…my Protestant mother once asked. To give her credit, she always asks because she really wants to know–not because she’s picking a fight.

In fact, I wish cradle Catholics had a bit of her curiosity. When I see the tacky vestments in most Catholic Church cupboards I can’t figure it out. You mustn’t misunderstand, I promise you I am not one of those prissy priests who finger lace, purse their lips and roll their eyes with delight. I am not an expert in brocade, silk, taffeta, petticoats and whatever else.

However, it doesn’t take much taste or learning or respect for the sacraments to see that the day-glo, polyester vestments with machine gun embroidery is
in the same category as hip hugger bell bottoms, big hair and turquoise leisure suits with wide lapels.

Why was the stuff made and foisted on us in the first place? I suspect it has to do with the fact that cradle Catholics never took the time to ask the sensible question my Protestant mother asked, “Why do you wear all those fancy robes?” If they had troubled themselves to ask what vestments are for they may not have decided to go the route of polyester ponchos with pictures of fish, grapes and wheat on them.

The priest’s vestments are a ceremonial costume. They are meant to effectively obliterate the priest’s personality. They are also, by the way, meant to be unobtrusive. They should not be creative or clever or call attention to the smart vestment designer or the wonderful seamstress. They are simply to dignify the office of the priest and dignify and beautify the celebration of Mass.

If the Mass is the Royal Marriage Feast of the Lamb, then the priest should dress up for his entrance into the royal court. The robes should therefore be regal in their dignity, their simplicity and their style. As much as possible their beauty should be shown, not by cleverness of design or ornamentation, but through quality materials and fine workmanship.

Why should the priest dress like a king? Because he reminds the whole people of God that they serve Christ the King, and the priest is in persona Christi. Furthermore, they remind the people of God that they too are a chosen people, and a royal priesthood. The priest focuses in his own person and ministry the royal priesthood of the people of God. Furthermore, when the priest dresses in fine robes he symbolizes the riches of grace bestowed upon the people of God. Over the black cassock of his sinful human condition the priest wears the white alb–the symbol that he, (and his people) are clothed in the righteousness of Christ by virtue of their baptism. Over that he wears a splendid chasuble to show that the final state of the Christian is not just the white robes of Christ’s righteousness, but a share in Christ’s own royal priesthood. Each of the faithful are princes and princesses–adopted into the royal family.

How on earth can a day-glo polyester poncho do any of that? I reckon the problem is that people didn’t think it through. They just said, “Gee, Fr. Ted, I guess we gotta wear those robes. Now let’s see, here’s a set in this catalogue here that only costs a hundred dollars for all four. We’ll have those. Look, they’re polyester too! They’ll drip dry. That’ll make Mrs Doyle happy.”

Anyway Mum, that’s why we wear all those fancy robes…