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Can laypeople wear vestments at church?

While Catholics are accustomed to seeing priests and deacons in colored robes of green, purple, and red, the sight of a layperson in simple white can be bit of a shock. In some places, though, the vesting of laypeople is par for the liturgical course.

The most basic of liturgical vestments is a white robe called an alb, from the Latin word for white, albus. The alb is loose fitting and covers the entire body. As is true for most liturgical vestments, the alb evolved in the early church from the ordinary dress of people as well as from clothing worn by officials of the Roman empire.

The alb is basically the white garment received at Baptism that signifies a person has been made a new creation in Christ. For that reason any baptized person can wear one. The protocol for who wears an alb in liturgy, however, is generally determined by local custom.

A priest wears an alb under his chasuble (the poncho-like garment that bears the color of the liturgical season) and puts a stole around his neck. A deacon wears an alb, but not a chasuble, and wears his stole diagonally across his chest. Altar servers often wear albs as well, but that is not the extent of the alb's use in liturgy.

Sometimes laypeople who act as lectors, cantors, or extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist don an alb. This may be helpful in identifying who does what but can also be confusing for people not familiar with Catholic liturgy. Occasionally someone may complain that he or she didn't know which person up around the altar was the priest.

Lay presiders at morning or evening prayer may also wear an alb to distinguish them as the leaders of prayer. Being vested can lend a formality that is certainly appropriate when it takes place in a church or at a conference with an assembly gathered. It is also common for ministers other than the prayer leader, such as servers, to vest.

In fact, the one vested person we never question is the altar server. Each parish has its own style--some with no special clothing, some in black cassocks with white "surplices" (over-shirts) on top, some in simple albs with a cincture (cord or belt) in the seasonal liturgical color.

An advantage of lay ministers being vested is the uniformity of clothing. This is also the reason many parishes and schools have their candidates for First Communion or Confirmation wear robes of some kind.

But being vested can also be seen as elitist, emphasizing a special role and perhaps unduly setting the person ministering apart from the rest of the assembly. Another liturgical philosophy may emphasize the idea of the ministers coming forth from the congregation to serve one another, perhaps especially for those who do the readings and distribute Communion, in which case they would wear no special garment.

When Catholics travel or visit other parishes they are often surprised at what they see, thinking that the way their own parish does things is the "right" way. In reality, a variety of practice is allowed in some of these less weighty matters. It is more important that those who perform a ministerial role, whether garbed or not, humbly serve to build up the community of the faithful gathered beside them.

KAREN DIX, a religious educator in River Forest, Illinois.
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Author:Dix, Karen
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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