Vestments in Hot Climates

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Vestments in Hot Climates

ROME, 16 OCT. 2012 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university. 

: 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. 

* * *

Follow-up: Vestments in Hot Climates [10-30-2012]

Some readers commented on the use of proper vestments in hot climates (see the column published Oct. 18). A priest in Tokyo wrote: "Here in Japan unfortunately they celebrate daily Mass with only an alb and stole, though on Sundays they do wear the chasuble. On the other hand the Buddhists' priest always wear heavy vestments whenever they engage in their ceremonies and even wear these garments in public while traveling to and fro for ceremonies. If I had a choice, I would always wear the chasuble."

Actually, Father, you do have a choice. Unless the Japanese bishops' conference has requested and obtained permission from the Holy See to celebrate without a chasuble, the use of full vestments remains the rule. The omission of the chasuble, except in the case of concelebrants other than the principal celebrant, is a contravention of liturgical law. We dealt with this in earlier columns on Jan. 24 and Feb. 7, 2006.

Even if such a permission were to exist, it would always be an option not an obligation.
Since liturgical law falls under the aegis of the bishops; a religious superior or the practice of a religious community could not command otherwise. Nor could a superior deprive any priest from exercising his rights to follow liturgical law.

Another reader commented, "It seems that custom has now eliminated the cassock under the alb for Mass or at least made it optional." 

Although the use of the cassock for ministerial acts is still recommended and even mandated in some countries, it is unfortunately falling by the wayside since many priests rarely, if ever, use the cassock. In fact, in many places the use of cassock and surplice for some sacraments and sacramentals has been replaced by a generalized use of the alb for all occasions.

It is understandable, however, that it be omitted in areas of high temperatures and humidity. At times the dignity of the celebration and the conservation of delicate vestments require a priest to avoid excessive perspiration.  At the same time it is somewhat ironic that it is precisely in areas such as South India and Sri Lanka, whose climates would amply justify leaving aside the cassock, that most priests will wear a white cassock at all times and for all pastoral activities.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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