Liturgical Vestments and the Vesting Prayers

Father Gagliardi Explains the Tradition and Meaning

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ROME, DEC. 18, 2009 (Zenit.org).- In this article, Father Mauro Gagliardi, a consultor of the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, explains the prayers the celebrant says while vesting for the liturgy.

These prayers -- the reciting of which is an ancient custom -- are brief, but very rich from a biblical, theological and spiritual point of view.

"Such a liturgical practice must be retained rather than jettisoned," he explains. "Its beauty and utility for the priest's spiritual life needs to be rediscovered."

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Historical Background

The vestments used by the sacred ministers in liturgical celebrations derive from ancient Greek and Roman secular clothing. In the first centuries the raiment of persons of a certain social level (the "honestiores," persons of rank with property) was adopted for the Christian liturgy and this practice was maintained in the Church, even after the peace of Constantine. As we see in some Christian writers, the sacred ministers wore the best clothing, which was most probably reserved for liturgical use.[1]

While in Christian antiquity the liturgical vestments were distinguished from secular clothing, not by their particular form but by the quality of the material and their special decorum, in the course of the barbarian invasions the customs and, with them, the vesture of new peoples were introduced into the West and brought about changes in profane clothing. But the Church kept, without essential alteration, the vestments used by the clergy in public worship; in this way the secular use of clothing was distinguished from the liturgical use.

Finally, in the Carolingian epoch (which began in roughly the 8th century), the vestments proper to the various degrees of the sacrament of orders, with a few exceptions, took on their definitive form, which they retain to this day.

Function and Significance

Beyond the historical circumstances, the sacred vestments had an important function in the liturgical celebrations: In the first place, the fact that they are not worn in ordinary life, and thus possess a "liturgical" character, helps one to be detached from the everyday and its concerns in the celebration of divine worship. Furthermore, the ample form of the vestments, the alb, for example, the dalmatic and the chasuble, put the individuality of the one who wears them in second place in order to emphasize his liturgical role. One might say that the "camouflaging" of the minister’s body by the vestments depersonalizes him in a way; it is that healthy depersonalization that de-centers the celebrating minister and recognizes the true protagonist of the liturgical action: Christ. The form of the vestments, therefore, says that the liturgy is celebrated "in persona Christi" and not in the priest's own name. He who performs a liturgical function does not do so as a private person, but as a minister of the Church and an instrument in the hands of Jesus Christ. The sacred character of the vestments also has to do with their being donned according to what is prescribed in the Roman Ritual.

In the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite (the so-called Mass of Pius V), the putting on of the liturgical vestments is accompanied by prayers for each garment, prayers whose text one still finds in many sacristies. Even if these prayers are no longer obligatory (but neither are they prohibited) by the Missal of the ordinary form promulgated by Paul VI, their use is recommended since they help in the priest's preparation and recollection before the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice. As a confirmation of the utility of these prayers it must be noted that they are included in the "Compendium Eucharisticum," recently published by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.[2] Moreover it is useful to recall that Pius XII, with the decree of Jan. 14, 1940, assigned an indulgence of 100 days for the individual prayers.

The Vestments and the Prayers

1) At the beginning of his vesting he washes his hands, reciting an appropriate prayer; beyond the practical hygienic purpose, this act has a profound symbolism, inasmuch as it signifies passage from the profane to the sacred, from the world of sin to the pure sanctuary of the Most High. The washing of the hands is in some manner equivalent to removing the sandals before the burning bush (cf. Exodus 3:5).

The prayer hints at this spiritual dimension: "Da, Domine, virtutem manibus meis ad abstergendam omnem maculam; ut sine pollutione mentis et corporis valeam tibi servire" (Give virtue to my hands, O Lord, that being cleansed from all stain I might serve you with purity of mind and body).[3]

After the washing of the hands, the vesting proper begins.

2) The priest begins with the amice, a rectangular linen cloth, which has two strings and is placed over the shoulders and around the neck; the strings are then tied about the waist. The amice has the purpose of covering the everyday clothing, even if it is the priest's clerical garb. In this sense, it is important to recall that the amice is worn even when the celebrant is wearing a modern alb, which often does not have a large opening at the neck but fits closely around the collar. Despite the close fitting neck of the modern alb, the everyday clothing still remains visible and it is necessary for the celebrant to cover his collar even in this case.[4]

In the Roman Rite, the amice is donned before the alb. While putting it on the priest recites the following prayer: "Impone, Domine, capiti meo galeam salutis, ad expugnandos diabolicos incursus" (Place upon me, O Lord, the helmet of salvation, that I may overcome the assaults of the devil).

With the reference to St. Paul's Letter to the Ephesians (6:17), the amice is understood as "the helmet of salvation," that must protect him who wears it from the demon's temptations, especially evil thoughts and desires, during the liturgical celebration. This symbolism is still more clear in the custom followed since the Middle Ages by the Benedictines, Franciscans and Dominicans, who first put the amice upon their heads and then let it fall upon the chasuble or dalmatic.

3) The alb is the long white garment worn by the sacred ministers, which recalls the new and immaculate clothing that every Christian has received through baptism. The alb is, therefore, a symbol of the sanctifying grace received in the first sacrament and is also considered to be a symbol of the purity of heart that is necessary to enter into the joy of the eternal vision of God in heaven (cf. Matthew 5:8).

This is expressed in the prayer the priest says when he dons the alb. The prayer is a reference to Revelation 7:14: "Dealba me, Domine, et munda cor meum; ut, in sanguine Agni dealbatus, gaudiis perfruar sempiternis" (Make me white, O Lord, and cleanse my heart; that being made white in the Blood of the Lamb I may deserve an eternal reward).

4) Over the alb and around the waist is placed the girdle or cincture, a cord made of wool or other suitable material that is used as a belt. All those who wear albs must also wear the cincture (frequently today this traditional custom is not followed).[5] For deacons, priests and bishops, the cincture may be of different colors according to the liturgical season or the memorial of the day. In the symbolism of the liturgical vestments the cincture represents the virtue of self-mastery, which St. Paul also counts among the fruits of the Spirit (cf. Galatians 5:22). The corresponding prayer, taking its cue from the first Letter of Peter (1:13), says: "Praecinge me, Domine, cingulo puritatis, et exstingue in lumbis meis humorem libidinis; ut maneat in me virtus continentiae et castitatis" (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).

5) The maniple is an article of liturgical dress used in the celebration of the extraordinary form of the Holy Mass of the Roman Rite. It fell into disuse in the years of the post-conciliar reform, even though it was never abrogated. The maniple is similar to the stole but is not as long: It is fixed in the middle with a clasp or strings similar to those of the chasuble. During the celebration of the Holy Mass in the extraordinary form, the celebrant, the deacon and the subdeacon wear the maniple on their left forearm. This article of liturgical garb perhaps derives from a handkerchief, or "mappula," that the Romans wore knotted on their left arm. As the "mappula" was used to wipe away tears or sweat, medieval ecclesiastical writers regarded the maniple as a symbol of the toils of the priesthood.

This understanding found its way into the prayer recited when the maniple is put on: "Merear, Domine, portare manipulum fletus et doloris; ut cum exsultatione recipiam mercedem laboris" (May I deserve, O Lord, to bear the maniple of weeping and sorrow in order that I may joyfully reap the reward of my labors).

As we see, in the first part the prayer references the weeping and sorrow that accompany the priestly ministry, but in the second part the fruit of the work is noted. It would not be out of place to recall the passage of a Psalm that may have inspired the latter symbolism of the maniple.

The Vulgate renders Psalm 125:5-6 thus: "Qui seminant in lacrimis in exultatione metent; euntes ibant et flebant portantes semina sua, venientes autem venient in exultatione portantes manipulos suos" (They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. Going they went and wept, casting their seeds, but coming they shall come with joyfulness, carrying their maniples).

6) The stole is the distinctive element of the raiment of the ordained minister and it is always worn in the celebration of the sacraments and sacramentals. It is a strip of material that is embroidered, according to the norm, whose color varies with respect to the liturgical season or feast day.

Putting on the alb, the priest recites this prayer: "Redde mihi, Domine, stolam immortalitatis, quam perdidi in praevaricatione primi parentis; et, quamvis indignus accedo ad tuum sacrum mysterium, merear tamen gaudium sempiternum" (Lord, restore the stole of immortality, which I lost through the collusion of our first parents, and, unworthy as I am to approach Thy sacred mysteries, may I yet gain eternal joy).

Since the stole is an article of enormous importance, which, more than any other garment, indicates the state of ordained office, one cannot but lament the abuse, that is now quite widespread, in which the priest does not wear a stole when he wears a chasuble.[6]

7) Finally, the chasuble is put on, the vestment proper to him who celebrates the Holy Mass. In the past the liturgical books used the two Latin terms "casuala" and "planeta" synonymously. While the term "planeta" was especially used in Rome and has remains in use in Italy ("pianeta" in Italian), the term "casula" derives from the typical form of the vestment that at the beginning completely covered the sacred minister who wore it. The Latin "casula" is found in other languages in a modified form. Thus one finds "casulla" in Spanish, "chasuble" in French and English, and "Kasel" in German.

The prayer for the donning of the chasuble references the exhortation in the Letter to the Colossians (3:14) -- "Above all these things [put on] charity, which is the bond of perfection" -- and the Lord's words in Matthew, 11:30: "Domine, qui dixisti: Iugum meum suave est, et onus meum leve: fac, ut istud portare sic valeam, quod consequar tuam gratiam. Amen" (O Lord, who has said, "My yoke is sweet and My burden light," grant that I may so carry it as to merit Thy grace).

In conclusion, one hopes that the rediscovery of the symbolism of the liturgical vestments and the vesting prayers will encourage priests to take up again the practice of praying as they are dressing for the liturgy so as to prepare themselves for the celebration with the necessary recollection.

While it is possible to use different prayers, or simply to lift one's mind up to God, nevertheless the texts of the vesting prayers are brief, precise in their language, inspired by a biblical spirituality and have been prayed for centuries by countless sacred ministers. These prayers thus recommend themselves still today for the preparation for the liturgical celebration, even for the liturgy according to the ordinary form of the Roman Rite.

Notes

[1] Cf. for example, St. Jerome, "Adversus Pelagianos," I, 30.

[2] (Libreria Editrice Vaticana: Città del Vaticano, 2009), pp. 385-386.

[3] We are using the text of the prayers that is found in the 1962 "Missale Romanum" of Bl. John XXIII (Harrison, NY: Roman Catholics Books, 1996), p. lx.

[4] The "Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani" (2008) at No. 336 permits the amice to be dispensed with when the alb is made in such a way that it completely covers the collar, hiding the street clothes. In fact, however, it rarely happens that the collar is not seen, even partially; hence, the recommendation to use the amice in any case.

[5] No. 336 of the "Istitutio" of 2008 also allows the cincture to be dispensed with if the alb is made in such a way that it fits closely to the body without the cincture. Despite this concession, it is important to recognize: a) the traditional and symbolic value of the cincture; b) the fact that the alb -- in the traditional style, and especially in the modern style -- only fits snugly to the body with difficulty. Although the norm foresees the possibility, it should only be regarded as hypothetical when the facts are taken into account: indeed, the cincture is always necessary. Sometimes today one finds albs that have a cloth fastener that is sown about the waist of the garment that can be drawn together. In this case the prayer can be said when this is tied. Nevertheless, the traditional style remains absolutely preferable.

[6] "[T]he Priest, in putting on the chasuble according to the rubrics, is not to omit the stole. All Ordinaries should be vigilant in order that all usage to the contrary be eradicated." Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, "Redemptionis Sacramentum," March 25, 2004, No. 123.