Liturgical Garb for Habit-Wearers

ROME, SEPT. 15, 2009 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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Q: My question has to do with the liturgical vesture of habit-wearing religious priests. I recall reading in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM] that the priest should wear an amice if his alb does not cover his “street attire.” Do you think a blessed religious habit counts as “street attire”? (I agree that an ordinary clerical shirt would.) Is it correct for religious priests (wearing a habit with a hood) to wear the habit’s hood outside of the alb, or should it be covered? Also, is there any support from the documents for suggesting that altar servers wearing religious habits should wear a surplice as well? — J.F., Washington, D.C.

A: Regarding sacred vesture of ministers at Mass, the GIRM states:

“336. The sacred garment common to ordained and instituted ministers of any rank is the alb, to be tied at the waist with a cincture unless it is made so as to fit even without such. Before the alb is put on, should this not completely cover the ordinary clothing at the neck, an amice should be put on. The alb may not be replaced by a surplice, not even over a cassock, on occasions when a chasuble or dalmatic is to be worn or when, according to the norms, only a stole is worn without a chasuble or dalmatic.

“337. The vestment proper to the priest celebrant at Mass and other sacred actions directly connected with Mass is, unless otherwise indicated, the chasuble, worn over the alb and stole.

“338. The vestment proper to the deacon is the dalmatic, worn over the alb and stole. The dalmatic may, however, be omitted out of necessity or on account of a lesser degree of solemnity.

“339. In the dioceses of the United States of America, acolytes, altar servers, lectors, and other lay ministers may wear the alb or other suitable vesture or other appropriate and dignified clothing.”

To this may be added the norm issued in the instruction “Redemptionis Sacramentum,” No. 126, “The abuse is reprobated whereby the sacred ministers celebrate Holy Mass or other rites without sacred vestments or with only a stole over the monastic cowl or the common habit of religious or ordinary clothes, contrary to the prescriptions of the liturgical books, even when there is only one minister participating. In order that such abuses be corrected as quickly as possible, Ordinaries should take care that in all churches and oratories subject to their jurisdiction there is present an adequate supply of liturgical vestments made in accordance with the norms.”

From these documents it is clear that the religious habit would be considered as “street attire.” In the liturgical books this expression is used in contrast to the sacred vestments and thus all other clothing, including a bishop’s cassock, would fall under the category of street attire or as in the present translation the “ordinary clothing.”

Thus the alb should always cover a religious habit for Mass and if necessary an amice should be used to cover the neck. The difficulty with the hood is a practical point that depends on its design. Some religious have a detachable hood that can be removed before vesting for Mass while others are sufficiently flat to be covered by the alb.

I would say that wearing the hood outside the alb is to be avoided whenever possible. But this is probably less distracting than a priest’s sporting a singular bulge beneath the alb. If necessary, a loose alb can be specifically designed so as to cover the hood.

The religious habit is a sign of total dedication to God, but it is not, properly speaking, a liturgical vestment. Therefore, when a religious is serving as acolyte at Mass or some other sacred function, he should wear some form of sacred garment over his habit. This garment may be an alb, but the surplice is probably more appropriate as it also allows the habit to witness the wearer’s consecration.

The use of special liturgical vesture is important, even for those who habitually don religious garb. Sacred vestments express the out-of-the-ordinary, exceptional and festive character of the celebration and induce those present to participate in an unhurried, devout and truly active way.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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