Wearing the Cassock

And More on Postures After Communion

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ROME, NOV. 8, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: I know of priests who wear their cassock on Sunday but do not wear it in public. Why is this? Are there guidelines that priests have to wear a cassock in church but not outside? — J.G., Stone Mountain, Georgia

A: The use of a cassock (or soutane), an ankle-length garment, worn by clerics and choristers, remains common in some parts of the world while in others it has almost disappeared or, as our reader points out, is reserved for liturgical functions.

A priest’s cassock is usually black although white is sometimes used in tropical climates. Bishops and some other honorific prelates wear a purple cassock. A cardinal’s cassock is red. These colored cassocks are usually reserved for liturgical functions, however, and both bishops and cardinals typically don a black cassock with colored buttons, trimmings and sash indicating the wearer’s hierarchical status.

The Pope’s cassock is white, a custom that arose after St. Pius V (1504-1572), a member of the Order of Preachers, continued to wear his Dominican habit even after his elevation to the papacy in 1566.

According to canon law (Canon 284) clergy are required to don some form of worthy ecclesiastical dress according to the norms of the bishops’ conference and legitimate local customs.

Thus, while there is ample scope for different forms of clerical garb, a priest should be readily identifiable by his external presentation, unless some grave external circumstances, such as the legal prohibition of clerical dress, makes the ecclesiastical law impossible to practice.

In the United States, the official norms ask that priests generally use the black clerical suit and collar although nothing prevents the use of the cassock. All the same, the custom of largely reserving the cassock for “in house” use within the church, rectory or seminary is fairly long-standing in the United States and predates the Second Vatican Council.

In Poland, and some other Central European countries, the sight of a priest in cassock is still quite common, occasionally even while engaged in leading youth groups and pilgrimages.

In the Vatican, the use varies. Many priests prefer to use the clerical suit for daily chores and reserve the cassock for formal meetings; others retain the habitual use of the cassock.

In fact, until April, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger could be observed almost daily as he walked across St. Peter’s Square from home to office and back again, dressed in a simple black cassock.

Within the liturgy, the cassock may be used along with a surplice (a white large-sleeved loose-fitting garment worn over the cassock and reaching almost to the knees, usually made of linen or cotton and sometimes decorated with lace) in carrying out most rites in which an alb is not prescribed. This would include, for example, the celebration of baptisms, Benediction, and weddings outside of Mass.

However, the expanded role attributed to the alb as a universal liturgical vesture has diminished the use of the cassock and surplice both for priests and for others such as acolytes who often used it to serve Mass.

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Follow-up: Proper Posture After Communion

In the wake of our comments on postures after Communion (Oct. 25) several readers inquired about a custom in several places.

One Michigan reader writes: “My diocese has adopted some disturbing practices during Holy Mass. The entire congregation has been ordered to stand from the Great Amen until every communicant has received and returned to their seat. Please comment.”

There are two points to consider. One is to have the congregation stand from the end of the Eucharistic Prayer until Communion. The second is to have the entire congregation stand until all have received Communion.

With respect to the first point, standing after the Agnus Dei is the most common posture in the universal Church. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states, however, that where the practice of knelling at this moment is customary, such as in the United States, it is praiseworthily retained.

Because of this, the official U.S. translation of GIRM No. 43 retained the practice but gave some scope to the local bishop. To wit:

“In the dioceses of the United States of America, they should kneel beginning after the singing or recitation of the Sanctus until after the Amen of the Eucharistic Prayer, except when prevented on occasion by reasons of health, lack of space, the large number of people present, or some other good reason. Those who do not kneel ought to make a profound bow when the priest genuflects after the consecration. The faithful kneel after the Agnus Dei unless the Diocesan Bishop determines otherwise.”

Since, in accordance with the final sentence of the above norm, the diocesan bishop has determined to have the faithful stand after the Agnus Dei, this becomes the norm for that diocese.

The second point, of having everybody remain standing until all have received Communion, was already treated in a Feb. 17, 2004, column, and I substantially repeat what I then wrote:

“GIRM, No. 43, caused some controversy. It affirms that the faithful ‘may sit or kneel while the period of sacred silence after Communion is observed.’

“Some liturgists, and even some bishops, interpreted this text to mean that nobody should kneel or sit until everybody had received Communion. The resulting debate led Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. bishops’ Liturgy Committee (BCL), to request an authentic interpretation from the Holy See on May 26, 2003.

“Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, responded to the question on June 5, 2003 (Prot. N. 855/03/L):

“‘Responsum: “Negative, et ad mentem” [No, for this reason]. The mens [reasoning] is that the prescription of the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, no. 43, is intended, on the one hand, to ensure within broad limits a certain uniformity of posture within the congregation for the various parts of the celebration of Holy Mass, and on the other, to not regulate posture rigidly in such a way that those who wish to kneel or sit would no longer be free.’

“Having received this response, the BCL Newsletter commented: ‘In the implementation of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, therefore, posture should not be regulated so rigidly as to forbid individual communicants from kneeling or sitting when returning from having received Holy Communion’ (p. 26).”

All the same, no matter what posture they adopt, the faithful may still be encouraged to begin their thanksgiving by participating in the Communion hymn, especially if a period of silence for personal prayer is duly observed after the distribution of Communion.

Finally, a religious mentioned a particular point regarding genuflections:

“Your response for Oct. 25 includes that some people habitually genuflect when ‘passing the center of the Church.’ In our convent if we are passing through the west cloister and the chapel doors are open, we do this. But it is not because of habit. As I understand it, when the tabernacle used to be in the center of the sanctuary, behind the altar, we would be thus reverencing Our Lord in the Sacrament, while passing by.”

My response referred only to the case of not genuflecting to the tabernacle immediately after receiving Communion during Mass.

At all other times, genuflection is the proper and appropriate gesture of respect and adoration to be made whenever passing in front of the tabernacle, at least in the context of Western culture.

Some Asian cultures substitute a deep bow which in their context has the same sense of adoration and veneration as the genuflection in the West.

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Readers may send questions to news@zenit.org. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country.

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