What is the Meaning of the Vestments the Priest Wears?
We’ve all seen the priest outside of Mass wearing a cassock or plain black clothing with a white square tab at his neck. We’ve also all seen the priest walk in for Mass wearing a lot of vestments—and we may not know exactly what these are. The priest wears several different vestments at Mass, and each has a history and a prayer that is said as the priest puts it on. Let's go through how the priest gets vested, or dressed, for Mass along with the prayer said with each vestment.
First, the word "vestment": it comes from the Latin word for clothing, although now the word is usually associated with religious clothing used during the liturgy.
As a priest gets vested he prays what are called the vesting prayers. Each of these prayers is associated with a particular piece of the vestments. Each prayer, in some way, describes the symbolism of the piece and can help the priest prepare for Mass by turning his thoughts to what is about to happen and connect him to the history of the liturgy.
The first vesting prayer is actually not associated with a piece of clothing but is said while the priest washes his hands. A priest does this so that the hands that hold the Blessed Sacrament will be clean and not transfer any dirt onto the host itself. The priest prays “Give virtue to my hands, O Lord, that being cleansed from all stain I might serve you with purity of mind and body.”
Then the first vestment that the priest puts on is an amice. An amice is usually a square piece of cloth with two cords attached that goes around the priests’ neck and covers his collar. It usually is tucked into the collar all around and then covers the shoulders while the cord is tied around the chest. The priest prays the following while putting it on: “Place, O Lord, the helmet of salvation upon my head, to repel the assaults of the devil.” Prior to 1972 the amice was required, however now it is optional, but the collar of the priest must be covered. Going along with the prayer, the amice is supposed to remind the priest of a helmet, and the amice is similar to a cloth worn by Roman soldiers underneath their helmets to collect sweat.
Next the priest puts on an alb. This is a long white robe that is often also worn by other liturgical ministries. Altar servers often wear them, and less often, lectors wear them. The alb is a symbol of purity and as such is often used in baptisms as the white garment that is put on immediately after the baptism takes place as a symbol of the purity the newly baptized has. The priests, while putting on the alb, prays “Cleanse me, O Lord, and purify my heart, that washed in the Blood of the Lamb, I may attain everlasting joy.”
After this the priest will put on a cincture. The cincture is usually made of cord or rope and is worn as a belt. It is a reminder of the first pope Peter in his admonition to “Gird your loins..” (1 Peter 1:13-15). It also serves as a reminder to the priest of his chastity. He prays this as he puts on the cincture, “Gird me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity and quench in me the fire of concupiscence; that the virtue of continence and chastity may remain in me.”
Next the priest puts on a stole. The stole is a long piece of cloth that is worn like a scarf over the neck and falls down the front of the priests chest, usually ending near his waist or knees. Although many priests wear it over the chasuble (the next vestment), it is supposed to be worn underneath the chasuble. The stole has its’ origin in the Jewish prayer shawl. The stole is symbolic of the spiritual authority of the priest, and so it is what is primarily worn to signify priesthood. This is why the stole is worn for everything—confessions, exorcisms, and most priests carry one in their emergency kit in case they need it for an emergency baptism. While putting it on the priest prays “Return to me, O Lord, the stole of immortality, which I have lost in the sin of my first parent; and although I, unworthy, approach Thy sacred Mystery, grant to me, nevertheless, everlasting joy.”
The final vestment that the priest puts on is the chasuble. The chasuble comes in many different shapes and designs, but it must be the proper liturgical color (purple for Lent and Advent, green for ordinary time, etc.). The chasuble is representative of the charity required for the priest. This is also why it is supposed to be worn over the stole. Wearing a stole over the chasuble symbolizes authority over charity rather than what the church asks for, which is charity over authority. The prayer that the priest prays as he puts on the chasuble is “O Lord, Who hast said, My yoke is easy and My burden light; grant that I may be able so to bear it, that I may obtain Thy grace. Amen.”
Hopefully this helps you understand that the vestments that the priest wears have symbolic meaning—knowledge of this deeper significance can aid our spiritual growth and appreciation of the Mass!