Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I have been made aware that there are certain priests in the diocese that have ordered that the surplices to be worn by their altar servers shall be blue or red in color. I believe that such does not belong properly to the symbol and historical development of the surplice. Could provide us with a sound explanation on why surplices must always be white. — J.D., Caloocan City, Philippines
According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal:
“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.
“339. Acolytes, lectors, and other lay ministers may wear the alb or other suitable vesture that is lawfully approved by the Conference of Bishops (cf. no. 390).”
This is the overall rule for clerics and instituted ministers.
Although the liturgical books determine when an alb or chasuble is to be used, they do not actually define or even describe the vestment as such. The law, it would seem, presumes that people know what an alb and surplice are and what forms are traditional — and what forms are not.
For clerics and instituted ministers the alb is always white, as indicated by its name which derives from the Latin word for white: albus, alba, album.
The surplice probably originated in medieval France where, during the harsh winter, those singing in choir would repair from the cold by wearing animal skins. Since this was less than elegant, a wide vesture was developed that was worn over the skin (Old French sourpelis, from medieval Latin superpellicium, from super– “above” and pellicia “fur garment”). Over time this vesture, worn over the cassock, was permitted to substitute the alb in those ceremonies that did not require wearing chasuble or dalmatic. Thus it became quite common during celebrations such as baptisms and Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament. Since it substituted the alb, the surplice has always been white.
There have been many changes of style over the centuries and, while remaining white or off-white in color, both alb and surplice have been decorated with different forms of laces and embroideries.
With respect to altar servers, especially children, the customs regarding servers’ albs or cassocks have been somewhat flexible and allow for several colors and forms. For example, in Italy some places 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. This vesture is not accompanied by a surplice.
Also, in some northern European countries such as Poland and the Baltic nations the white surplice, worn over street clothes without the cassock, is often considered as an appropriate vesture for altar servers.
In other places, at least on festive occasions, a colored shoulder cape is also used over the cassock either with or without the white surplice.
Official, norms, where they exist, tend to offer general principles and not enter into excessive detail.
Thus the Liturgy Office of the U.S. bishops’ conference has issued the following norms:
“1. Although institution into the ministry of acolyte is reserved to lay men, the diocesan bishop may permit the liturgical functions of the instituted acolyte to be carried out by altar servers, men and women, boys and girls. Such persons may carry out all the functions listed in no. 100 (with the exception of the distribution of Holy Communion) and nos. 187-190 and no. 193 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal.
“The determination that women and girls may function as servers in the liturgy should be made by the bishop on the diocesan level so that there might be a uniform diocesan policy.
“2. No distinction should be made between the functions carried out in the sanctuary by men and boys and those carried out by women and girls. The term ‘altar boys’ should be replaced by ‘servers.’ The term ‘server’ should be used for those who carry out the functions of the instituted acolyte.
“3. Servers should be mature enough to understand their responsibilities and to carry them out well and with appropriate reverence. They should have already received holy communion for the first time and normally receive the eucharist whenever they participate in the liturgy.
“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.”
These have been reflected in the guidelines offered by several local bishops. We offer four examples from different parts of the U.S.:
— “Vesture: Under normal circumstances, servers should be vested. This is within the tradition of the Church and prevents difficulties regarding appropriate dress for these ministers. The appropriate vesture for servers is the alb, preferably white. (In those parishes where servers are presently vested in cassock and surplice, these guidelines do not imply that a parish immediately replace the cassock and surplice with the alb. However, when the present vesture needs replaced, the appropriate vestment to be purchased is the alb.)”
— “Attire — In parishes where there is vesture, a simple white alb reflects the baptismal root of all ministry. It should be clean and properly fit and appropriate socks and footwear should be worn. Cassock and surplice, reminiscent of the clerical state, should not be worn by lay ministers. All servers should wear the same liturgical vesture.”
— “Parishes may wish to consider some form of off-white robe for the use of servers or they may wear a cassock and surplice. A business style of dress may be considered appropriate for adult servers, but all should consider it necessary to dress with the dignity which is befitting the Eucharistic celebration. At all celebrations, servers should be neat, clean, and simply dressed in such a way as not to draw attention to themselves.”
— “Adult Servers should dress with decorum befitting the celebration of Eucharist. A professional style of dress is appropriate, or an alb may be worn. If both adult and youth are serving at the same liturgy all should wear similar attire appropriate to this ministry. Youth Servers should vest in alb or cassock and surplice. Whichever is chosen, there should be an ample supply of sizes to insure all servers are properly vested in the same way at any given liturgy. At all celebrations, servers should be neat, clean and simply dressed.”
A major Mexican diocese has the following norm (our translation).
“Regarding servers, their vesture should be distinct from liturgical vestments. It is appropriate that there should be tunics reaching the feet and of a different color from the clerical black cassock, in accord with the tradition that proposes the use of the little red cassock with surplice for young altar servers. With regard to lay adults, it is enough that they dress in a dignified manner as corresponds to their participation in the liturgical celebration. This applies to cantors, psalmists and lay ministers.”
I have not been able to track down specific norms from the Philippines.
From what we have seen, there are some overall principles that offer wide flexibility. We cannot, however, point to any official norms that would say that colored surplices are forbidden.
We can affirm with confidence that white or off-white is the appropriate color, since the surplice substitutes the alb.
Likewise, we can say that historically, no matter what color cassock was used for servers, the surplice has always been white.
Therefore, the introduction of colored surplices is an innovation which, while there is no universal law forbidding it, has no basis in Catholic liturgical tradition and must be considered as a fad or novelty.
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Follow-up: Renewing the Reserved Hosts
A reader from Birmingham, England, commented on our July 5 answer regarding the renewal of hosts.
“Your answer makes me ask another question. I note that many priests in order to do this reserve the hosts they have consecrated at Mass and distribute to the people hosts consecrated at a previous Mass. Is there any ruling on this practice, since I feel that people should whenever possible receive hosts consecrated at the Mass they are attending? The problem then is that some consecrated hosts, often a lot, can get left in the tabernacle for longer than the two weeks you mention. Is there any way round this?”
I would say that there is probably no perfect solution. Even in places, such as convents, where the exact number of those receiving Communion is known, there will always need to be at least some hosts reserved for viaticum or a large host for exposition.
The most appropriate way of renewing the hosts is to distribute the reserved ones as Communion.
Thus, although the ideal is to receive hosts consecrated during the same Mass, there will be always be some occasion when members of the faithful will receive hosts from an earlier celebration. While less perfect from the point of view of the sign, there is no difference in the presence of Christ and each communion is a participation in Christ’s sacrifice.
In a parish situation an effort should be made to habitually facilitate the greatest number receiving hosts from the same celebration, calculating slightly more than would usually be needed.
The number of hosts reserved should correspond to the needs of the sick but not be excessive. In this way it should be possible to renew frequently by distributing from the tabernacle only on certain days and not on a daily basis and not to all of the faithful.
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Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. 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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