Designs on Chasubles and Stoles

Date: May 20, 2023
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum University.


Question: My concern is about the liturgical vestments, mostly the chasuble and stole. Are there required motifs that can be put there, like a cross, cup, bread, etc.? Can the logo or the image of the founder of a religious congregation be put on the chasuble or the stole, or should it be something Eucharistic? Would you like to provide the documents of the Church instructing about this topic? – N.S.K, Copperbelt Province, Zambia


Answer: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, while deferring most specific regulation on this topic to the bishops’ conference, does offer some general guidelines for sacred vestments. To wit: 


“342. As regards the form of sacred vestments, Conferences of Bishops may determine and propose to the Apostolic See adaptations that correspond to the needs and the usages of the individual regions.


“343. For making sacred vestments, in addition to traditional materials, natural fabrics proper to each region may be used, and also artificial fabrics that are in keeping with the dignity of the sacred action and the sacred person. The Conference of Bishops will be the judge of this matter.


“344. It is fitting that the beauty and nobility of each vestment not be sought in an abundance of overlaid ornamentation, but rather in the material used and in the design. Ornamentation on vestments should, moreover, consist of figures, that is, of images or symbols, that denote sacred use, avoiding anything unbecoming to this.


“345. Diversity of color in the sacred vestments has as its purpose to give more effective expression even outwardly whether to the specific character of the mysteries of faith to be celebrated or to a sense of Christian life’s passage through the course of the liturgical year.


“346. As regards the color of sacred vestments, traditional usage should be observed, namely:


“a) The color white is used in the Offices and Masses during Easter Time and Christmas Time; on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity; and furthermore on celebrations of the Lord other than of his Passion, celebrations of the Blessed Virgin Mary, of the Holy Angels, and of Saints who were not Martyrs; on the Solemnities of All Saints (November 1) and of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (June24 ); and on the Feasts of St. John the Evangelist (December 27), of the Chair of St. Peter (February 22), and of the Conversion of St. Paul (January 25).


“b) The color red is used on Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion and on Friday of Holy Week (Good Friday), on Pentecost Sunday, on celebrations of the Lord’s Passion, on the ‘birthday’ feast days of Apostles and Evangelists, and on celebrations of Martyr Saints.


“c) The color green is used in the Offices and Masses of Ordinary Time.


“d) The color violet or purple is used in Advent and Lent. It may also be worn in Offices and Masses for the Dead.


“e) Besides the color violet, the colors white or black may be used at funeral services and at other Offices and Masses for the Dead in the Dioceses of the United States of America.


“f) The color rose may be used, where it is the practice, on Gaudete Sunday (Third Sunday of Advent) and on Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent).


“g) On more solemn days, festive, that is, more precious, sacred vestments may be used even if not of the color of the day.


“h) The colors gold or silver may be worn on more solemn occasions in the Dioceses of the United States of America.


“347. Ritual Masses are celebrated in their proper color, in white, or in a festive color; Masses for Various Needs, on the other hand, are celebrated in the color proper to the day or the time of year or in violet if they have a penitential character, for example, nos. 31, 33, or 38; Votive Masses are celebrated in the color suited to the Mass itself or even in the color proper to the day or the time of the year.”


The 2004 instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum offers an official interpretation of No. 346-g above as well as offering some more details as to the chasuble’s use:


“[127.] A special faculty is given in the liturgical books for using sacred vestments that are festive or more noble on more solemn occasions, even if they are not of the color of the day. However, this faculty, which is specifically intended in reference to vestments made many years ago, with a view to preserving the Church’s patrimony, is improperly extended to innovations by which forms and colors are adopted according to the inclination of private individuals, with disregard for traditional practice, while the real sense of this norm is lost to the detriment of the tradition. On the occasion of a feastday, sacred vestments of a gold or silver color can be substituted as appropriate for others of various colors, but not for purple or black.”


An example of norms issued by an episcopal conference would be the guidelines “Built of Living Stones” issued by the U.S. bishops’ Conference. While this document repeats some of the universal documents it also allows for the judgment of the local bishop. Thus:


“Vessels and Vestments Suitable for the Liturgy


“§ 164 […] The vestments worn by ministers symbolize the ministers' functions and add beauty to the celebration of the rites. ‘In addition to traditional materials, natural fabrics proper to the [local area] may be used for making vestments .... The beauty and nobility of a vestment arises from its material and design rather than from lavish ornamentation.’


“§ 165 Conferences of bishops may make further determinations regarding the appropriate style and material for sacred vessels and vestments to be used in the celebration of the liturgy. Likewise, the diocesan bishop can make further determinations regarding the suitability of the materials or the design for vessels and vestments, and, in cases of doubt, he is the judge of what is appropriate in this regard.”


The wide leeway now found in liturgical law could well be the fruit of the experience of earlier attempts, frequently unsuccessful, to emanate minute laws covering sacred vestments. These decrees were frequently reactions to some excess or exaggeration in some part of the world or a passing liturgical fad.


For example, with respect to the materials used, there were decrees excluding the use of wool, cotton, linen, hemp and artificial silk for sacred vestments. There were also some decrees regarding the symbols such as one which permitted the use of discreet heraldic arms at the base of a chasuble (decree 2875) and another which forbade the use of skull and bones, white crosses or the cross with a skull at the base for funeral vestments (decree 4174).


The documents are not abundant as to what should be placed on vestments but mostly strove against excessive ornamentation. Some private writers advocated a preference for traditional Christian symbols rather than pictorial representations, but these were not official postures.


While there are now no detailed universal norms, the universal guidelines offered in the missal suggest some basic principles that should be respected in accordance with the prudence and common sense of the bishop.


Hence, the missal indicates that vestments should be “In keeping with the dignity of the sacred action and the sacred person”; that their beauty and nobility “Not be sought in an abundance of overlaid ornamentation, but rather in the material used and in the design”; and that “Ornamentation on vestments should, moreover, consist of figures, that is, of images or symbols, that denote sacred use, avoiding anything unbecoming to this.”


While these criteria are broad, they also give one pause as to reflect on the appropriateness of the message conveyed by the symbols and designs used in new sacred vestments.


Another common-sense criterion should consider the quality and lasting dignity of sacred vestments. These are usually made for several years and should not be single use or disposable.


For example, while it might seem like a good idea to make special vestments with the image of a saint or blessed on occasion of a beatification or canonization, this would probably limit their use in the future when the same color vestment is required for other celebrations.


Even though it is often now technically possible to produce multiple chasubles for such occasions, those who do so should consider the durability and versatility of the vestment, preferring some discreet symbol that does not impede future use. In some cases, the logo of a religious congregation may be used, provided it is discreet or is also suitable for general use by other priests.


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