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Monday, July 25, 2011

Ask Father...: Liturgical Colors and Chasuble Styles

"Dear Father,
What is the significance of the robes that priests wear?  And why do they all look so different?  Are they specially made for you?"

In the simplest of terms, the colors of the sacred vestments of the priest (as well as the deacon) reflect a number of things: the Liturgical Season, the type of Mass being celebrated, the designation of the particular Saint being celebrated, etc.

The use of color is an important part of our worship.  We Catholics worship with our whole bodies and with all five senses…we hear the music, we taste the Eucharistic bread, we smell the incense, etc.  The visual component, then, is very important, and all that we see has meaning.  With regard to color itself, the liturgical colors of the Roman Rite may be broken down like this:

Ordinary Time (Time throughout the Year)
Advent & Lent, penitential days
Christmas, Easter, all Feasts of Our Lord and Our Lady, feasts of the non-martyred Saints, various votive Masses
the Holy Spirit, Martyrs
Masses for the Dead*, All Souls Day
(*)It is acceptable to wear black, violet, or white for Masses for the Dead--a decision usually left to the discretion of the priest.

So, the colors worn by the priest (and deacon) are indicative of the "type" (for lack of a better word) of Mass being celebrated.  

The "conical" chasuble
The Roman or "fiddle-back" chasuble
As to the second and third questions, over the past 2,000 years ecclesial vesture has changed greatly.  There are a number of accepted styles of chasubles in the Roman Rite, many of the designs of which go back hundreds of years.  Most derived from a style known as the "conical" chasuble, which originated in the early Middle Ages, and so-called because when laid out it has a distinctly cone-like shape.  As time progressed, the chasuble became shorter and shorter, culminating in what many call the Roman Chasuble, or "fiddle-back" chasuble.  This style was very popular up until the 19th century, when a neo-Gothic movement brought more fuller cuts of chasuble back into popularity.  Various versions of this style are predominantly what are seen in parishes these days, although it is not uncommon to see other styles.  

The Roman and neo-Gothic chasubles
Vestments vary from parish to parish, and are mostly a matter of taste.  Some priests prefer to have their own vestments made to their own specifications and they only use their own personal vestments.  Others will use whatever is available at the parish.  The only firm guideline with regard to vesture is the color of the base fabric--although there is no regulation with regard to specific shades of a given color.  

Liturgical vesture is very much an area of great debate, as everyone has their own style.  Many will use a priest's vesture as a way of attempting to determine the particular ideology of a priest--which I find to be a grave error.  Even if priests with certain liturgical styles wear a certain style or cut of vestment, to base one's opinion of a priest on such an accidental property does a great disservice to the priest and to oneself.  

What's most important in all of this is to see past the particular tastes and preferences of the priest, and to take in the principle that underlies the reason for sacred vesture, which comes to us directly from the Old Testament, in which Moses received instructions for the proper vesture of priests who served within the Holy of Holies (see Exodus 28 & 39, Leviticus 8, 16, etc.).  The basic principle is: Sacred objects for sacred acts.  We don't worship God in street clothes, because Divine Worship is not a mundane activity--it is a sublime act worthy of employing the most precious objects and vesture that we can obtain, making our sacrifice all that more pleasing in His sight!