Wearing Stoles

A friend asked me about the practice of placing a stole around the necks of the newly confirmed during the celebration of the sacrament as had happened at the recent confirmation of her godson.  Photos in the Catholic press suggest that this is a not-uncommon tradition, but some people are questioning its significance and appropriateness.

The stole is a long, narrow strip of cloth that is worn around the neck like a scarf. Often it is adorned with fringes and/or designs. As with other liturgical vestments, the colour of the stole depends on the feast or season being celebrated, although purple is always used in the sacrament of reconciliation.

The origin the stole is unclear. Like many vestments used in liturgy, however, it probably began as a practical secular garment. In the early years of the Christian era, the Greeks wore a long garment called a stola. A similar type of garment was also worn by distinguished Roma citizens as a sign of public honour.

The first evidence of the stole being worn by clergy comes from Spain in the 6th century. By the 9th century, the practice was in general use in the West and the Synod of Mainz in 813 stipulated that priests must always wear a stole as a sign of their calling.

The stole is a symbol of priestly office. Priests and bishops wear it hanging straight down from each shoulder to the knees. Deacons wear the stole diagonally across the body like a sash, draped over the left shoulder and fastened at the right hip. Other ministers do not wear the stole.

Apart from being one of the vestments for the celebration of Mass, the stole is used in the administration of all sacraments, when the Blessed Sacrament is touched, and in general when preaching.

At Mass, the stole is usually worn over the alb and underneath the chasuble. At other services, it is simply worn over the alb, surplice or religious habit. Priests are no longer required to cross the two ends of the stole over the chest when vesting for Mass. The cincture, the rope belt tied around the alb, is often used to secure the stole.  

According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal: "In the Church, which is the Body of Christ, not all members have the same office. This 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.” (#335)

The stole is the proper symbol of priestly office and is intended to distinguish the ministry of the priest from that of others in the celebration of liturgy. It therefore seems to be inappropriate to use this symbol for any other purpose, including as a means of setting apart the newly confirmed.

Since Vatican II, confirmation has been restored to its traditional role as the sacrament which recalls baptism and leads to the reception of Eucharist, the culmination of initiation into the Church. The 'badge of honour' par excellence for those who have just been confirmed is surely their sharing for the first time in the sacred meal at the table of the Eucharist.  

Elizabeth Harrington