ROME, 7 JUNE 2011 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I have been in the habit of wearing my stole under the chasuble, as I was taught and as I have always found in the instructions. In our country, however, the stole is generally worn above the chasuble. Some bishops follow this practice, too. I was told several times that my way of wearing the stole was wrong. Somebody explained to me that the chasubles we use are "gothic chasubles"; they have no special decoration in the front, while the accompanying stoles do carry elaborate artwork. This would be the reason for wearing them above the chasubles. I searched for further details about this matter, but I found none. If I am in the wrong, I would rather change my habits. Is there any indication about this? — P.V., Colombo, Sri Lanka
A: Your practice of wearing the stole under the chasuble is correct, according to the Church's most recent legislation. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says in No. 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."
The fashion for designing chasubles with external stoles became popular during the 1970s and early 1980s but is now definitively on the wane. Some countries have received specific permission from the Holy See to adopt special liturgical vestments such as a kind of combined alb-chasuble which necessarily requires the external stole. But this rather ugly and ungainly vestment has never quite caught on.
Traditionally the stole is seen as a symbol of priestly authority while the chasuble is a symbol of charity. It was often argued, therefore, that the reason why the stole is beneath the chasuble is that charity must always cover authority.
Whether this reasoning is authentic or not, the relative position of stole and chasuble has nothing to do with the use of gothic or Roman styles or with the decorative elements of these sacred vestments. Indeed, the stole is placed under the chasuble in all historical vestment styles. The external stole is a recent and transitory fad which is now contrary to the universal liturgical law.
There have been many forms of chasuble over the centuries. The earliest form of liturgical chasuble resembles the so-called monastic style, a full-cut roughly oval garment often falling to the celebrant's shoe tops and at times furnished with a hood. Modern monastic chasubles tend to be square-cut rather than oval.
Since this form of chasuble required the arms to be gathered up to be used freely, from the 12th century on, the sides were gradually shortened to ease movements. Thus the gothic chasuble was developed. This form gradually tapers from the shoulders to a near point at the base but with both sides of equal length. The semi-gothic form is similar but slightly shorter. Most contemporary chasubles are inspired by these two forms although frequently with a gradual rounding from shoulder to base or with rectangular or square cuts.
From the 16th century on, the size and shape of the chasuble was further reduced in length front and back and the arms were left completely free. This was done, above all, to facilitate certain movements such as joining the hands and incensing the altar. This kind of chasuble was often elaborately embroidered with Christian symbols and made quite stiff and heavy with the use of rich materials such as silk, gold and brocade. Within this form there were several stylistic differences.
One of the most common was the Roman, or fiddleback, chasuble with a rectangular front and a back vaguely resembling a violin. The Spanish-style chasuble is even shorter; its rounded front and back give it a distinctive shape sometimes referred to as a "guitar" chasuble. The Germanic style is simpler, with a rectangular front and back.
The early 20th century saw a tendency to return to earlier forms, especially the gothic. At first this practice met with resistance, and the Congregation of Rites replied to a 1925 query in terms which many bishops interpreted as cautiously favorable. Thus the revived form slowly spread in the Church. In 1957 the congregation wrote to the bishops, leaving decisions regarding the use of older forms of the chasuble to their prudent judgment.
Present legislation allows for the use of practically all historical styles of chasuble.
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Follow-up: Wearing Stoles Over the Chasuble [6-21-2011]
Pursuant to our article on wearing the stole over the chasuble (see June 7, a reader from Nairobi, Kenya, asked: "Why should the color of an alb be white? Can the seasonal colors of Advent, Lent and ordinary time be used in making the alb?"
The short answer is no, at least as regards the Latin rite. Alb derives from the Latin word for white, and it has always been that color in our liturgy.
The alb derives from the white tunic worn as a basic garment by most men in Roman times. As the empire fell under barbarian influence, laymen abandoned the tunic in favor of leggings and similar garments. The more conservative clergy conserved the tuniclike habit for both ordinary and liturgical use.
In time, the color of the alb led to its association with purity (along with the cincture) and with the white garments of the saints as found in the Book of Revelation. This can be seen from the prayers the priest may recite while putting on these vestments.
As he puts on the alb he says, "Purify me, Lord, and cleanse my heart so that, washed in the Blood of the Lamb, I may enjoy eternal bliss."
As he ties the cincture, he says: "Lord, gird me about with the cincture of purity and extinguish my fleshly desires, that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide within me."
The cincture, however, unlike the alb, may correspond to the color of the liturgical season or festivity.
Some non-Latin liturgies have vestments with a function analogous to the alb, such as the Byzantine sticharion, which can be of several colors, including blue and gold.