What particular purpose do liturgical vestments serve? That’s the question Father David Baier O.F.M. asked in a 1933 article for the Catholic journal Orate Fratres. Fr.Baier, who was a Franciscan Friar of the Holy Name Province, argued that vestments have an “exalted purpose”, a significance and “spiritual value” that serve no other purpose than the Liturgy itself. Fr. Baier explains:
“The principal purpose of liturgy is the glorification of God. The liturgical vestments must also contribute to the glory of God. Our internal acts must find expression in our outward appearance, for man is not only spirit, but also flesh. Acts of adoration and reverence, which proceed directly from the soul, are expressed by acts of the body, such as genuflecting and inclinations. Likewise, the garments worn by clerics in presenting themselves before God to give Him public honor are an outward expression of their feeling of reverence in the presence of God. In this respect they are no less a means of glorifying God than the bending of the knee and similar acts of respect.”
Understanding that liturgical vestments solely serve the purpose of the liturgy, Fr. Baier reminds us that they also contribute to the honor and glory of God. And if this is so, Father asks, “what is more becoming than the use of vestments of precious material and rich ornamentation?” After all, the very best we have to offer is still “none too good to devote to the service of an infinite God.”
Rather than simply being a matter of preference, the ongoing effort to restore the sacred and the beautiful to the liturgy is of paramount importance. Much of the liturgical emphasis since the Second Vatican Council has been on a “simplicity” in worship. It wasn’t long ago that I heard a bishop emeritus of a southern U.S. diocese derisively refer to the pre-conciliar Church (and liturgy) as a “bunch of Latin and lace.”
This of course is what makes Fr. Baier’s analysis so interesting to read today. Writing thirty years before the Council, in a journal like Orate Fratres (so closely associated with Collegeville, Minnesota and the Liturgical Movement), there is no agenda or ulterior motive behind his words. His writing is free from the post-conciliar baggage that so often comes with these discussions.
Fr. Baier concludes with a beautiful explanation of the secondary purpose for liturgical vestments, the sanctification of souls. He notes that the liturgical vestments tend to:
“…inspire reverence for the sacred functions of the liturgy, not only in the sacred ministers who wear them, but also in the participants. This reverence is the root of the pious dispositions requisite for a faithful performance or participation in liturgical acts.”
For the ordained:
“In vesting themselves with the liturgical costumes, the sacred ministers cannot but be remided that they are withdrawing themselves temporarily from the world to enter the sanctuary of God and devote themselves entirely to His service. They cannot but be reminded of the sanctity which should adorn the soul which approaches close to the infinitely holy God, to converse intimately with Him…”
For the lay faithful…
“…when they see the sacred ministers clothed in their liturgical costume, they cannot but be impressed with the grandeur of the liturgical acts. No effort may be spared to enhance their splendor. The use of precious liturgical vestments is only one means of bringing home this lesson to the faithful. And if the external splendor of liturgical functions impresses them, must they not realize that the only suitable disposition for those who participate in them is internal sanctity? The sacred vestments are not merely a symbol of the garment of sanctifying grace, which should adorn the soul of the priest; they also teach the faithful participants in the liturgy that they should be clothed in the same supernatural garment when they assist at divine service.”
Understanding the purpose behind vestments, may we see even more priests and bishops in the coming years contribute to the glorification of God by the liturgical vestments they use.