The priests of the Old Testament, when officiating in their sacred functions, wore splendid vestments, of which the material, the shape, the color, the ornamentation, were minutely prescribed by God Himself. The priests of the early Church had not, perhaps, very gorgeous vestments, but they had special festive garments for their sacerdotal functions, because what has once been used in divine worship can not be put to the ordinary uses of everyday life. At an early date the Church not only appointed the vestments that were to be worn, but attached to each a mystic meaning. This could not be otherwise when the great dignity of the priest is considered, and the solemnity and sanctity of the act he is empowered to perform. The several vestments which the priest puts on for the celebration of Holy Mass, and which must all be duly consecrated, are these:
The Amice, or humeral, a linen cloth laid upon the shoulders in order to cover the neck. In ancient times the head of the criminal condemned to death was enveloped in linen and the amice recalls the humiliation which, the tradition says, was put upon Christ in the house of Pilate.
The Alb, a tunic of white linen reaching from head to foot, such as was worn by the priests of the Old Law (Ezech. 28: 4). This denotes the innocence and purity that ought to distinguish the priest who ascends to the altar; it also recalls the seamless coat for which the soldiers cast lots at the foot of the cross. It is held in round the waist by the girdle, which represents the cords wherewith Our Lord was bound.
The Maniple, originally, was a narrow strip of linen suspended from the left arm, which supplied the place of and was used as a handkerchief. About the eighth century it was placed among the sacerdotal vestments. It is to remind the wearer that he must not shrink from arduous labors in the service of God. The maniple is now of the same material and color as the chasuble.
The biretta is a three - or sometimes four-cornered headgear. According to common opinion, it came into use when the practice of wearing the amice on the head was discontinued. Its signification is akin to that of the amice.
The Stole was originally the uppermost garment. It was white, embellished at the edge with a border of some other color. It is now only a narrow band, placed around the neck and crossed over the breast. Deacons wear it over the left shoulder. Subdeacons may wear the maniple, but not the stole. The stole is the distinctive mark of official authority, on which account a priest must not, except when saying Mass, wear it in the presence of the bishop without express permission. It signifies the robe of original innocence which man lost at the fall. The priest must wear a stole when performing any ecclesiastical function, such as baptizing, marrying, hearing confessions, etc.
The Chasuble, the distinctive vestment for Mass, was originally a round clock, with an opening through which the head was passed, the front part resting on the arms, so as to give the hands free play. As it covered the whole body, this vestment was called casula or chasuble (a hut). The shape being very inconvenient, the server was obliged, whenever the priest genuflected, to hold it up, whence comes the custom of raising the chasuble at the time of the consecration, although it is now of a more manageable form. The chasuble is intended to signify the sweet yoke of Christ (Matthew 11: 30), which the priest is bound to take upon him and to follow his Master. For this reason there is often a cross upon the back of the chasuble.
When the deacon and subdeacon attend upon the priest at Mass they are vested in the dalmatic in place of the chasuble; it is a festive garment formerly worn by persons of superior station, and brought from Dalmatia, whence the name dalmatic is derived.
If any other priest besides the deacon and subdeacon is in attendance upon the celebrant he wears neither chasuble nor dalmatic, but a cope. This vestment is also worn by the priest in other solemn functions, such as solemn Vespers or processions of the Blessed Sacrament.
When a bishop celebrates Mass he wears several things distinctive of his office. He has sandals of the same color of his vestments, fo rhe is the preacher of the Gospel, and to him are applied the words of the Apostle: "How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, of them that bring glad tidings of good things" (Romans 10: 15). He wears a ring, because he is espoused to the Church, of which he is one of the guardians; he wears gloves to denote the force of his blessing. As a pastor of Christ's flock he carries a crozier, while the miter, the head dress of a prelate, marks his supremacy over all the clergy who are subject to him. The pectoral cross worn by the bishop on his breast signifies the love of Jesus Christ and His yearning for the death on the cross.
From the time when vestments, as distinct from ordinary garments, were appointed to be used in divine worship certain colors were also fixed for them, varying with the day or season, as an outward sign of the sentiments that ought to inspire the worshiper. The Church makes use of five colors: white, red, purple, green, and black.
White is the color of innocence and of joy. It is used on the feast of the Holy Trinity, on festivals of Our Lord, of the Blessed Mother of God, of the angels, and of all saints who are not martyrs. Likewise at the consecration of a church, the ordination of priests, the consecration of bishops, and similar festivals.
Red is the color of fire and blood. It is the Holy Ghost Who kindles the fire of divine love in the hearts of men; accordingly red is used at Pentecost, on the feasts of the Finding and Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the feast of the Five Wounds, etc. It is also used on the feasts of the holy apostles (with the exception of Saint John), and of the holy martyrs, who shed their blood for the faith of Christ. Originally white and red were the only colors used in the Church, and that is why the Pope still wears only white and red.
Purple, or violet, is symbolical of humility and penance. It is used in Advent and in Lent, on Ember days, with the exception of the Ember days at Whitsuntide, which fall within the octave of Pentecost, when red is used, on vigils, for penitential processions, and on all occasions when a penitential spirit is required - for instance, in the administration of Extreme Unction and the Sacrament of Penance.
Green betokens hope - the hope of eternal life, which Christ the Lord has once more brought within our reach. It is used on all Sundays and weekdays from the octave of the Epiphany to Septuagesima, and from the third Sunday after Pentecost until Advent, unless the Mass is of some feast.
Black is the sign of mourning, and is used in Masses for the dead, on Good Friday, and All Souls' Day.
Not infrequently black vestments are embroidered with white. This is to signify that the holy souls in Purgatory, for whom we pray, are in a state of grace, and are certain to be admitted to the joys of Heaven when their period of expiation is at an end.
Next Thursday: Ceremonies of the Mass