What Catholics Wear

Whereas medals and scapulars might be worn under outer clothing as a private reminder to the wearer, other articles of clothing, such as nuns’ habits or priests’ collars, make a public statement of commitment to religious life.


When a priest prepares to say Mass, he prays as he puts on the liturgical clothes known as vestments. These vestments are composed of five main articles: the amice, alb, cincture, stole, and chasuble.

The priest begins vesting by placing a rectangular linen cloth called an amice over his shoulders to cover his everyday clothing. The amice represents the “helmet of salvation” (see Eph. 6:17) “that must protect him who wears it from the demon’s temptations, especially evil thoughts and desires, during the liturgical celebration.” As he puts it on, the priest prays, “Place upon me, O Lord, the helmet of salvation, that I may overcome the assaults of the devil.”

The priest next puts on an alb, a long white garment worn by sacred ministers. As he dons this garment, which represents sanctifying grace and purity of heart, he prays, “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.”

Over the alb, the priest ties a cord known as a cincture around his waist as a belt. The cincture symbolizes self-mastery, and as he puts it on, the priest prays, “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.”

Over his shoulders the priest wears a stole, the badge of his priestly office, a strip of material that is worn for all the sacraments and which matches the color of the liturgical season or feast day. As he puts on the stole, the priest prays, “Lord, restore the stole of immortality, which I lost through the collusion of our first parents, and, unworthy as I am to approach Thy sacred mysteries, may I yet gain eternal joy.”

The final and most striking garment is the chasuble. The chasuble is sleeveless so that the priest’s arms are free to conduct the services. It is usually decorated with symbols, such as the Holy Family or a cross, and reflects the color of the liturgical season or feast day. As he dons the chasuble, which reminds him of the charity of Christ, the priest prays, “O Lord, who has said, ‘My yoke is sweet and My burden light,’ grant that I may so carry it as to merit Thy grace.”

Before vesting, the priest washes his hands to signify that he is moving from the ordinary to the sacred. Vestments remind the priest as well as the congregation of the significance of the Mass.

Nuns’ Habits

Many women who belong to religious orders dress uniformly in long, modest dresses and veils. This clothing is known as a habit, which symbolizes consecration, poverty, and membership in a particular religious order. Styles and customs of habits have changed with the times. In the 1950s, Pope Pius XII questioned whether a long flowing habit might hinder a nun’s work. The 1965 Vatican II decree Perfectae Caritatis discussed the practicality of a habit: “It must be in keeping with the requirements of health and it must be suited to the times and place and to the needs of the apostolate. The habits, both of men and of women, which are not in conformity with these norms ought to be changed.” Heeding that call for reform, many religious orders modernized their habits, while others no longer required members to wear them.

Pope John Paul II cautioned, however, that habits should not be eliminated. He said in 1996, “Since the habit is a sign of consecration, poverty, and membership in a particular Religious family, I join the Fathers of the Synod in strongly recommending to men and women religious that they wear their proper habit, suitably adapted to the conditions of time and place.”

Nuns’ habits differ in style according to their religious orders.

Priests’ Collars

Catholic priests are known for wearing the Roman collar, a narrow stiff band of white fabric that is worn at the neck and fastened in the back. The Roman collar makes a man instantly recognizable as a member of the clergy.

When and why should a priest wear the Roman collar? That question has been debated since at least 428, when Pope Celestine rebuked the clergy of Gaul for wearing lavish religious attire that called attention to them. He said that priests should be known “by their doctrine, and not by their dress; by their lifestyle, not by their habit; by the purity of their minds, not by the elegance of their clothing.”

Throughout the centuries, the Church has examined the role of religious attire and made adaptations. Nowadays, many priests wear the collar only when they are performing official duties. In order to stop priests from becoming too lax in their dress, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops examined current practices and issued a statement on clerical attire. Writing for the group in 2009, Rev. Thomas Fucinaro stated:

The people have a true right to the ministrations of a priest, but how can that right be exercised when the priest cannot even be recognized? The significance of the obligation of clerical attire is found first and foremost in the nature and requirements of the priestly life.

Chapel Veils

Until the late 1960s, women did not enter a Catholic church without a hat or a veil. To be prepared for quick church visits, many women carried a chapel veil in a small pouch that fit in a purse. If a woman found herself without a head covering, she conveniently attached a handkerchief or a tissue to her head with bobby pins.

The policies surrounding hats in church were contained in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which stated: “Men, in a church or outside a church, while they are assisting at sacred rites, shall be bareheaded, unless the approved mores of the people or peculiar circumstances of things determine otherwise; women, however, shall have a covered head and be modestly dressed.” This canon may have stemmed from the biblical passage of 1 Corinthians 11:4–5, which listed specific ways in which men and women should dress for prayer: “Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head.”

In the 1960s, Vatican II brought sweeping change. By the start of the 1970s, most women, especially those in Western countries, stopped wearing hats or veils in church. The new Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1983, did not contain policies on head coverings.

Originally posted 2019-05-17 17:29:10.