Why Liturgical Vestments?

by David Baier, O.F.M.


David Baier discusses the origin and purpose of liturgical vestments. Although it is commonly assumed that the Church began the practice of liturgical vestments in order to imitate Jewish practice in the Old Testament or to distinguish the clergy from the laity, the Church probably did not have these purposes consciously in mind. Special lturgical vestments were not used until the seventh century, when male attire was adapted to a more convenient style. The flowing attire of earlier times, however, was considered more appropriate for liturgical use and was accordingly retained. Liturgical vestments do distinguish the clergy from the laity, but more importantly, they glorify God through symbolizing the priest's interior holiness, and they inspire reverence for the liturgy in both the sacred ministers and the lay participants.

Larger Work

Orate Fratres


261 - 265

Publisher & Date

unknown, April 15, 1933

This question resolves itself into two other distinct questions: What was the reason for the adoption of liturgical vestments? Now that sacred vestments have been introduced, what particular purpose do they serve? The answers to these questions do not necessarily coincide.

In answer to the first question, we may say that there was no conscious purpose in the mind of the Church in adopting a distinctive garb for the clergy while celebrating sacred functions. As far as we know, our divine Lord gave no directions to the apostles or to the Church in regard to this matter. If He had done so, we would expect the apostles to have carried them out in the assemblies of the Christians. The fact is that several centuries elapsed before the clergy at divine services were vested in garments different in style from those of the laity. Abundant testimony from the early centuries sufficiently substantiates the fact. Furthermore, the Roman Church even appears to have been opposed to the adoption of a distinctive liturgical garb. We know this from a letter of Pope Celestine I (422-432), in which he reproved the bishops of Provence for using a special costume at liturgical services.

It is not unlikely that one or the other distinctive garment of the clergy dates from the fifth and sixth centuries. Still, it is a well-established fact that at the time of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), the church vestments did not differ notably from those of the distinguished laity. Historians of the liturgy point to the fact that St. Gregory and his father are described by John the Deacon as wearing the same kind of garments, a dalmatic and planeta (chasuble); they evidently were not yet regarded as distinctive liturgical vestments.

With the gradual change of male attire to a more convenient style, about the seventh century, coincides the development of liturgical vestments. The graceful flowing garments of former times were no longer desired for ordinary use, but were still retained as more becoming in the celebration of the liturgy. The insignia of dignitaries were adopted by the clergy, but now gradually became the distinction of clerics in the exercise of sacred functions. The further development of the liturgical vestments was quite natural. When no longer intended for ordinary wear, they would inevitably assume a form more adapted to their purpose. We might expect that a more costly material would be used in making them, and that a richer ornamentation would distinguish them from ordinary garments.

From what has been stated, it is evident that the adoption of liturgical vestments was by no means due to the existence of liturgical vestments in the Old Testament. We may possibly say that the Church imitated the practice, which existed in the Old Law by reason of a positive divine command. But even then we must add that there is no evidence of a conscious imitation. Only after the Church had liturgical vestments, and while these were in the process of further development, was there any thought of connecting them with the liturgical garb of the Jewish priests. Only then was it possible to stress the point, that it was just as becoming for the clergy of the New Testament as for the priests of the Old Testament to be distinguished at divine service by a special kind of dress.

In a similar manner, there is nothing to support the opinion that the liturgical garb of the Church originated from a natural desire to distinguish the clergy from the laity. It is true that such a natural desire has led to the adoption of certain insignia, by which officials of the State or of private organizations are distinguished from the ordinary citizen or member of society. Many interesting details could be enumerated concerning the influence of this instinct and the manifold ways in which it manifests itself in child and adult life. It is not too much to say that such a desire has hastened the progress of the development of the sacred vestments and has helped to define their use by the different ranks of the clergy. It cannot, however, be regarded as the direct cause of the adoption of a liturgical costume.

This brings us to the second question: What particular purpose do liturgical vestments serve? They distinguish the laity from the clergy who are engaged in the performance of sacred functions, but this cannot be their only purpose. They must have a more exalted purpose, a religious significance, a spiritual value, which corresponds to their use in the liturgy of the Church. In other words, the sacred vestments can have no other purpose than that of liturgy itself.

The principal purpose of liturgy is the glorification of God. The liturgical vestments must also contribute to the glory of God. Our internal acts must find expression in our outward appearance, for man is not only spirit, but also flesh. Acts of adoration and reverence, which proceed directly from the soul, are expressed by acts of the body, such as genuflecting and inclinations. Likewise, the garments worn by clerics in presenting themselves before God to give Him public honor are an outward expression of their feeling of reverence in the presence of God. In this respect they are no less a means of glorifying God than the bending of the knee and similar acts of respect.

An allusion to this purpose of liturgical vestments is contained in the formula for blessing them. At the beginning of the first prayer there is a reference to the command of God concerning the use of a special liturgical costume in the Old Law; the prayer states that God commanded this for the honor and glory of His name (ad honorem et decorem nominis tui). With still greater right, then, may it be said that the vestments, which the Church dedicates to the service of God, also contribute to His honor and glory. And if this is so, what is more becoming than the use of vestments of precious material and rich ornamentation? The best we have is none too good to devote to the service of an infinite God.

If the liturgical vestments have no other purpose than that of liturgy itself, their secondary purpose is the sanctification of souls. In the first place, the liturgical vestments tend to inspire reverence for the sacred functions of the liturgy, not only in the sacred ministers who wear them, but also in the participants. This reverence is the root of the pious dispositions requisite for a faithful performance or participation in liturgical acts. In vesting themselves with the liturgical costumes, the sacred ministers cannot but be reminded that they are withdrawing themselves temporarily from the world to enter the sanctuary of God and devote themselves entirely to His service. They cannot but be reminded of the sanctity which should adorn the soul which approaches close to the infinitely holy God, to converse intimately with Him. The sacred vestments are a reminder of the wedding garment of sanctifying grace with which the worthy ministers of Christ should be clothed in celebrating the divine functions. They remind particularly the priest of the Christlike character with which he is clothed as with a garment.

At the altar the priest appears in a special sense as the alter Christus, and in him must be verified the injunction of St. Paul: "Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 13, 14). To the priests of the Church applies also the exhortation of the Psalmist: "Let Thy priests be clothed with justice, and let Thy saints rejoice" (Ps. 131, 9). Justice, the garment of sanctifying grace, is a necessary disposition for the worthy minister of Christ. The liturgical vestments not only symbolize that internal disposition, but also tend to intensify and increase it by the reverence they inspire in the sacred ministers who wear them.

It is not our purpose here to enter into a consideration of the symbolism of particular vestments; but in the rite of ordination to the major Orders, the Roman Pontifical expressly refers to the spiritual meaning of each of the vestments. One vestment may have a different signification from another, but all of them together are intended to express outwardly the sanctity that should characterize the sacred minister. They should remind him day after day of his obligation of sanctifying himself as well as edifying others.

"Let Thy saints rejoice." These words of the Psalmist's exhortation cited above may well be applied to the faithful. For them as well as for the sacred ministers at the altar the sacred vestments have their significance. They are members of the same mystical body of Christ, to which their priests and other clergy belong. When the clergy minister at the altar, they are performing a duty towards God, which pertains to the entire Church. The faithful should not be mere passive attendants, but active participants at divine service, as far as this is permitted them. The sacred vestments worn by the clergy must be an incentive for them to greater reverence and increased fervor in assisting at divine functions, which are also their acts of worship towards God.

Moreover, when they see the sacred ministers clothed in their liturgical costume, they cannot but be impressed with the grandeur of the liturgical acts. No effort may be spared to enhance their splendor. The use of precious liturgical vestments is only one means of bringing home this lesson to the faithful. And if the external splendor of liturgical functions impresses them, must they not realize that the only suitable disposition for those who participate in them is internal sanctity? The sacred vestments are not merely a symbol of the garment of sanctifying grace, which should adorn the soul of the priest; they also teach the faithful participants in the liturgy that they should be clothed in the same supernatural garment when they assist at divine service. Sacred Scripture calls them saints because they are also expected to possess the holiness which makes one pleasing to God. Great joy fills the hearts of the faithful when they recognize sanctity in their priests. But they themselves should experience the joy of personal holiness. As members of Christ, it is not less incumbent upon them than upon the priests to strive to increase the beauty of that garment of grace, which adorns their soul. Thus they will become more and more worthy to assist at sacred functions, and they will have a foretaste of that heavenly joy which the blessed in heaven experience in chanting hymns of praise and thanks before the throne of God.

A passing reference has been made to the formula for blessing liturgical vestments. The blessing imparted upon these vestments by the Church gives them additional spiritual value. On account of the blessing they are not merely liturgical, but also sacred vestments. In blessing them the Church not only dedicates them permanently to the service of God, but also invokes the grace of God upon those who wear them, and thus seeks to make her ministers more and more worthy of engaging in the sacred acts of the liturgy.

This item 4311 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org