I thought it might be interesting, on occasion, to use my weekly bulletin article as a sort of “Did You Know?” to explore some of the various aspects of Catholic practice and teaching. There are so many things in the Church that we “do” or “say” that are done or said for really great reasons, but in my experience, I never really stopped to think about the reasons why until I entered seminary and started studying them! Hopefully, you find these little tidbits of information interesting or helpful. If you ever have ideas for future articles, feel free to email me!
We all know that a priest traditionally wears black, whether that is in the form of a clerical suit (black slacks and clerical shirt, with or without a suitcoat) or a cassock (the long robe with buttons down the front of it). Black is worn as a symbol that the priest has “died” to himself and lives his life now for others. The black serves also as a sign to others that we all live for a greater reality, which is life with God. The white collar is two-fold in its symbolism: first, for obedience, reminding the priest that he is yoked to Christ; and second, for life, reminding us that there is hope in the eternal life God promises us.
During Mass, the priest also wears several other vestments. The first one, a piece of white fabric worn over the collar, is called an amice, and it symbolizes the “helmet of salvation.” Practically, the amice serves to cover the black collar when worn underneath the other vestments, but the prayer that is prayed while vesting with the amice is one asking for the protection of God amidst the assaults of the devil.
The priest then covers himself with the white garment known as the alb (from the Latin word for “white”). Black reminds the faithful that the priest has died to himself; but in the Mass, the priest is no longer himself at all, but acts in the person of the living Christ. Hence, the white alb (also a reminder of baptism, where we all receive the gift of divine life!) covers any reminder of death and replaces it with a reminder that Christ Resurrected is now among us in the person of His priest.
Around the waist is then worn the cincture, a rope-like belt. Other than the obvious practical function, the cincture reminds the priest of his promise of celibacy, and as he ties it, he prays that the Lord might protect him in those promises and grant him the gift of purity.
The priest then places the stole over his shoulders (this is not often seen, as it is covered by the outer garment). The stole is a symbol of authority, granted by Christ to protect and persevere His Church; ironically, it is also, somewhat literally, a yoke, reminding all who see it that a priest’s authority comes only from his conformity to Christ, the true Head of the Church. (The priest wears this stole in all of the sacraments he performs, as a reminder that it is always Christ through the priest who acts in the Sacraments.) When the priest dons the stole, he prays that God might restore to him the “stole of immortality” which was lost through the sin of our first parents.
Finally, over all of this, the priest wears the chasuble, which has taken various shapes throughout the Church’s history. The color of the stole and chasuble also changes based on the liturgical celebration, in general: green during Ordinary Time, red on the feasts of martyrs and for the Holy Spirit, violet during the penitential seasons or (optionally) at funerals, and white in all other circumstances (Easter, Christmas, non-martyrs’ feast days, funerals, weddings, etc.). The chasuble is a sort of cloak, symbolic of love. Importantly, over authority, the priest puts on love, as St. Paul reminds us to do (cf. Col 3:14). In the Mass, what stands before all is the Person of Christ—Love made Incarnate for me and you.
There is certainly more that could be said about what a priest wears and why, but I hope this gives you a little something to ponder next time you’ re looking at the priest at Mass…and just maybe answers some of your (unasked) questions!
Keep spreading joy!