Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I am a priest ordained before the post-conciliar liturgical reforms. At that time, we crossed the stole and secured it in place with the cincture under the chasuble. Also, in those days I don’t recall ever wearing a stole over an alb to preach or to officiate in any other circumstances. Rather, we wore the stole over a surplice. No cincture. We no longer cross the stole under the chasuble, and it is more often the case that we wear a stole with an alb rather than with a cassock and surplice for preaching and other functions. I see priests using a cincture and tying it over the uncrossed stole under the chasuble and also when wearing a stole and alb. In the latter case, in my opinion, it does not look good and it seems unnecessary. Is there a norm governing this? — J.L., Notre Dame, Indiana
A: The cincture is an article of liturgical attire for which evidence exists at least since the ninth century. Its use is primarily practical confining the loose, flowing alb, and preventing it from impeding the movements of the wearer. However, over time it acquired other liturgical meanings and was associated with the purity of the sacred minister.
In some Eastern churches, and even in some places in the Latin rite, the cincture is not always a cord but a narrow band of linen or even of silk and precious stuff, often richly embroidered. The cincture may be made of any suitable material such as flax, hemp, wool, and silk. This material is woven into a cord, and the ends are usually decorated with tassels. By way of ornament strands of gold and silver thread are sometimes introduced, particularly in the tassels at the extremities. Like other Mass vestments, it is recommended to bless the cincture before use.
There are some norms, above all in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, that specify if and when the cincture should be used. Thus, GIRM No. 119 states:
“In the sacristy, the sacred vestments (cf. below, nos. 337-341) for the priest, the deacon, and other ministers are to be prepared according to the various forms of celebration: … c. For the other ministers: albs or other lawfully approved attire. All who wear an alb should use a cincture and an amice unless, due to the form of the alb, they are not needed.”
GIRM No. 336 says: “The sacred garment common to ordained and instituted ministers of any rank is the alb, to be tied at the waist with a cincture unless it is made so as to fit even without such. Before the alb is put on, should this not completely cover the ordinary clothing at the neck, an amice should be put on. The alb may not be replaced by a surplice, not even over a cassock, on occasions when a chasuble or dalmatic is to be worn or when, according to the norms, only a stole is worn without a chasuble or dalmatic.”
Therefore, the norm is clear but also flexible. The cincture should be used unless the alb itself is designed to be used without it.
The designation of the alb as the basic liturgical garment for many liturgical ministers has led to its much wider use. This expansion has also been accompanied by a diminished use of the cassock by clerics, a garment which is necessary if one wishes to use a surplice and stole as an alternative liturgical vesture for the celebration of some sacraments and sacramentals such as baptisms and Benediction.
The wider use, plus the introduction of new materials, has led to a wide variety of new alb designs. Some of these incorporate the cincture into the alb or introduce folds and pleats that make the use of the cincture unnecessary or even ungainly.
The fact that the alb is now considered a common garment means that it may be used for liturgical services of any kind, even when the norms allow the use of alternative sacred vestments.
However, it is necessary to distinguish between “may use” and “must use,” as this can vary from celebration to celebration. For example, ordained ministers must use the alb for Mass. For other sacraments and sacramentals, they may use the alb or the cassock, surplice, and stole. Instituted lay ministers may use alb, cassock, and surplice, or another approved garb at Mass and other occasions.
Thus, while the use of the cincture is not always required, it is often useful to keep the stole in place and, for some alb designs, it makes for a better fit and enhances the dignity of the wearer.
The cincture, along with the alb, also retains its value as a symbol of purity as can be evinced from the prayers the priest may recite while putting on these vestments:
As he puts on the alb he says, “Purify me, Lord, and cleanse my heart so that, washed in the Blood of the Lamb, I may enjoy eternal bliss.”
As he ties the cincture, he says: “Lord, gird me about with the cincture of purity and extinguish my fleshly desires, that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide within me.”
Given that the cincture, unlike the alb, may correspond to the color of the liturgical season or festivity, such a practice may prove useful to underline the liturgical character of the day while preaching or concelebrating with just alb and stole.
Finally, the use of the cincture is not necessarily tied to wearing the stole crossed over the front as was the use for most priests before the liturgical reform and still in use in the extraordinary form.
Even before the reform all those who wore pectoral crosses, such as bishops, abbots, and priests who had this privilege, would don both cincture and stole hanging in front as is the common practice today.
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Follow-up: Blue Vestments at Marian Masses
In the wake of our recent comments on the use of blue vestments, a priest from the Archdiocese of Granada in Spain kindly clarified the exact terms of the privilege. To wit:
“I would like to clarify that in Spain [editor’s note: And hence any other country where the privilege exists], blue vestments are only allowed for the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. It is true that a number of priests use blue vestments for other major Marian festivities in Spain. However, the liturgical calendar of the Spanish conference of bishops only allows blue vestments for the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception (see https://conferenciaepiscopal.es/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/CLP-2019-2020.pdf, pages 34-35, for the Immaculate Conception, and page 266, for the Assumption).”
I would like to thank our reader for this useful clarification.