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A reader rang a couple of weeks ago expressing dismay at a photo that had appeared in local newspaper shortly after the home team’s win in a sporting grand final. It showed a Roman Catholic priest wearing a chasuble in distinctive team colours with the club logo emblazoned on the front.
This is not the first time that logos on priests’ vestments have caused concern. The chaplain to the Indy race on the Gold Coast wears a stole in the pattern of the chequered flag. A catalogue of merchandise for the Year of Great Jubilee 2000 featured a chasuble embroidered with the jubilee logo.
Historical evidence suggests that from the fourth century bishops began to adopt some of the signs of office of imperial Roman officials and to wear them in the liturgy. In the middle ages, the simple flowing robes which had been used for centuries were gradually 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.
The second Vatican council established the principle that all things set apart for use in divine worship be truly worthy, becoming and beautiful, signs and symbols of the supernatural world (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy #122).
Applying this specifically to vestments, the Council says we should strive after noble beauty rather than sumptuous display (CSL #124).
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal goes into more detail about the nature and purpose of vestments:
The variety of offices in the celebration of the Eucharist is shown outwardly by the diversity of sacred vestments, which should therefore be a sign of the office proper to each minister. At the same time, however, the sacred vestments should also contribute to the beauty of the sacred action itself. (#335)
It emphases the importance of materials and design:
It is fitting that the beauty and nobility of each vestment derive not from abundance of overly lavish ornamentation, but rather from the material that is used and from the design. Ornamentation on vestments should, moreover, consist of figures, that is, of images or symbols, that evoke sacred use, avoiding thereby anything unbecoming. (#344)
As to whether it is appropriate to wear vestments in football team colours, the GIRM says:
The purpose of a variety in the colour of the sacred vestments is to give effective expression even outwardly to the specific character of the mysteries of faith being celebrated and to a sense of Christian life's passage through the course of the liturgical year. (#345)
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. Any symbols or images on vestments must contribute to their beauty and sacredness, not impress a message on people’s minds or set a theme for the liturgical celebration. Different colours used in vestments serve to remind us of the various aspects of the paschal mystery celebrated in the feasts and seasons of the liturgical year, not of the local sporting club or even worthy church agency.
The wearing of chasubles in football team colours or chequered flag stoles is no doubt a well-meaning attempt to be ‘relevant’, but at what cost to the sacredness and dignity of the liturgical celebration?