Why Priests, Deacons and Altar Servers Wear White Garments

I was recently asked by a parent for a “dress code” for Altar Servers to help them dress appropriately.  But before I mention a few practical norms, I think it best to understand what we Catholics do at our weekend Mass, and in fact at every Mass.

During the week we try to bring Jesus and His teachings into our earthly activities.  When we come to Mass we try to bring ourselves into God’s Heavenly activities.  We come to Mass to participate, however imperfectly, in the worship of the Saints in their heavenly liturgy.  The Greek word leitourgia means public ministry to God.

At Holy Mass we experience a little bit of the liturgy which is celebrated in Heaven, where Christ is enthroned and where the Saints proclaim God’s glory. This includes the attire of those serving at Mass.  As Saint John saw in vision: There before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before God’s throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes.  The word for white in Latin is album or albus, where we get the English word albino from. The white garment or alb was worn in the early Church and is once again the common liturgical garment worn by those assisting at Holy Mass, reflecting the heavenly liturgy and those surrounding God’s throne wearing white robes.

Albs were worn by those assisting at Holy Mass and other liturgical celebrations up until about the 13th century when black cassocks along with white surplices gradually replaced them in the Western Church. After Vatican II there was a general return to albs being worn by those assisting at Holy Mass.  However, cassocks and surplices are still being used in some parishes and are the proper attire for seminarians and young men discerning a priestly vocation who are assisting at Holy Mass or some other liturgical celebration.

The purpose of the alb is to cover up or over our ordinary “earthly” clothing.  Not because they are bad, but because those serving in the sanctuary, including priests, deacons and altar servers should reflect, as best as they can, the heavenly liturgy. 

So, understanding the alb and its purpose some practical norms may help.  Decent shoes, sneakers and sandals should be worn; while flip flops and farm boots, flashing light type of sneakers should not.  Simple plain headbands may be worn; while fancy, bright and decorative headbands should not. Smaller type earrings may be worn; while large flashy earrings, nose and lip rings/bolts should not be worn.  Very bright colored shirts that easily show through albs should be avoided.  If a server is wearing a hoodie, the hood should be tucked under the alb and not worn outside of it. Servers should also be mature enough to accept and follow instructions from the priest regarding the appropriateness of their attire.

Fr. Tom