Colors of Cassocks and Altar Cloths

And More on Paper Towel Purificators

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ROME, FEB. 9, 2010 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q1: Is it now proper for altar servers and adult servers to wear a cassock color-coordinated with the vestments of the priest and deacon? I arrived at a church today to find the adult server/lector attired not in a white alb, but in a green cassock (to match the priest’s and deacon’s vestments), a white surplice, and a green cape over them. (I shuddered, wondering if the parish had just bought lots of this color-coordinated stuff.) It looked like an Episcopalian church. Is this now the “in” fashion? Where is it authorized for servers to wear anything other than a white alb and cincture? — K.S., Bartlesville, Oklahoma

Q2: The altar cloths are always in white. Are we allowed to use any other colored clothes on the altar for celebrating Mass and other liturgical celebrations? — R.G., Kohima, India

A: As these questions are related to decorative elements, I will respond to both of them together.

No. 119.c and No. 339 of the General Introduction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) succinctly summarizes the current norms. No. 119.c states: “In the sacristy, the sacred vestments (cf. below, nos. 337-341) for the priest, the deacon, and other ministers are to be prepared according to the various forms of celebration: … c. For the other ministers: albs or other lawfully approved attire. All who wear an alb should use a cincture and an amice unless, due to the form of the alb, they are not needed.”

Recently, these norms were slightly broadened by an updated version of June 1994 guidelines issued by the U.S. bishops’ conference: “The suggested guidelines may be used as a basis for developing diocesan guidelines. Number 6: ‘Acolytes, altar servers, readers, and other lay ministers may wear the alb or other suitable vesture or other appropriate or dignified clothing. (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 339) All servers should wear the same liturgical vesture.'”

Although the alb and cincture may be used everywhere, both the universal and national norms intentionally leave the door open for local customs. These vary from place to place, and each bishop may issue norms for his own diocese.

In most places, adult servers use the alb or a similar vestment that is usually white or off-white in color. Some places use a cassock and surplice. There is more variety for younger servers. For example, in Italy most young altar servers use a black or a red cassock with a surplice, although some places also use the “Tarcissian.” This is a kind of off-white alb with two red stripes running from the shoulder to the floor, thus evoking the ancient Roman tunic.

In some parts of Poland and the Baltic countries, both adults and children can sometimes be seen serving Mass wearing only a surplice over their ordinary clothes.

I have never seen the green cassock or any effort to coordinate the server’s vesture with the liturgical season. Either this is an established custom in the area or some new initiative. I doubt very much it is a new liturgical fashion. It would be necessary to consult with the diocesan liturgy office regarding established norms before broaching the question with the pastor.

Regarding the second question, I would say that the following norm from the American translation of the GIRM No. 304, although specifically geared toward the United States, is equally applicable to many other countries. The use of a colored seasonal antependium, or frontal, is a long-standing custom in the Latin rite and may be used to enhance the awareness of the liturgical season.

“Out of reverence for the celebration of the memorial of the Lord and for the banquet in which the Body and Blood of the Lord are offered on an altar where this memorial is celebrated, there should be at least one white cloth, its shape, size, and decoration in keeping with the altar’s design. When, in the dioceses of the United States of America, other cloths are used in addition to the altar cloth, then those cloths may be of other colors possessing Christian honorific or festive significance according to longstanding local usage, provided that the uppermost cloth covering the mensa (i.e., the altar cloth itself) is always white in color.”

* * *

Follow-up: Paper Towel Purificators

Commenting on our Jan. 26 piece on paper-towel purificators, a priest remarks: “Paper towels are clearly not suitable for use at the liturgy. Thinking as a celebrant who has no community helpers to take care of stained linen, I suspect that the priests are either trying to be efficient or economical. The reason for purificators being white is not explained. The stains never seem to leave linen and turn dirty brown if bleach is used — thus requiring new purchases of ‘linens.’ On the one hand, the instruction says ‘suitable cloth’ and on the other, it says ‘linen.’ Can we presume to use cotton cloth? I used to do this in the military due to saying Mass on a jeep in the desert. The cotton lasted longer and was easy to take care of. Now that I am bi-ritual, I find Eastern churches more practical. We use beautiful red purificators in keeping with Precious Blood stains. It is more practical and has never been an issue for washing. Made of cotton or linen, they work better. I now use them for the Roman Mass and no one has yet objected.”

Certain norms grow out of traditions, and the Roman tradition is to use white purificators. This color might have been first used because it happened to be available. Even though the red purificators might be deemed more practical, I believe that we should follow the norms proper to each liturgical tradition and avoid mixing.

With respect to the material, it was once required that purificators be made of pure white linen or hemp, and cotton was forbidden. As we saw in our previous column, the present norms simply say that “The material of purificators should be absorbent and easily laundered.” And this opens the door to cotton and other suitable textiles.

The reason behind this change is probably also practical. Modern manufacturing techniques and the advent of new artificial fibres have sometimes converted pure linen into an expensive luxury. Also, with the widespread distribution of Communion under both species in most U.S. parishes, the use of purificators has grown exponentially, along with the inevitable increase in laundry requirements.

With respect to folding and ironing the purificator, the indications of the century-old Catholic Encyclopedia are still of practical value: “The Purificator is used for cleansing the chalice [and the ciborium ndr]. Its size is not prescribed by the rubrics. It is usually twelve to eighteen inches long, and nine or ten inches wide. It is folded in three layers so that when placed on the chalice beneath the paten its width is about three inches. A small cross may be worked in it at its centre to distinguish it from the little finger-towels used at the lavabo, although this is not prescribed.”

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