The chasuble is the large outer garment which a priest wears at Mass. Only a
priest (or bishop) wears one. Only at Mass. The single exception is on Good
Friday, when we have no Mass, but the priest who presides at the service of the
Lord's Passion wears the chasuble, linking the services from Holy Thursday to
Easter. Its color announces the season or feast.
This odd word comes from the Latin casula, meaning "little house."
Some of these garments seem ample enough to house a family a six. Originally,
the casula was an outer cloak or jacket, worn by men or women as secular dress
on cool days. It was formed by two quarter-circles of cloth stitched together
front and back. In liturgical usage, the seams became decorated. In time, the
seams moved to the sides, but the decorations remained, making the chasuble a
portable billboard of liturgical symbolism, ranging from the tasteful to the
During the Middle Ages, the priest started saying Mass with his back to the
people and introduced the elevation of the host and chalice so everyone could
see over his head. Fashion-minded presiders noted that the old garment did not
function well for the elevation; it bunched up the sleeves and pulled at the
bottom. So chasubles became sleeveless, if you will, and servers began lifting
up the bottom at genuflections, like bridesmaids tending the train.
The stole, traditionally worn underneath the chasuble, is now commonly seen
on top. It makes more visible the distinction between the stoles of the priest
and the deacon and creates new opportunities for design, but the results do not
always satisfy. A stole external to the chasuble is new in the history of
vestments, so instructions on the practice are scarce.
Although designs today run freely through a variety of shapes, colors, and
patterns, the basic simplicity of the vestment remains. Priests concelebrating
for Mass may wear alb and stole without the chasuble if they prefer. The
presider may also wear a combination alb-chasuble with an external stole for
certain occasions or groups. But the principal symbolic vesture for a presider
at Mass is the chasuble--a "house" the word of God inhabits, a cloak
for the spiritual journey, and a sign of our leader's role.
(This bulletin insert originally appeared in MODERN LITURGY,
copyright (c) 1996, Resource Publications, Inc. It may not be
reproduced without permission. Send permission requests to
(Paul Turner, pastor of St. Munchin Parish in Cameron, MO,
holds a doctorate in sacramental theology from Sant' Anselmo