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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 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.
With the passage of time, liturgical vesture slowly evolved but never lost its roots in ancient Mediterranean culture. Because secular dress has changed so much in the last 2000 years, the gap between liturgical and everyday dress is now very marked. While some may bemoan this fact, there are positive aspects, as these quotes from liturgy documents explain:
The variety of offices in the celebration of the Eucharist is shown outwardly by the diversity of sacred vestments, which should therefore symbolise the office proper to each minister. But at the same time the sacred vestments should also contribute to the beauty of the liturgical service. (General Instruction of the Roman Missal 2000, #335)
The colour and form of the vestments and their difference from everyday clothing invite an appropriate attention and are part of the ritual experience essential to the festive character of a liturgical celebration. (Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, #93)
While present-day Roman vestments are more or less like those worn by our early ancestors in the faith, they have undergone many modifications over the centuries. From around the 14th century, when assemblies were no longer participants but merely spectators at liturgy, 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 reforms of Vatican II have seen a return to austerity and simplicity in regard to liturgical dress. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal 2000 emphases the importance of materials and design:
The beauty and nobility of a vestment should derive from the material used and the design rather than from extraneous and lavish ornamentation. Furthermore, ornamentation on vestments should consist only of images or symbols portraying the sacred. Anything out of keeping with the sacred is to be avoided. (#343)
Whatever garb is worn, it needs to be evaluated in terms of its ability to serve and enhance the liturgy to the benefit of both the ministers and the entire assembly.