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by Paul Turner

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 absurd.

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 University.)

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