“Who’s that yonder dressed in white?”

I like doing the crossword puzzle in the daily paper (not the cryptic – that’s beyond me!). Several times the clue ‘priest’s garment’ has appeared for the word ‘alb’.

When doing workshops for lay leaders of liturgy, I often get a surprised or negative reaction when I suggest that on more formal occasions, the lay leader might vest in an alb. Some people object and claim that only a priest is entitled to wear the alb.

The alb is a white linen garment reaching from the neck to the ankles with tight- fitting sleeves and tied at the waist by a girdle. It is derived from the under-tunic common in the Roman and Greek world. It has been used in Christian worship from an early date, but it was not regarded as a specifically liturgical garment until long after the other Eucharistic vestments.

The word ‘alb’ comes from the Latin ‘albus’, meaning ‘white’. White is the colour worn by the elders, martyrs and the throng standing before the throne of the Lamb in the Book of Revelation.

A white garment is the dress of all the baptised. At baptism, these words are said:

“ N., you have become a new creation and have clothed yourself in Christ. Receive this baptismal garment and bring it unstained to the judgement seat of our Lord Jesus Christ, so that you may have everlasting life.”

When the body of a deceased Catholic is brought to the church for the funeral liturgy, a pall is placed over the coffin as a symbol of our dignity as Christians and of that white baptismal garment.

According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal: “The sacred garment common to the ordained and instituted ministers of any rank is the alb, to be tied at the waist with a cincture unless it is made to fit without such.” (GIRM 2000 # 336)

It goes on to explain that: “The vestment proper to the priest celebrant at Mass and other sacred actions directly connected with Mass is, unless otherwise indicated, the chasuble, worn over the alb and stole.” (GIRM 2000 # 337)

The General Instruction also says that it is appropriate that those garments worn by lay ministers, like the vestments worn by priests and deacons, be blessed before they are put into liturgical use. (GIRM 2000 # 335)

The Guidelines for Lay Leaders of Liturgy for the Archdiocese of Brisbane suggest that on more formal occasions (e.g. Sundays and funerals), the lay leader of liturgy vests in a well-designed alb. On less formal occasions (e.g. weekdays), the lay leader of liturgy does not need to vest.

Liturgical vesture emphasises symbolic sacred functions within the liturgy; it is not a value judgement about the person performing the function.

The clothing of liturgical ministers, whether vested or not, should reflect reverence for the ministry, the assembly and for the liturgy. One’s attire should not distract others by drawing attention to itself.

Decisions about vesture are influence by local tradition, the type and location of the service, and the assembly. Vesting adds dignity to a service and recognises the presider as a representative of the faith community.


Elizabeth Harrington