged to help the priest by holding up the sides of the chasuble...[due to its size and weight if heavily ornamented].

The Cope and Veil. The cope... was originally worn only in outdoor processions, and was considered merely as a rain-cloak, as is shown by its Latin name, pluviale, a protection against rain. The cape attached to it, which now has no use whatever, is a reminder of the large hood formerly used to cover the head in stormy weather. Our English name, cope, is from the Latin "cappa," a cape. [Click here to see a modern cope.]

The humeral veil was worn on the shoulders of the priest at the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament when he held the Sacred Host for the blessing of the people, and also when he carried the Blessed Sacrament in procession.

The Surplice. It may be well also to say a word about this vestment, which is worn over the cassock at the administration of the Sacraments and at various services of the Church. It is the special garb of clerics not in sacred orders, and its use is tolerated for lay altar-boys, or acolytes, in our churches.

In its present form it is one of the most modern of vestments. The word surplice is from the Latin "superpellicium" -- a dress worn over furs. In the Middle Ages it was allowed to the monks in cold countries to have fur garments, and over these a linen gown was Surplice worn in choir. It was later considered practically as an alb, and in the twelfth century it was usually so long that it reached the feet. Gradually it was made shorter, and about the seventeenth century the custom began of ornamenting it with lace.

The Tunic and the Dalmatic. The tunic is the vestment of subdeacons (ordination to the subdeaconite was discontinued after Vatican II), the dalmatic of deacons. They are usually exactly alike, although, strictly speaking, the tunic should be of smaller size than the dalmatic. Each is of about the same length as the chasuble of the priest. These vestments hang from the shoulders, which are covered by projecting flaps; these are sometimes connected under the arms, so as to resemble short sleeves. The color, of course, varies according to the Mass, and on the back are usually two ornamental vertical stripes, but no cross. [A deacon will now often appear in just alb and stole.]

A tunic signifies simply an outer garment. The dalmatic gets its name from a Roman garment made of wool from the province of Dalmatia, worn under the outer clothing in ancient times...

The Vestments of a Bishop. Bishop Thomas

These are numerous, and each has its own interesting history and its own symbolic meaning. The bishops are the links in the Apostolic chain, the pastors of Christ's flock, the principal laborers in His vineyard. All the dignity which a bishop has by virtue of his office, and all the qualities which he should have to be worthy of his exalted position, are symbolized by the chief insignia which he is privileged to use.

The Pectoral Cross. Attached to a chain which he wears around his neck is a cross of precious metal, which hangs on his breast, and thence derives its name, from the Latin pectus, the breast. This badge of the episcopacy came into use about the twelfth century.

[The Catholic Encyclopedia states: "As a liturgical cross, and part of the ordinary episcopal insignia, the pectoral cross is of quite modern date. No word is said regarding it in the first edition of the "Cæremoniale Episcoporum" of 1600, but later editions speak of it, and its liturgical character is fully recognized by all modern rubricians. It is worn bishops at Mass and solemn functions, and also forms part of their ordinary walking-dress. It is usually a plain Latin cross of gold suspended round the neck by a gold chain or a cord of silk and gold. Its use seems gradually to have been introduced during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in imitation of the pectoral cross which we know to have been regularly worn by the popes from a much earlier date..."]
["The skull cap that is worn by the pope and by bishops is not a yarlmuke (though it looks similar) but is known as a zuchetto." The Internet Question Box. Its purpose is unclear although it has been suggested that it was needed to cover the area of the head shaved for tonsure.]

A bishop's cassock varies in color according to the occasion. On penitential days it is black with purple silk trimmings; but on other days he wears a purple cassock, called a choir cassock, with crimson trimmings, at church functions, and an ordinary cassock, of black with red trimmings...

Over his cassock he wears a short cape, bearing the Italian name of mozzetta, buttoned over the breast...

The Mitre. This is the distinguishing mark of the episcopal office -- a tall double-pointed cap, probably of Oriental origin, which can be traced back to pagan times; at least, something very similar was worn by kings in Persia and Assyria long before the Christian era. As an ecclesiastical vestment it came into general use about the year 1100, although some form of tall and dignified headdress was worn considerably earlier. The present double or cleft form was evolved gradually; it was at first low and concave, and was subsequently increased in height and more richly ornamented. Its two points or horns symbolize the Old and New Testaments, which the bishop is supposed to explain to his people.

The Crosier. This, the bishop's pastoral staff, is, of course, not a vestment, but may be mentioned here. It typifies his duties as shepherd of the flock. It is a copy of the shepherd's crook, used for the guidance and restraining of the sheep, and has been looked upon as the special badge of the episcopal office since the fifth century at least, and is so mentioned in the ritual of a bishop's consecration. It signifies his power to sustain the weak, to confirm the wavering, and to lead back the erring. The upper part is often very beautifully molded and enriched with images and symbolic ornaments. [The opening image of St. Peter above shows him with a Crosier as well as a Mitre and chasuble.]

The Ring. On the third finger of a bishop's right hand he wears a large ring -- a custom traceable to about the year 600. It was a signet ring originally, but is now considered as a symbol of faith or fidelity.


[The pallium is the symbol of the office of metropolitan. It is conferred by the Pope on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in Rome. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes it thus: "The modern pallium is a circular band about two inches wide, worn about the neck, breast, and shoulders, and having two pendants, one hanging down in front and one behind. The pendants are about two inches wide and twelve inches long, and are weighted with small pieces of lead covered with black silk. The remainder of the pallium is made of white wool... Worn by archbishops, it typifies their participation in the supreme pastoral power of the pope, who concedes it to them for their proper church provinces. ]

[In the above photo, both Archbishop Brunett and the Pope are wearing albs, chasubles, and palliums. The pope is wearing a mitre. The attendant is wearing cassock and surplice.]

Such, then, is a brief account of many of the ecclesiastical vestments which our Church prescribes for her prelates and other clergy in the functions of her liturgy, and of the garb which, at other times, points them out as "set apart." We should reverence these things, for many of them are true sacramentals of our Church; and when we see them, we should endeavor to remember the dignity which God has given to their wearers, and the symbolism by which these consecrated garments set before us the virtues which He wishes His bishops and priests to manifest in fulfilling the duties of their holy and exalted state."

For the official instructions on vestments used in the current liturgy,
see the section on vestments in the Instruction to the Roman Missal.

Additional information is located in the Catholic Encyclopedia under the heading of Vestments. However, this was written in about 1913 and is unedited so it fails to allow for the changes of Vatican II. See also the Columbia Encyclopedia's entry on vestments.

Additional examples of vestments can be seen at The Slabbinck company web site.

The opening image of St. Peter is from Giotto's Polyptich of Badia found at Christus Rex.

The vestment photos are from the web site of Gaspard and Sons, Artneedle, in their church vestments section. The photo of Bishop Thomas and of Archbishop Brunett with the Holy Father are from the official web site of the Archdiocese of Seattle.

Except for the material in brackets, the quoted text is by Rev. John F. Sullivan, The Externals of the Catholic Church, P.J. Kenedy & Sons (1918). Imprimatur +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of NY, March 27, 1918.

The text and images are presented here for religious and educational purposes only. No other use is intended.

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