Why Wear All those Robes?…

…my Protestant mother once asked. To give her credit, she always asks because she really wants to know–not because she’s picking a fight.

In fact, I wish cradle Catholics had a bit of her curiosity. When I see the tacky vestments in most Catholic Church cupboards I can’t figure it out. You mustn’t misunderstand, I promise you I am not one of those prissy priests who finger lace, purse their lips and roll their eyes with delight. I am not an expert in brocade, silk, taffeta, petticoats and whatever else.

However, it doesn’t take much taste or learning or respect for the sacraments to see that the day-glo, polyester vestments with machine gun embroidery is
in the same category as hip hugger bell bottoms, big hair and turquoise leisure suits with wide lapels.

Why was the stuff made and foisted on us in the first place? I suspect it has to do with the fact that cradle Catholics never took the time to ask the sensible question my Protestant mother asked, “Why do you wear all those fancy robes?” If they had troubled themselves to ask what vestments are for they may not have decided to go the route of polyester ponchos with pictures of fish, grapes and wheat on them.

The priest’s vestments are a ceremonial costume. They are meant to effectively obliterate the priest’s personality. They are also, by the way, meant to be unobtrusive. They should not be creative or clever or call attention to the smart vestment designer or the wonderful seamstress. They are simply to dignify the office of the priest and dignify and beautify the celebration of Mass.

If the Mass is the Royal Marriage Feast of the Lamb, then the priest should dress up for his entrance into the royal court. The robes should therefore be regal in their dignity, their simplicity and their style. As much as possible their beauty should be shown, not by cleverness of design or ornamentation, but through quality materials and fine workmanship.

Why should the priest dress like a king? Because he reminds the whole people of God that they serve Christ the King, and the priest is in persona Christi. Furthermore, they remind the people of God that they too are a chosen people, and a royal priesthood. The priest focuses in his own person and ministry the royal priesthood of the people of God. Furthermore, when the priest dresses in fine robes he symbolizes the riches of grace bestowed upon the people of God. Over the black cassock of his sinful human condition the priest wears the white alb–the symbol that he, (and his people) are clothed in the righteousness of Christ by virtue of their baptism. Over that he wears a splendid chasuble to show that the final state of the Christian is not just the white robes of Christ’s righteousness, but a share in Christ’s own royal priesthood. Each of the faithful are princes and princesses–adopted into the royal family.

How on earth can a day-glo polyester poncho do any of that? I reckon the problem is that people didn’t think it through. They just said, “Gee, Fr. Ted, I guess we gotta wear those robes. Now let’s see, here’s a set in this catalogue here that only costs a hundred dollars for all four. We’ll have those. Look, they’re polyester too! They’ll drip dry. That’ll make Mrs Doyle happy.”

Anyway Mum, that’s why we wear all those fancy robes…

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  • “They are also, by the way, meant to be unobtrusive. They should not be creative or clever or call attention to the smart vestment designer or the wonderful seamstress. They are simply to dignify the office of the priest and dignify and beautify the celebration of Mass.”Mutatis mutandis, this would also describe the church building as well.

  • Anonymous

    I remember last year seeing some beautiful vestments from Elizabethan times in the museum at Oscott College, and being moved by the thought of the hours of patient love that must have gone into making them in an era when the Church was undergoing persecution.Angela

  • I’m more inclined to see it as a matter of the taste of a particular time. Remember Leisure suits and disco shirts? In the Church, it just takes a bit longer to drop bad ideas.

  • I don’t know. I kind of like the new style. I never gave it much thought since the vestments were unobtrusive to me. Some would prefer to stop the clock and return to the “Golden Years.” We are on the down half of the first decade of the 21st century. Preferences in vestments are open to discussion, but preferring to live in the past as opposed to the future is not.

  • The question is not one of living in the past or the future or the present, but if we are to wear vestments, why do we do so, and what is the criteria for decent vestments?There are some perfectly decent and beautiful new vestments made from quality materials to new designs. My quarrel is not with new-ness in favor of antiquity, but against cheap, poor quality, or tacky showy vestments as opposed to dignified, high quality stuff.

  • Drip dry! – he he

  • Okay, when you say ‘machinegun embroidery,’ you must mean that made by sewing machines. Because vestments that had machineguns embroidered on them would be, well, pretty excellent. You always talk about encouraging masculinity in the Church. . . I bet Fr. Corapi probably has some vestments with machine guns on them.

  • “machine-gun embroidery” – ha!I personally would love to see my priest in a tank motif during ordinary time… something that calls to mind Gen. Patton.

  • machine gun embroidery. Did I write that? What I meant was mass produced, machine made embroidery that is just rat a tat tat tacky

  • Our pastor’s vestments are non-obtrusive but very boring.He has one for feasts of Our Lady that is just gorgeous and when he wears it I think people really take notice. It makes them focus on the importance of the day.Also, if the priests were wearing nicer vestments the people would be more likely to dress up themselves instead of wearing their gardening clothes to church.

  • Make Mrs Doyle happy?They will, they will, they will, they will, they will.

  • We borrowed a beautiful black vestment (as a previous parish priest threw out all our lovely ones – amidst protests) for a parishoner’s funeral after he put in his will he wanted ‘black’ and ‘vestment’ rather than a white alb – it had such an impact that many other parishoners are declaring they are adding that to their wills and those who had never seen the black vestment before were touched and excited to see it – someone even ran up afterwards and said ‘what was that that Father was wearing – I want the priest to wear one worn at my funeral!’

  • Bevansinc,I think this is the real problem: Why in the world were all of those beautiful vestments just thrown out?Take note, though. The Vatican is starting to commission new vestments. We saw some of them on Ash Wednesday, and you’ll see more on Palm Sunday. And the vestments it’s commissioning are not just throw-backs, they are styles inspired by the old. That, after all, is how art works, and Holy Mother Church has always been the great patroness of the arts.

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  • “They should not be creative or clever or call attention to the smart vestment designer or the wonderful seamstress.” Whilst I appreciate why you say this, I am not sure I entirely agree with this statement, Father. Seeing the Priest as a servant, this is true. However, the Priest is also acting in persona Christi capiti, and when I think of the sumptuous vestments one sometimes sees, then they make sense too. So, like many things, it seems there are degrees of meaning here, mutually compatible, but not always seeming so.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t recall ever being consulted on the tripe our priest wear. Don’t blame cradle catholics for pathetic formation given by stupid seminaries.Benfan

  • Do your priests actually wear tripe? Must get pretty smelly.

  • Honestly, I just want to help those poor priests who have to wear those awful polyester things in the Summer…Well, and beautiful vestments can be actually be inspiring and serve a purpose. Go poke around over at Fr. Z’s blog to see what I mean.

  • I’ve noticed that the polyester vestments are very similar to the beautiful felt banners that are hung on the walls. Maybe they can merge the two for utilitarian purposes.