Further Thoughts on Beauty in Worship: Vestments

Whenever I wear nicer vestments for Mass I almost always receive compliments afterwards; not the case (ever!) when I have worn the plain, overly simple, and even garish vestments that are in all too many church sacristies nowadays.

Do I wear them for the sake of getting compliments – that is, to draw attention to myself? No. It’s nice that people say something, but my motivation is to provide more fitting worship to the Author of Beauty, and to edify those who are worshiping with me. The compliments indicate that the second motivation is being fulfilled, and our Catholic theology of worship validates the first motivation.

Me, celebrating Mass in a retreat house near Chicago.

Me, celebrating Mass in a retreat house near Chicago.

In terms of that theology, Fr. Uwe Michael Lang offers some interesting thoughts in this article on ZENIT, in which he demonstrates both from Scripture and the writings of Blessed Pope John Paul II that beautiful worship is willed by Christ himself. Obviously styles have changed down through the centuries, and the Church has a very rich artistic tradition embracing everything from the very simple-yet-noble to the very extravagant and expensive. Personal preferences vary but the main criterion has always been: Beauty.

I have always appreciated these words, from the introduction to a book on the history of liturgical vestments (copied from this page):

Among the treasures of ecclesiastical art, not the least important are the vestments. They were not made to enhance the priest but rather to humiliate him. The priest in his own clothes is only himself, and can attract people or repel them by his own character and his own abilities, or lack of them. But once vested in the raiment of the church, he ceases to be himself, he ‘puts on Christ’, speaking not in his own name but in that of the church. Vestments are a continual reminder to the priest that he is nothing, only the mouthpiece of the church at the service of the people; they are a continual reminder to the people that the man inside them does not matter, but only the eternal priesthood. They are not the property of the priest to display his affluence or his poverty; they are the property of the whole church, beautiful things for performing the service of the poor. Beauty and colour, splendour and art are offered for all to see and appreciate, so that the poorest outcast may enjoy treasures such that in other societies only the rich can see.

Following upon my previous post concerning “Beauty in Our Churches and Institutions“, I would again like to emphasize: we have a tendency nowadays to reduce the poor to an economic problem and beauty to a commodity. But the poor are human beings with complex and diverse needs (not just money or things!), and beauty is a value to be sought for its own sake!

The poor need our loving service, our human touch; they additionally need us to share our resources. But they also need beauty, and so serving them cannot exclude investing in beautiful things, particularly when it comes to the Church (where all are welcome) and the worship that we all offer to God. We are called by God to love both Him and our neighbor, so we have to seek the right balance, not excluding or diminishing either.

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