ROME, OCT. 16, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Why do priests and religious still vest in their habit, cassocks, chasuble, albs and the like in our modern world? I am in Ghana and the weather can be so hot that you pity the priests in their cassock, alb and the chasuble during Mass. — E.S., Accra, Ghana
A: I think our reader has hit a nerve that touches on deeper motivations than the practical or on the question of fulfillment of liturgical laws.
I think the question can be divided into two parts, one is more theoretical: Why do priests wear such vestments in our modern world? The second part deals with what changes can be made for climatic purposes.
The reason why priests wear liturgical vestments today is the same reason why they have been worn for most of the Church’s history. It is true that there were no special vestments for the celebration in the first few centuries, but these developed as a natural process in which the best clothes were reserved for the liturgy and little by little developed forms exclusive to their sacred use.
Vestments help all involved to understand the role that is proper to them. They remind priest and faithful alike that he is above all a sacred minister. Although they appear to single out the priest, in fact the individual, with his quirks and qualities, disappears below the symbol of his ministerial role.
I remember reading many years ago the story of an English Catholic prisoner of war during World War II. A German military chaplain came to celebrate Mass. The English soldier commented that, once the enemy uniform was covered by the sacred vestments, the German was simply a priest representing God, the Church and nobody else.
Vestments, with their ample form and almost zero practicality, also remind us that we are in a solemn time when actions should be carried out with unhurried pace and due reverence. In other words, they slow us down and remind us to give God time to speak.
The beauty of vestments is also a way of reminding us that God deserves our best. The vestments are also a means of teaching through the use of liturgical colors and symbols.
With respect to the second part of the question I would first say that it is not necessary to go to Ghana for uncomfortable climates; a Roman summer can be muggy enough.
Also, if anything, modern technology makes it far less uncomfortable to wear liturgical dress than in former times. Even in places where air-conditioning is not available, there are options such as beautiful light fabrics for vestments that ease the discomfort.
Furthermore, in very hot climates, a priest can wear lighter clothing under his alb and could dispense with the cassock during the celebration of Mass.
In conclusion, although there are times and climes that occasionally make it uncomfortable to don full vestments, this is a small sacrifice to make in order to give Our Lord the best we can offer in our acts of worship.
This is why the Church asks that liturgical norms be respected in all places. Many priests offer excellent example, not only of obedience to the law, but above all of a sense of the importance of their sacred ministry.
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Follow-up: Ending a Homily
In the wake of our http://www.zenit.org/article-35635?l=english“>Oct. 2 article on ending the homily several readers reminded me of an official reply on this matter from 1973 which I should have mentioned.
A reader from Congo wrote: “In the Notitiae 9 (1973), 178, there was this question: Is it opportune before or after the homily to invite the faithful to sign themselves with the sign of the cross, to greet them, e.g., saying, ‘Praised be Jesus Christ,’ etc.? The Congregation for the Divine Worship replied in these terms: This depends on legitimate local uses, but generally speaking it is not opportune to observe these customs, since they were introduced into the homily from preaching outside of Mass. The homily is part of the liturgy; the faithful have already made the sign of the cross at the beginning of Mass, and they have been greeted. It is preferable, therefore, that these things not be repeated before or after the homily.”
I don’t think it changes substantially what I said in the original article, although it strengthens the point that such greetings are preferably avoided. I would note that the official reply still defers to local custom.
For the sake of precision, I would comment that the historical argument offered in the reply — that such phrases entered into the homily from preaching outside of Mass — is true insofar as we are dealing with a time from the late Middle Ages onward. This is when most preaching was done outside of Mass and such standard formulas were useful.
It would not apply to the examples of concluding Trinitarian evocations offered in the original article; these examples were drawn from patristic and early medieval sources. These homilies were generally preached during Mass, and the Trinitarian invocation was not just a stock formula but a profession of faith.
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Readers may send questions to [email protected]. 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.