One Sunday morning many years ago as the priest ascended the altar steps to say Mass, my six year old daughter whispered in my ear, “Why does Fr. Brady wear coloured clothes like that?” I quietly told her that they were not ‘clothes’ but ‘vestments’ and she then whispered “What are vestments?” I suddenly realised that I had never paid much attention to what vestments the priest wore on the altar and the child’s question embarrassed me into confronting my own ignorance and into doing a little research. As it turned out, my daughter was right to simply describe ‘vestments’ as ‘clothes’ for that is exactly what they were in the very early church. ‘Vestments’ worn for liturgies ‘were the same as clothes in ordinary popular use’. As styles changed in the secular/social clothing of Greek and Roman culture, the early clothes worn in the Church liturgies did not change ‘to match changes in popular styles’. That early clothing became garments which remained noticeably different and distinctive and evolved into being regarded as ‘vestments’ which were worn for their symbolic significance. And that is why priests still continue to wear them at Mass as they continue to preserve and proclaim the symbolism associated with each particular garment. As the priest vests before Mass in the sacristy he has to put on five elements of liturgical attire in this decided order – the amice, alb, cincture, stole and chasuble. The amice (from the Latin which means to ‘wrap around’) was generally worn by people as a covering for the head and shoulders. In the liturgy it became a rectangular piece of cloth thrown over the head on to the shoulders and known as ‘the helmet of salvation’. In putting it on the priest prays, “Place upon me, O Lord, the helmet of salvation that I may overcome the assaults of the devil.” The wearing of the amice is now optional and not compulsory as it once was. The alb is worn over the amice. It is a long-sleeved, spacious garment which falls as far as the celebrant’s feet. It is called ‘alb’ from the Latin words ‘alba’ (vestis) meaning a ‘white’ (garment). Originally it was similar to the ordinary white tunic worn widely by Romans and Greeks but before long it became adopted and adapted by the early Church for what it meaningfully symbolised. It quickly became associated with the rite of Baptism when men and women, rising from baptism by immersion, having put their former way of life behind them, were clothed in a white garment symbolising their new way of life in Christ. This clothing ceremony is still preserved in the present baptismal rite where the priest prays as he places or recognises the white garment or shawl enfolding the newly baptised child. And for the Priest celebrating Mass the pure, white alb is a symbol of that spotless innocence with which the priest should ‘ascend the mountain of the Lord to stand in the holy place where even the heavenly spirits tremble.’ As the celebrant puts on the Alb in the sacristy, he says the following prayer: “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.”

When the priest, vesting for Mass, first puts on the amice it is not really visible afterwards in that it is covered by the white alb – around which the priest ties the cincture. In the early days of the Church’s life that long, skirt-like tunic reaching to the ankles was commonly worn; labourers, or warriors or pilgrims, amongst many others, were wont to gather up and secure that loose, wide garment by a rope of fine cords fixed around the waist to leave them freer in their movements and better prepared for labour, battle or travel. Called to action of any kind they ‘girded up their loins’ (Luke 12:35). That ‘girding’ (derived from a Latin word meaning to ‘fasten around’) is called the cincture which the priest (called to Calvary in the person of Christ) ties around the spotless white alb of his life and priestly office – aware that he is (as is each one in the congregation present) a labourer in God’s vineyard, in active service for Christ Jesus in the battle against evil and a pilgrim on a journey through life on earth. The priest, as we all are, is subject to human distractions and weaknesses and temptations which have to be recognised, confronted, controlled and tightly bound. As he vests on his way to the altar he must ‘have the loins of [his] mind girt up’ (1 Peter:1,13) which is what the wearing of the cincture boldly symbolises. As he ties it round the alb of his priestly life with ordained hands he says the following prayer: “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.”

(Based on – GIRM, Fr.J O’Kane, Fr. Gihr, Fr. Schuster)

Hear the unborn speak

Dear Mammy will you keep me safe?

Please Mammy keep me warm.

I’m growing here beneath your heart;

Protect me from the storm.

I hear your heart. Do you hear mine?

My birthday gift will be

Two bright-blue eyes that shine with joy

On worlds I long to see.

I’m looking forward now to life –

Sea-shells,  and ships with sails;

I’ll feel the sun, I’ll count the stars,

You’ll tell me fairy tales.

Already I’ve got arms and legs.

Look close! You’ll see my nose.

And on the things that you call legs

Are things I’ll call my toes.

Dear Mammy you’re not listening!

Please! Can’t you hear? It’s me!

And Mammy you’re not smiling now

What can this ‘CLINIC’ be?

They’ve given you a bed with wheels –

Those people dressed in green.

Don’t let them hurt you Mammy dear.

Just let them try – I’ll scream!

Dear Mammy, what is happening?

I’m paralysed with fear.

Quick! Rise and run – I’m just begun –

Please save us Mammy dear.

They’re killing me dear Mammy.

They’ve pulled my limbs apart,

Dismembering my arms and legs.

They’ve stilled my beating heart.

And though I’ll never see the sky

With eyes of shining blue,

I know that you’d have loved me dear –

And I’d have loved you too.

Daniel Holmes,


Both articles taken from 'The Sacred Heart Messenger' July 2019 Edition