Any parishioner who has attended any of the Extraordinary form Masses or even the Wednesday noon Mass and/or Sunday 9am Masses at the downtown church may have noticed that Fr. Adam and I sometimes use a different style of chasuble (the colorful garment worn by the priest). This style is recognizable in that the front and back are stiffer and the sides do not extend out down the arms like our other chasubles which hang in folds at times around the elbows. Rather, this other style of chasuble only goes to the edge of the shoulders leaving the arms free and the priest’s sides visible.
This alternate style of chasuble is known by a number of different names, such as a fiddleback chasuble and a ‘Roman’ chasuble. It seemed to me that it would be beneficial to briefly explain the background of these two styles and to speak a little about the spiritual/theological meaning of the chasuble.
As with many things in the Liturgy, the use of the chasuble took on greater theological meaning and symbolism over time. But it was first adopted from a common piece of clothing used by Roman people. These garments looked much like the chasubles we are most used to: a large, somewhat bell-shaped garment with a hole in the middle for the head (This ancient style, with its length reaching the shoes and the width reaching the wrists is similar to what is now called the Monastic style). As trends changed, the chasuble remained in use in the Liturgy and quickly became more solely associated with Christian Liturgical worship. The practice of ornamenting the chasuble to better reflect its sacred function became commonplace by the 8th century. I won’t get into the nitty-gritty details, but over the next 7 centuries, the shape of the chasuble morphed somewhat controversially, becoming shorter in the sleeves and in length. In the century following the council of Trent in the 15th century, the form that is now known as the Fiddleback, or ‘Roman’ chasuble became somewhat universal. In the 18th century, the bell-shaped chasuble started finding its way back into common liturgical use, albeit in a somewhat less billowy form.
Following the Second Vatican Council, this style of chasuble, also known as the ‘Gothic’ chasuble, became the most common style. There are a variety of styles between the two poles of the Roman and Monastic styles, such as the Gothic and Semi-Gothic chasubles and the St. Philip Neri style chasuble. The present liturgical legislation of the Church allows for the use of most historical chasuble styles.
The Roman style, or fiddleback, is often associated with the Traditional Latin Mass for various reasons, but it need not be associated with it exclusively. It can be used for any Mass. I, personally, find that it has a degree of practicality to it especially when celebrating Mass in a non-airconditioned church (for reasons that are quite obvious to anyone who has seen it in use.) All of the styles we have used at Masses here at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Parish serve the primary purpose of the chasuble: to provide a truly distinct and historic garment specific to the celebration of the Mass.
As mentioned previously, things used in the Liturgy even for originally more practical reasons rightly take on further symbolism as they become adapted to exclusive liturgical use. The traditional symbolism of the chasuble is that it represents charity covering a multitude of sins, as this liturgical vestment covers the individuality of the priest with the priestly role of the High Priest, Jesus Christ. The donning of the chasuble reflects the exhortation in the Letter to the Colossians (3:14), "Above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfection.” Furthermore, priests are advised to say a particular prayer as they put on the chasuble. This prayer also reflects the priest putting on the mantel of Christ’s priesthood by reflecting the words of Christ in Matthew 11:30. Here is that prayer: “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.”
Pictures of different styles of Chasubles