Liturgical Garb for Habit-Wearers

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Liturgical Garb for Habit-Wearers

ROME, 15 SEPT. 2009 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university. 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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Follow-up: Liturgical Garb for Habit-Wearers [9-29-2009]

In the wake of our piece on the proper liturgical garb for ministers and servers (Sept. 15), a reader asked for further clarifications.

He wrote: "You quote from GIRM: '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.' Would you be kind enough to clarify who are considered 'instituted ministers of any rank'?"

The expression "instituted ministers of any rank" basically refers to all ordained ministers (bishop, priest and deacon) and the instituted lay ministries of lector and acolyte.

The concept of the alb as a common sacred garment means that all these ministers may use the alb at any liturgical action.

Depending on the norms of each bishops' conference, the alb may also be used by other occasional lay ministers who fulfill liturgical functions without a specific institution, such as altar servers, readers and even extraordinary ministers of holy Communion.

The concept of common garment also means that an alb may always be used for liturgical services of any kind even when the norms allow the use of other sacred vestments instead. Thus it is necessary to distinguish between "may use" and "must use," as this can vary from celebration to celebration.

For example, ordained ministers "must use" the alb for Mass. For other sacraments and sacramentals they "may use" the alb or the cassock and surplice. Instituted lay ministers "may use" alb, cassock and surplice, or another approved garb at Mass and other occasions.

Another reader referred to religious habits: "I am wondering if some ancient protocols continue to apply. I am thinking particularly about special garb used by servers in the oldest orders, some of which use a cowl for the purpose. I am also thinking about the custom in the older orders of not using the stole for certain rites, most notably for hearing confessions when dressed in the habit."

Since the customs of some ancient religious orders predate even the Council of Trent, they usually have the force of particular law and, unless specifically abrogated or reprobated, can usually be considered as legitimate variations within the Church. This could also be applied to the custom regarding the stole for confession if it is truly an immemorial practice and not a recent invention.

All the same, even a venerable custom should be evaluated with respect to its pastoral efficacy. Wearing a stole while hearing confessions reminds both minister and penitent of the specifically sacramental and priestly nature of the encounter.

Personally I would favor that such religious leave aside such a custom, at least when exercising the ministry outside of the community, if the wearing of the stole is the better pastoral practice.

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