The Mass vestments were originally ordinary garments of the ancient Roman world. Although the fashions of dress changed with the passing centuries, at the altar the priest continued to wear the ancient Roman costume of his predecessors.
Thus, the priest, vested for Mass, is a wonderful witness to the historical continuity of the Catholic Church with the early Church of Rome, founded by the Prince of the Apostles. In the order in which the priest puts them on, the Mass vestments are as follows. (These distinctions only apply to clergy of the Latin (Western) church. Byzantine clergy wear similar items with different names, have some additional items, and use different liturgical colors.)
Amice: A square of white linen wrapped around the neck and covering the shoulders. In the Middle Ages, the Amice was worn as a hood to protect the head in cold churches. The Amice symbolizes the “helmet of salvation,” such as the virtue of hope that helps the priest to overcome the attacks of Satan. It is usually worn over the cassock (priest’s gown) or over his clerical attire.
Alb: A long, white linen garment reaching to the feet. The Alb symbolizes the innocence and purity that should adorn the soul of the priest who ascends the altar. It is worn over the amice unless the alb completely covers the neck and obscures the Roman Collar. Deacons and Priests wear albs.
Cincture: The cord used as a belt to gird the Alb. It symbolizes the virtues of chastity and celibacy required of the priest. The cincture is normally white but is also available in the matching liturgical color of the day to accompany the stole and chasuble.
Stole: Roman magistrates wore long scarves when engaged in their official duties, just as our judges wear court gowns. Whenever a priest celebrates Mass or administers the Sacraments, he wears the stole as a sign that he is occupied with an official priestly duty. When placing the stole about his neck, in vesting for Mass, the priest begs God to give him on the last day the “garment of immortality” that was forfeited by our sinful first parents. It is worn around the neck with the two sides hanging in front of the priest’s chest—one on the left and one on the right. Before Vatican II, the Tridentine Mass required the priest to crisscross his stole over his chest, and only a bishop could wear the stole hanging straight. With the Novus Ordo (Vatican II Mass of Pope Paul VI), that requirement no longer applies. Deacons wear the stole diagonally with the top on their left shoulder going down to the waist on their right side.
Chasuble: The outer vestment put on over the others. Originally, this was a very full garment, shaped like a bell and reaching almost to the feet all the way around. Now, they come in several lengths and styles depending on taste and tradition. The Chasuble symbolizes the virtue of charity, and the yoke of unselfish service for the Lord, which the priest assumes at ordination.
Dalmatic: A sleeved outer tunic that came to Rome from Dalmatia, hence the name. It looks like a chasuble but with sleeves. It is worn by the deacon during Mass. It symbolizes the joy and happiness that are the fruit of dedication to God.
Vestments come in liturgical colors according the season of the Church.
White: The symbol of innocence and triumph. It is used on all feasts of the joyful and glorious mysteries of our Lord’s life, such as Christmas and Easter, on the feasts of our Blessed Mother, and on the feasts of angels and saints who were not martyrs. It may also be used in funeral masses.
Red: The color of blood is used on all feasts of our Lord’s Cross and Passion, including Palm Sunday and on the feasts of the apostles and all martyrs. Red is also used on Pentecost and in Masses of the Holy Spirit, in memory of the tongues of fire of the First Pentecost.
Purple or Violet: A symbol of penance and reparation. It is used during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent and at the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance. It may also be used at funeral masses and All Souls Day observances.
Green: The color of budding and living vegetation is the symbol of hope. It is used during seasons outside of Advent-Christmas and Lent-Easter, in what is known as ordinary time.
Rose: This color is permitted in place of purple on the Third Sunday of Advent which is known as Gaudete Sunday. It is also used on the Fourth Sunday of Lent which is known as Laetare Sunday. The Church tempers the sadness of the penitential seasons with an invitation to rejoice in the goodness of God our Savior.
Gold: Vestments made of gold damask material are permitted in place of white and are usually worn for the Christmas Season, All Saints, Christ the King, and the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.
Black: The color of death and mourning. It can be used in funeral masses or commemoration of the dead and on All Souls’ Day.