Welcome to the first installment of the Great, Robust, Amazing Vestments Extravaganza, or GRAVE! We will be taking a look at each element of a priest’s vestments, one at a time. Exciting!
First up is the chasuble, the colorful outer vestment worn at Mass.
The early history and origins of the chasuble come from an everyday Roman garment. Its name comes from the Latin, casula, or “little house,” because it had a conical shape and was made thick to protect from the elements. The priest dressed for Mass as in his daily life, though he probably reserved casulae that were cleaner and newer for this purpose. Thus, the custom of special priestly vestments arose.
These early chasubles were made from a single piece of fabric, and thus had a seam running down the front. These were eventually covered with a decorative band or braid. This is how ornamentation first developed on what were otherwise common, daily garments. Another braid was added horizontally to support the fabric around the neck, conveniently making a T or cross shape. Later, a corresponding band was added on the back for purely decorative reasons. Pretty soon, these bands (now called orphreys) became filled with rich embroidery and decoration, a custom that continues today.
Chasubles today are most frequently made from a material called rayon, which is a natural material that originates from wood and then is chemically turned into a soft fabric. I have no clue how this happens. Silk is also frequently used. Polyester is becoming more common too. Polyester vestments are cheap and light, but they age poorly, look shabby, and don’t last a long time.
Sometimes you might hear the words damask and brocade. A damask is a fabric that has some repeating pattern woven into it, while a brocade has gold or silver threads added to make a design. In this picture, the green, red, and purple fabrics are damasks while the white and blue are brocades.
Here in the U.S., there are seven colors for chasubles (green, white, red, purple, rose, gold, and black) depending on the feast or the occasion for the Mass. You may not know that blue chasubles are approved for use on Marian feast days in Spain and certain former Spanish colonies.
No matter what style or color is chosen by the celebrant, the whole purpose of the chasuble is to cover up the priest’s identity with that of Jesus Christ. The bright colors, the rich materials, the beautiful embroidery…all of this is intended to be a visual feast and a foretaste of Heaven, but also meant to be worthy raiment for Jesus Christ, who supernaturally exercises His priestly office on the altar through the priest. OK, Father? This isn’t about you. Jeez.
Sometimes we see Fr. Friendlyhugs, SJ, skip the chaz to seem more “humble” or something. Other times a priest will wear the stole over the top, which I honestly can’t explain. These events have no good explanation, usually seem to happen at the 11:30 pm Candlelight Mass, and (here’s the point) are forbidden. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the non-negotiable Church teaching that explains all the rubrics of the liturgy, says:
The vestment proper to the Priest Celebrant at Mass and during other sacred actions directly connected with Mass is the chasuble worn, unless otherwise indicated, over the alb and stole. (no. 337)
Obviously, there are exceptions, like if the parish doesn’t have enough vestments for all of the priests celebrating at the liturgy. But these are exceptions.
When preparing for Mass, the priest says a different vesting prayer for each of the garments he must put on. Here is the vesting prayer for the chasuble:
O Lord, Who hast said, My yoke is easy and My burden light; grant that I may be able so to bear it, that I may obtain Thy grace. Amen.