Non Solum: Using historic vessels and vestments

This week I have been working on a new series for Pray Tell that has me digging through Collegeville’s liturgical vaults. Working on this project got me thinking: When is it appropriate to use historic vessels and vestments?

Often times, these historic pieces seem ostentatious and at first glance, appear to be incompatible with the reformed liturgy. For instance, the gold thread fiddlebacks of yesteryear are hardly ever used within the context of the post-Vatican II liturgy because for some, they are a symbol of the pre-Vatican II Church and a rallying cry for those who wish to limit its reforms.

I get it. The ardor with which the fiddleback is tied to the Tridentine liturgy makes it unsuitable for fiddlebacks to be used in the post-conciliar liturgy despite their beauty and artistic worth. However, there are other historic items which are less controversial and which could be used today.

How do we prevent our historic vessels and vestments from becoming museum pieces? Vatican II must be our guide when determining what is acceptable to keep in liturgical use.

What are your thoughts? What does your community do with its historic vessels and vestments? Please comment below.



  1. I am not (at all) a fan of fiddleback chasubles, but I am not sure I agree that it is “unsuitable for fiddlebacks to be used in the post-conciliar liturgy despite their beauty and artistic worth.” The nearest thing I can find in liturgical legislation is GIRM 344: “It is fitting that the beauty and nobility of each vestment not be sought in an abundance of overlaid ornamentation, but rather in the material used and in the design.” Fiddlebacks do tend to be more highly ornamented and I don’t find their design particularly beautiful, but this seems to me a matter of taste.

    My parish has no historic vestments (rumor has it that a pastor in the 1970’s burned all the old vestments, convinced that they should not be used in the reformed liturgy) except for a humeral veil, which we use on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. If we did have a fiddleback chasuble that was worthy, I would urge its (very) occasional use precisely in order to take that part of our heritage back from the Tridentinistas.

  2. I know of a number of Lutheran parishes that bring out historic sets of communion vessels on parish anniversaries, to connect the past, present, and future. As one parishioner put it to me, “It’s like getting out the sterling silver and fine china at home for a special family occasion.”

    (Silver and other metals tend to hold up better over time than fabrics, especially if the fabrics spent any time in less-than-spotless sacristies, closets, basements, etc.)

  3. Stewardship calls for keeping well designed and crafted items (without anachronistic application of current aesthetics) in use. I am not a fan of fiddlebacks, but I’ve certainly seen pictures of beautiful versions (even though not my aesthetic preference), and have no objection to the use of fine historical exemplars, so long as their use is not in the service of shibboleth signals (and I am not at all persuaded the their use is *necessarily* in such service).

  4. I have been to parishes that provide a place to exhibit old vestments, Latin missals, and other items from the past. I think this is a good idea, helping folks appreciate our rich history. But I think it should end at the display case, except for rare occasions, lest the liturgy and its ministers become, in the words of psychologist Eugene Kennedy, an “antiques roadshow.”

  5. Our parish, a beautiful, but non- air conditioned church, actually bought new fiddlebacks a few summers back. Most of our twenty-something congregation had never seen the like, so they had no connotations at all. No one seems to begrudge the priests the minimal comfort less vesture affords. It also made clear to me why these were ‘Roman’ rather than ‘Gothic ‘. Style as the result of climate and nothing ideological.

  6. Given that most of these older items were originally donated by the faithful, with the expectation that they would be used for decades or even centuries, I think it’s a crying shame that they are not used more regularly. Oftentimes people much poorer, materially, than us will have donated the odd penny here and there for their purchase and it seems almost ungrateful and even patronising for us to refuse to use them at all. I’m similarly not convinced by the argument that they are best suited to display cases and archives since the Mass celebrated today is the same Mass as was celebrated a century ago – the language, rituals and music may have changed but the Mass remains the Mass, as indeed the Church remains the Church. That which previous generations held as sacred…well, you know the rest.

    1. @James Dunne – comment #6:
      May I reinforce this point: by failing to show respect to historic donors and their wishes charities such as the Church, put off current donors.
      This applies to buildings as well.

      1. How many people know the origin and donation intent (if there was one) of old vestments) It seems likely most will be lost in the mist of time.

  7. I’ve personally long been a fan of fiddleback chasubles. Then again, I’m from Atlanta, and they keep the poor priest from roasting during the summer. They also more closely resemble an ephod and evoke more strongly the image found in St Paul of the whole armor of God. Now, a gothic chasuble makes far, far more sense in winter or somewhere cold, like, say, Boston or NYC.

    As for cost? Meh. I can get a priest a a nice well made damask or jacquard fiddleback or Gothic set, complete with maniple, veil, burse, stole, and chasuble for $120 or made by hand in India, or I could spend $400 on just a chasuble made stateside that looks like a doily or table napkin with a symbol ironed onto the front. Of the two extremes, which is a better use of a parishioner’s money?

    Older vestments and equipment might find a purpose on weekday masses. The folks who venture forth on a weekday are more often the sort who appreciate the richness, and they can be lightly used for a smaller congregation’s low mass. Just a thought.

  8. “Low Mass” ???
    I once used a vestment, not a fiddle-back, from the recusant era in the UK. It was for a Eucharist celebrated in a chapel, actually a small room built into the roof of a “storehouse”/”barn”, that went back to that same era. Am not sure it could/should be used too often (concerns about preservation etc.), but it served as a reminder of the history of the Church in than era, so I felt strangely privileged to be allowed to wear it. Given the setting it also seemed appropriate.
    In one parish, in Japan’s “Snow Country” in the far north of the main island of Honshu, which I served in, my predecessor, a German confrere ordained before WWII, had used the Pius V Roman Missal, and celebrated Mass in accord with the rubrics therein, till the day he died following a hit and run incident; the altar edition is now in our seminary library, but I still have the small, portable edition of the RM, printed in 1935, that he used when he travelled to the other Mass centers in the parish. After consulting with senior confreres and parish elders, out of respect for his commitment to what we now call the “Extraordinary Rite”, I buried his chalice along with his ashes in a grave we built for him, when the weather permitted, in the Catholic plot at the local cemetry. The bulk of his ashes are in the SVD Community cemetry just north of Nagoya, where I now live; dividing the ashes, having two graves is not unknown here.

    1. @Brendan Kelleher SVD – comment #9:

      Re – Low Mass – I keep forgetting that Low Mass is no longer a “thing” for most Roman Catholics or part of the vocabulary. That’s the Medievalist / Classicist with an Anglican background showing through. M’bad. A low mass back in the day would have two candles on the altar instead of six, not have music or chanting, and a few other liturgical details. Ferial Masses and most weekday masses would have been Low Masses. In the old days, Low Mass would have a silent congregation with a server saying the responses, but you’ll see some parishes, for example in France, that’ll do a Low Mass as a dialogue Mass. When I see a Catholic Mass with no hymns, it looks like Low Mass to me, whereas one with hymns would be a Sung Mass or a Missa Cantata. High Mass is fairly rare and probably not all that popular here. 😉

  9. Shaughn, I entered minor sem in 1962. I served at Low, High and Solemn Masses for almost 10 years. As a minor seminarian I served upwards of three “Low Masses”, at the side altars, before breakfast in the days before the liturgical renewal and concelebration became possible. Later, as a major seminarian, when at home I often assisted the local Polish chaplain, a very venerable old character in his70’s, possibly 80’s at his daily Mass since he said it in Latin, and there were very few, apart from myself and my brother who could handle the Latin when he slipped back into the older form, as he occasionally did.

    1. @Brendan Kelleher SVD – comment #11:

      Optime! Again and again, I feel as though I missed the boat on several of those kinds of experiences. I wasn’t trying to suggest that you didn’t know what it was, and I apologize if I inferred too much from your question. It seems to me, though, having been closely affiliated with several parishes over the years (3-4 military bases now), that most of these distinctions which I’d describe as “churchmanship” have become entirely obscure in most Catholic circles.

      At any rate, my original point remains — that weekday masses are more likely to attract the audience who might appreciate seeing old vestments and “holy hardware” dusted off and brought out.

  10. I love Vatican II, but I have a hard time caring a lot about vestments one way or another. My pastor has a pretty plain green and violet that he wears during OT or Penitential seasons. He also has some fairly ornate white and red that he’s probably had for a long time. They aren’t worn out, why ditch them?

    Our newest parochial vicar is newly ordained and thoroughly in love with ornamentation, cassocks, lace, etc., but at the same time he is genuinely humble and caring. Not pompous at all, and his choice of vestments seems an odd thing to worry about.

  11. The reputation of so-called ‘roman’ mass vestments was often traduced by poor design, skimpy amounts of cloth, stiff interlining and sloppy decoration. In fact, generously proportioned and well designed vestments of this type are quite dignified enough for Mass in any ‘form,’ except perhaps that ‘roman’ vestments are designed to be seen from the back, not ‘facing the people.’

    Nor are ‘roman’ shapes necessarily intrinsic to the Extraordinary Form of Mass, as vestments of all shapes – ‘gothic’ (a Pugin invention), ‘bell-shaped,’ and so on, were being worn from the later nineteenth century down into our own time.

    In this connection, Dom E Roulin’s ‘Vestments and Vesture, a Manual of Liturgical Art’ (London 1931) is an interesting and often amusing guide to ecclesiastical trends and opinions.

    I have a chasuble and stole (maniple disappeared, unfortunately) that was made for Eric Gill’s Ditchling community, beautifully constructed on the model of the Chasuble associated with Thomas Becket in Sens Cathedral. It is a plain cream coloured silk with brick red woven orphreys, not in any way ostentatious.

    But there are a lot of ‘cheap’ vestments about. We still haven’t quite escaped from the ‘crimplene’ age (meretriciously disguised as ‘Church of the poor’) and sometimes that gives rise to unfair opinions against people who are trying to raise standards.


  12. In one parish we had a bi-annual “Catholic History Month”, connected with our religious ed program. It included highlighting & celebrating key persons and events (esp in American Catholic history) but also forms of worship/devotion and the ‘items’ associated with them. Ours was an old parish (125+ years) and we could still display the founding pastor’s chalice, an assortment of vesture, and select & suitable art and statuary. (A statue of the resurrected Christ, brought out every Easter season, is still dearly loved by parishioners.) We’d have one Mass celebrated in the EF, a Melkite priest would come in to celebrate according to his rite.
    At the key Sunday Mass of the month’s celebration, we’d have all the parish’s old sacramental registers (including Death) out of the archives and on decorated display in the sanctuary. Older vestments and hymns were used. The idea was to reaffirm, through sight & sound, our Communion of the Saints, giving a grateful nod to those from the parish who had gone before us ‘marked with the sign of faith’. It gave us all a sense of our ‘roots’ as well as a challenge for the future.
    Old liturgical items, used with discretion and prudence, can still ‘speak’ and teach valuable lessons. In a varitey of ways those items help us remember and be abke to say: “I/we pass on to you what we ourselves have received.”

  13. I might be one of the “bad guys” who likes the association of older vestments with the past. I favor their occasional use a symbol of continuity with past but not of a return to it. Latin, chant, and even fiddlebacks serve as sensory reminders of our connection with our heritage- the one Catholic Faith that preceded polyester. I think Benedict was right to have this goal of emphasizing continuity. However, I also think that Francis is right that much of the world misunderstood this use of ornate vestments. They may think this use is only showy and egotistical. We have to think about what outsiders- non-liturgists- will think. We are trying to evangelize them, after all! So I would use the ornate vestments and chasubles only Easter, Christmas, Epiphany, etc. I have never heard people complain about those Solemnities being too ornate. Maybe they could be used- and explained- on the Solemnity of the Dedication of the Church as well. Other than that, I think “noble simplicity” should be applied using today’s standards.

  14. You’re going to cut off your fiddleback just to spite those who associate it with the extraordinary form? If something truly is inappropriate but has artistic worth, it should become a mere museum piece. If it’s appropriate, use it or sell/donate it to someone who will.

  15. A lot of comments on fiddleback chasubles. I’ll switch it up to vessels.

    I just find most of the old chalices, etc. don’t hold the hundreds of hosts and volume of wine needed (per vessel) nowadays (pet peeve: churches that don’t put out enough wine to be consecrated). As a result, they tend to look nice on a shelf, but I just can’t practically used.

    OK….one fiddleback comment…I couldn’t resist. My childhood parish was dedicated to the Sacred Heart. They did keep around one gold fiddleback with an image of the Sacred Heart of jesus on it. They used it on the feast day once a year. That always seemed lovely and appropriate.

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #21:

      Hey, I thought I invented “tridentinista”. I referred to myself as a tridentinista for years.

      Regardless of who coined the term, it’s apt. A healthy chunk of EF adherents consider themselves a beleaguered minority which constantly swims against the tide of “postconciliarism”. It’s sort of a perpetual guerrilla bunker mentality.

  16. While I do love the roman cut vestments, my real favorite is the borromean cut. Look ’em up. They are like a mix between Gothic and roman, coming down to about the elbows or so. I think they really look lovely.

    This one is my bishop at a recent ordination. It’s a shame the ornate dalmatics got delayed in transit that year!

  17. @John
    Not sure about my bishop’s (my hunch is somewhere in Rome), but the others are from St Bede Studio. Look them up via Google, I doubt you’ll have trouble. A little expensive, but absolutely amazing.

  18. Hey, Ben Yanke ==

    The first one is beautiful. Not too fancy, not too plain. It looks as if the cut allows the priest to move freely wearing it, and it shouldn’t be as hot in the summer as those massive Roman things.

  19. “I just find most of the old chalices, etc. don’t hold the hundreds of hosts and volume of wine needed (per vessel) nowadays (pet peeve: churches that don’t put out enough wine to be consecrated). As a result, they tend to look nice on a shelf, but I just can’t practically used.”

    You could just distribute under the form of bread only in most circumstances, as Sacrosanctum Concilium envisioned, which solves one of those problems.

    1. @Ben Yanke – comment #27:
      I think distributing communion only under one species in order to use an old chalice is a good example of putting the cart before the horse.

      I’d like to hear a compelling theological argument commending communion under one species, because I’m pretty convinced that there aren’t any. I can think of some theological arguments as to why the practice is tolerable, but not a single one as to why it is commendable. And shouldn’t we always strive in liturgy to do what is commendable and not only what is tolerable?

      1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #28:
        Thanks, Deacon for your response. Found this part of his comment – *…..only in most circumstances, as Sacrosanctum Concilium envisioned…..” as either revisionist history or re-writing history via some type of *literalist* approach. As we know now per current research, even the Council of Trent permitted communion under both kinds but that the practice died out within years (for reasons of emphasizing the difference between Catholic and Protestant Eucharistic practices).

        Anne – found at times that for special occasions or feasts, we would use some of the 19th century chalices. Rather than have so many, we supplemented with larger, usual cups. Same with some vestments – the presider might be the only one wearing that specific vestment.

        One other note (which the link to Morlino raises) – when we did use these types of historical vestments/cups/chalices, we inserted both an explanation and a reason for this in our eucharist flyer. It was also usually incorporated into the homily. The Morlino link raises questions – did anyone other than liturgical insiders know what he was wearing and why? was this an inside ideological statement and why?

      2. @Bill deHaas – comment #29:

        Why the need for extensive catechesis about everything? Why the assumption that people are stupid? The liturgy itself teaches. Lex orandi, lex credendi.

        He wore a beautiful chasuble for the Mass. That alone teaches something. It’s not as big of a deal as some make it out to be.

        And for the record, he frequently (about 3/4 of the time, at least) wears vestments of that style (borromean cut, similar fabric), so it wasn’t some ideological move or out of the ordinary, and he has also taught on multiple occasions (and mentions more briefly frequently) about why beautiful vestments are worn at Mass.

  20. Fritz Bauerschmidt : @Ben Yanke – comment #27: I think distributing communion only under one species in order to use an old chalice is a good example of putting the cart before the horse.

    I’m not advocating that we distribute under both forms for the sole purpose of using older chalices, though I would like to see both of those happen. I am simply advocating it because it is what Vatican II asked us for. Sacrosanctum Concilium no. 55 clearly envisions that communion under both forms be given under very limited circumstances (newly ordained, newly professed, newly baptized). Can anyone honestly say that when it suggests that communion under the form of wine be given to a select few on very select occasions that it really means we should do it for everyone at every Mass, or even every weekend Mass? It’s a pretty big stretch….

    1. @Ben Yanke – comment #31:
      Ben, I asked for a theological argument. Citing a document that, for easily understood historical reasons, moves cautiously in changing a practice is not a theological argument, unless one is a particularly extreme form of positivist. If one is going to read SC as a current bit of liturgical legislation then EF masses should be doing these things now.

      But since what is sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander, I presume you think that the EF Mass should be simplified in its structure (SC 50), should have its lectionary expanded (SC 51), should include the prayer of the faithful (SC 53), and should include concelebration on certain occasions (SC 57), since these also seem to be what Sacrosanctum Concilium directs.

    2. @Ben Yanke – comment #31:
      And for a specific answer to why we can’t distribute under one form only: In the Archdiocese of Seattle, it’s required by our own diocesan laws that the Precious Blood has to be available to all members of the assembly at every Mass.

  21. Sorry, the last sentence of the first paragraph should have been the last sentence of the second paragraph.

  22. The discussion seems to have revolved around vestments…I’m curious as to what people do with vessels? Recently, several older vessels were discovered my local sacristy. The chalices were mostly pressed back into use, and the thin ‘scale patens’ were re-used as Communion patens (a practice kept in this church), but the ciboria proved a bit difficult. The use of one paten until the Agnus Dei meant that the ciboria could not be used. Some suggested that they could be used instead/alongside our ‘bowl patens’ during the Fraction but others felt the shape would be confusing.

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