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On Stoles, Cinctures, Albs and Surplices

Date: June 6, 2021

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.

Q: I am a priest ordained before the post-conciliar liturgical reforms. At that time, we crossed the stole and secured it in place with the cincture under the chasuble. Also, in those days I don’t recall ever wearing a stole over an alb to preach or to officiate in any other circumstances. Rather we wore the stole over a surplice. No cincture. We no longer cross the stole under the chasuble, and it is more often the case that we wear a stole with an alb rather than with a cassock and surplice for preaching and other functions. I see priests using a cincture and tying it over the uncrossed stole under the chasuble and also when wearing a stole and alb. In the latter case, in my opinion, it does not look good and it seems unnecessary. Is there a norm governing this? -- J.L., Notre Dame, Indiana

A: Current norms are found above all in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. To wit:

“119. In the sacristy, the sacred vestments (cf. below, nos. 337-341) for the priest, the deacon, and other ministers are to be prepared according to the various forms of celebration:

“a. for the priest: the alb, the stole, and the chasuble;

“b. for the deacon: the alb, the stole, and the dalmatic; the dalmatic may be omitted, however, either out of necessity or on account of a lesser degree of solemnity; 

“c. for the other ministers: albs or other lawfully approved attire.

“All who wear an alb should use a cincture and an amice unless, due to the form of the alb, they are not needed. …

“336. The sacred garment common to ordained and instituted ministers of any rank is the alb, to be tied at the waist with a cincture unless it is made so as to fit even without such. Before the alb is put on, should this not completely cover the ordinary clothing at the neck, an amice should be put on. The alb may not be replaced by a surplice, not even over a cassock, on occasions when a chasuble or dalmatic is to be worn or when, according to the norms, only a stole is worn without a chasuble or dalmatic.

“337. The vestment proper to the priest celebrant at Mass and other sacred actions directly connected with Mass is, unless otherwise indicated, the chasuble, worn over the alb and stole.

“338. The vestment proper to the deacon is the dalmatic, worn over the alb and stole. The dalmatic may, however, be omitted out of necessity or on account of a lesser degree of solemnity.

“339. In the dioceses of the United States of America, acolytes, altar servers, lectors, and other lay ministers may wear the alb or other suitable vesture or other appropriate and dignified clothing.

“340. The stole is worn by the priest around his neck and hanging down in front. It is worn by the deacon over his left shoulder and drawn diagonally across the chest to the right side, where it is fastened.”

To this, we may also add a reflection published in 2010 by the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, on “Liturgical Vestments and the Vesting Prayers.” Regarding the alb and cincture it says:

“3) The alb is the long white garment worn by the sacred ministers, which recalls the new and immaculate clothing that every Christian has received through baptism. The alb is, therefore, a symbol of the sanctifying grace received in the first sacrament and is also considered to be a symbol of the purity of heart that is necessary to enter into the joy of the eternal vision of God in heaven (cf. Matthew 5:8).

“This is expressed in the prayer the priest says when he dons the alb. The prayer is a reference to Revelation 7:14: ‘Dealba me, Domine, et munda cor meum; ut, in sanguine Agni dealbatus, gaudiis perfruar sempiternis’ (Make me white, O Lord, and cleanse my heart; that being made white in the Blood of the Lamb I may deserve an eternal reward).

“4) Over the alb and around the waist is placed the girdle or cincture, a cord made of wool or other suitable material that is used as a belt. All those who wear albs must also wear the cincture (frequently today this traditional custom is not followed). For deacons, priests and bishops, the cincture may be of different colors according to the liturgical season or the memorial of the day. In the symbolism of the liturgical vestments the cincture represents the virtue of self-mastery, which St. Paul also counts among the fruits of the Spirit (cf. Galatians 5:22). The corresponding prayer, taking its cue from the first Letter of Peter (1:13), says: ‘Praecinge me, Domine, cingulo puritatis, et exstingue in lumbis meis humorem libidinis; ut maneat in me virtus continentiae et castitatis’ (Gird me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity, and quench in my heart the fire of concupiscence, that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide in me).”

In a footnote the document further elucidates the importance of the cincture:

“No. 336 of the ‘Istitutio’ of 2008 also allows the cincture to be dispensed with if the alb is made in such a way that it fits closely to the body without the cincture. Despite this concession, it is important to recognize: a) the traditional and symbolic value of the cincture; b) the fact that the alb -- in the traditional style, and especially in the modern style -- only fits snugly to the body with difficulty. Although the norm foresees the possibility, it should only be regarded as hypothetical when the facts are taken into account: indeed, the cincture is always necessary. Sometimes today one finds albs that have a cloth fastener that is sown about the waist of the garment that can be drawn together. In this case the prayer can be said when this is tied. Nevertheless, the traditional style remains absolutely preferable.”

Finally on the stole:

“Since the stole is an article of enormous importance, which, more than any other garment, indicates the state of ordained office, one cannot but lament the abuse, that is now quite widespread, in which the priest does not wear a stole when he wears a chasuble.”

Although the above commentary is very valuable, we must note that it is not, strictly speaking, liturgical law. It is also primarily directed to clergy while GIRM Nos. 119 and 336 make it clear that the alb has evolved to become the basic liturgical attire for ministers of all rank, and hence it is no longer conceived as being reserved to the clergy.

As our reader points out, before the liturgical reform there was a much wider use of cassock and surplice by both clergy and lay ministers for the celebration of sacraments and sacramentals such as Benediction. Indeed, the use of the alb would have been primarily for the celebration of Mass.

There are many reasons that can be adduced to understand this change.

It is a fact that the habitual use of the cassock is much diminished among the clergy, and this inevitably reduces the situations in which the combination of cassock, surplice, and stole is used, even though this possibility remains open for practically all liturgical celebrations outside of Mass. The number of lay ministers, especially adult ministers, has also increased, and the use of standard-sized albs is a comparatively easier and cheaper solution as to how they should be vested.

Although much more widely used, the norms still foresee the use of the cincture but with the proviso that the form of the alb may no longer require it. 

That said, however, although no longer required in all circumstances, the cincture is still liturgically useful, above all for priests. For example, it helps keep the stole in place throughout a celebration. For example, since the stole is no longer crossed in front, the cincture can maintain a long stole in front and not trail on the pavement while the priest is seated.

A final observation regarding the prayers. Once more these have traditionally been reserved to the clergy. However, since they are not official texts, the prayers for alb and cincture could be adapted for laypersons even though it is obvious that the petition for purity and chastity will have different contexts for a priest and a married minister. Everybody who serves, in any capacity, at the Mass needs to pray to be worthy of such a singular privilege.

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Readers may send questions to zenit.liturgy@gmail.com. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city, and your state, province, or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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