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A caller commended me on my recent column on the topic of church spaces, vessels and books, and enquired whether the General Instruction of the Roman Missal had anything to say about liturgical vestments. “And where did they come from anyway?” she asked.
Although it is often claimed that early Christian leaders of liturgy simply wore their “Sunday best” version of everyday garb, history shows that at a very early stage, presiders and other ministers adopted vesture that differed somewhat from normal civic dress. This is hardly surprising as it was the practice of Jewish prayer leaders and leaders of many different groups to wear special garments.
Because secular dress has changed so much in the last 2000 years, the gap between liturgical and everyday dress is now very marked. While the vestments used in the Roman Catholic Church today are similar to those worn by our early ancestors in the faith, they have undergone many modifications over the centuries.
From around the 14th century, the simple flowing robes which had been used for centuries were replaced by complex layers of elaborate embroidery and lace. As garments became more highly decorated they became smaller, until they were no longer real garments at all. Originally, the robe itself was the symbol: eventually it became merely the vehicle for dramatic displays and pious symbolism.
In 1930 Dom Roulin, a forerunner of the liturgical movement, claimed that the liturgical vestment had ceased to be a vestment and had become an ornament, and “an ornament in a style either of pompous affectation or of stilted ugliness”.
When new technology made mass- production (pun intended!) of vestments possible, they became more affordable. As a result, local churches were often presented with vestment by grieving relatives in memory of the deceased. Unfortunately, these vestments were often of dubious quality and design, but priests felt obligated to wear them.
The second Vatican council established the principle that all things set apart for use in divine worship be truly worthy, becoming and beautiful (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy #122). Applying this specifically to vestments, the Council says we should strive after noble beauty rather than sumptuous display (#124).
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal explains that
“The diversity of offices in the celebration of the Eucharist is shown outwardly by the diversity of sacred vestments, which must be a sign of the function proper to each minister. Moreover, the sacred vestments should also contribute to the beauty of the sacred action itself.” (#335)
The General Instruction also stresses the importance of simplicity in design and using appropriate materials for liturgical vestments:
“It is fitting that the beauty and nobility of each vestment not be sought in an abundance of overlaid ornamentation, but rather in the material used and in the design. Ornamentation on vestments should, moreover, consist of figures, that is, of images or symbols that denote sacred use, avoiding anything unbecoming to this.” (#344)
Vestments are themselves symbols which function by their design and shape, quality of fabric and colour; they are not billboards for miscellaneous messages and logos.
Like everything used in the sacred rites, it is important that vestments be kept clean and in good repair.