Traditional Catholic Vestments

The priest wears special garments during the Catholic Mass celebration.
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If you grew up in the Catholic Church, you’re accustomed to seeing the priest don special decorative garments in different colors to celebrate mass, depending upon the particular season in the church’s liturgical year. The word “vestment” derives from a Latin word that means “clothing,” but Catholics now use the word to refer to the garments that the priest and other clergy members wear while performing their duties during Mass and other celebrations sacred to the Catholic faith.

1 History

Catholic historians trace the origin of the wearing of vestments to Exodus in the Bible: “vestments that they shall make … a tunick and a strait linen garment, a mitre and a girdle … for thy brother Aaron and his sons, that they may do the office of priesthood unto me … And they shall take gold, and violet, and purple, and scarlet twice dyed, and fine linen.” Catholics believe that the priest and other clergy wear vestments to set them apart from the common people. Vestments as we know them have a secular origin; they were originally worn by everyday people in the Roman world.

2 Priest

The most visible vestment that the priest wears during mass is the bell-shaped chasuble, the vestment that falls almost to his feet. It hangs down in front and behind, and the back of the garment is often adorned with a large cross. Catholics believe that the chasuble symbolizes charity and the priest’s dedication of service to God. Other garments that the priest wears while saying mass include the alb, which is a long, white linen garment. Its white color is a symbol of the priest's purity of soul and body. Around his waist the priest ties a girdle, called a cinture, which is usually made of braided linen or wool. The narrow, long vestment that hangs around the priest’s neck and crosse over his chest is a stole.

3 Colors

The priest wears different colored vestments during each liturgical season and on specific church days to symbolize specific meanings. White is worn to symbolize elements such as purity, glory or innocence, and priests wear it during the Christmas season, Easter, wedding Masses and All Saints Day. Since red is the color of fire and blood, priests wear a red vestment on Palm Sunday and the Pentecost Mass, in which Catholics remember the tongues of fire visited upon the apostles, as related in Acts 2: 3, 4: “There appeared to them parted tongues as it were of fire, and it sat upon every one of them … And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost.” Purple, which symbolizes penance and melancholy, is worn during the Advent season, Good Friday and Lent, among other special times in the liturgical calendar year. Green symbolizes growth.

4 Bishop

Bishop O'Malley of Massachusetts is wearing a mitre and carrying the traditional bishop's staff, the crosier.
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After the priest, the bishop is the next most visible member of the Catholic clergy. He is the minister of the sacrament of Confirmation and the head of the diocese, which is a local territory or group of churches. His vestments include the chimere, a sleeveless, long garment, usually red, but sometimes black. The bishop wears special silk stockings called buskins, gloves, sandals and a dalmatic, which is a long robe with wide sleeves that is slit on the sides. On special liturgical occasions, the bishop wears a mitre, a tall headdress. The bishop also wears a short cape over his shoulders.

Sherry Hames began writing professionally in 1982. She holds a master's and a bachelor's degree in English literature, and has proofread and copy edited for "Better Homes & Gardens" and the American Marketing Association, among other outlets. She has edited for more than 25 years.