Why Do Catholic Priests Wear Fancy Robes?

If the Mass is the Royal Marriage Feast of the Lamb, then the priest should dress up for his entrance into the royal court.

This chasuble is part of a set of Catholic vestments made by the English recusant Catholic and seamstress Helena Wintour in the 17th century.
This chasuble is part of a set of Catholic vestments made by the English recusant Catholic and seamstress Helena Wintour in the 17th century. (photo: Credit: Harriet Magill, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

My mother is a sweet Presbyterian lady who has seen four of her five children and their spouses become Catholics. She has taken all this with good faith and good humor — thankful that we all still “love the Lord.”

She once asked me why Catholic priests wear “all those fancy robes?” To give her credit, she asks because she really wants to know — not because she’s picking a fight.

In fact, I wish cradle Catholics had a bit of her curiosity. When I see the cheap polyester vestments in some Catholic church cupboards I can’t figure it out. 

You mustn’t misunderstand, I promise you I am not one of those prissy priests who finger lace, purse their lips and roll their eyes with delight. I am not an expert in brocade, silk, taffeta, petticoats and whatever else.

However, it doesn’t take much taste or learning or respect for the sacraments to see that the day-glo vestments with machine gun embroidery is in the same category as hip hugger bell bottoms, big hair and turquoise leisure suits with wide lapels.

Why was the stuff made and foisted on us in the first place? I suspect it has to do with the fact that cradle Catholics never took the time to ask the sensible question my Protestant mother asked, “Why do you wear all those fancy robes?” If they had troubled themselves to ask what vestments are for they may not have decided to go the route of polyester ponchos with pictures of fish, grapes and wheat on them.

The priest’s robes are a ceremonial vesture—a uniform of their sacred office. They are meant to effectively obliterate the priest’s personality. They are also, by the way, meant to be unobtrusive. They should not be creative or clever or call attention to the smart vestment designer or the wonderful seamstress. They are simply to dignify the office of the priest and dignify and beautify the celebration of Mass.

If the Mass is the Royal Marriage Feast of the Lamb, then the priest should dress up for his entrance into the royal court. The robes should therefore be regal in their dignity, their simplicity and their style. As much as possible their beauty should be shown, not by cleverness of design or ornamentation, but through quality materials and fine workmanship.

Why should the priest dress like a king? Because he reminds the whole people of God that they serve Christ the King, and the priest is in persona Christi. Furthermore, they remind the people of God that they too are a chosen people, and a royal priesthood. The priest focuses in his own person and ministry the royal priesthood of the people of God. 

Furthermore, when the priest dresses in fine robes he symbolizes the riches of grace bestowed upon the people of God. Over the black cassock of his sinful human condition the priest wears the white alb — the symbol that he, (and his people) are clothed in the righteousness of Christ by virtue of their baptism. Over that he wears a splendid chasuble to show that the final state of the Christian is not just the white robes of Christ’s righteousness, but a share in Christ’s own royal priesthood. Each of the faithful are princes and princesses, adopted into the royal family.

There’s even more to it than that. The British Bible scholar Margaret Barker has studied the symbolism of the Jewish tabernacle and temple. She points out that the veil that separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place in the temple was woven in four colors: blue, purple, red and white. The four colors represented the four elements of the physical realm. Purple for water because the dye for the purple came from a shellfish. White for the earth because the white flax for the linen was grown in the earth. Red for fire and blue for air. The veil was therefore a sign that the invisible God from the Holy of Holies would one day come through the veil of the physical realm and take human flesh.

Furthermore, the priest’s vestments were also woven in the same four colors so that his humanity became the symbol of the vestment of flesh that the Son of God would assume. We remember this in the from the great hymn, Alleluia Sing to Jesus — where we sing,  “Thou within the veil hast entered, Robed in flesh our great high priest; Thou on earth both priest and victim In the Eucharistic feast.”

Finally—the same four colors (almost) are the colors of the Catholic priest’s vestments: Red, Purple, White and the Blue has evolved into Green. (That’s why when I ordered some new vestments recently I asked that the green vestments have a blue lining.)

Anyway Mum, that’s why we wear all those fancy robes…

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