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Deacon Stole Over the Left Shoulder

Date: January 8, 2022
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.

Q: Why is the deacon’s stole worn over the left shoulder and not the right? Usually, military cords and Sam Browne belts are worn over the right shoulder. – Z.C., United Kingdom

A: It is true that most honorific sashes, indicating a high rank in the military or a chivalric order, or as an indication of public or diplomatic office, are worn from right to left, albeit with some exceptions.

This fact, however, should also be indicative that the deacon stole is not an honorific symbol but represents an order of service.

There is evidence of the use of the stole in Eastern Christianity from the fourth century as a distinctive mark for deacons, perhaps adapted from an official vesture of the imperial civil service as the clergy were considered as being equal in rank to public officials.

It is mentioned in the canons of Council of Laodicea in 363 and in other sources. At this time, it was a fairly large vestment, 3 to 4 inches wide and between 8-10 feet long. This somewhat bulky vestment was worn draped over the left shoulder to keep the right hand free for liturgical service.

In several Eastern rites, the deacon stole is still worn draped over the left shoulder, although it is of much smaller dimensions.

It first appeared in the West in Spain in the seventh century and spread slowly reaching Rome in the 12th century by which time it had acquired its current size and style as well as having become a universal vesture for deacons, priests and bishops.

The Council of Braga in Portugal in 675 first described the custom of deacons wearing it on the left shoulder, again so as to keep the right hand free, but tied with a cord on the right side with the ends hanging loose. This same form is later described by Pope Innocent III (1198-1216).

In the past, some authors derived the origin of the stole from a towel for serving at table, but these claims are not supported by solid evidence, although they were once widely held and disseminated.

This led to a recurrent image associated with the order of deacon being that of Christ kneeling before the apostles as he washes and dries their feet wearing a towel over the left shoulder. Although this image may not be historically grounded it does reflect an authentic spiritual image of the deacon as the ministry especially dedicated to service in the manner of Our Lord.

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