Monday, 24 September 2007

Just a question of taste?

After my posting about differing styles of vestments, I received a number of e-mails, mostly those thanking me for raising these issues. Others, however, responded in a manner that was (frankly) near-hysterical. That people feel so passionate as to react in such a manner is a topic worthy of some discussion. And so, I have been asked to write a little more on these subjects.

It has been put to me that the question of the style of vestments is purely one of taste; that “Roman” vestments represent an organic development of the Church’s liturgy and accordingly might not be questioned; and that the Traditions that people love should not be mocked.

So, I would like to answer these particular questions. It may be that whether one likes or dislikes “Roman” vestments is a matter of taste. But that wasn’t the point of my original post. My point was this: why is there an almost automatic association between Roman vestments, lace albs etc and the Old Mass? Unhappily, there is most certainly an attitude floating around in the circles of Catholic Tradition that this Baroque expression of the Old Mass is THE valid expression. Consequently (I assure you I am not caricaturing this view), using styles of vestments that are older or more modern than that of the Baroque, is regarded with suspicion and even hostility. People should be aware that there are priests who refuse to wear more ample vestments because they regard them as antithetical to Tradition (there are also priests who prefer Roman vestments because they give a greater freedom of movement for the arms; that, of course, is a separate issue).

For me, this is quite a disturbing attitude. It is an attitude that ought to be examined critically, because it is a very narrow interpretation of the concept of Tradition. It is not adequate to assert that the use of Roman vestments and lace may not be subject to question because they are “Traditional”.

Exactly why is there such an attachment to this Baroque expression of Tradition? This, I suspect is a question which cuts to the heart of people’s perception of the nature of Tradition. It is a sociological issue also, which I am not qualified to comment on. Somebody put to me once that many people were greatly upset and even scandalised when Papal Rome made a wholesale rejection of the Baroque in the late 1960’s. The array of Papal ceremonial was replaced with something very functional and austere: somewhat like the ethos of the 1960’s itself. Consequently, and for precisely this reason, there is a very negative attitude amongst some to modern expressions in the style of vestments. Had 1960’s Rome decided to use beautiful damasks for the Papal vestments instead of the plainest of silk, perhaps attitudes might have been different.

Perhaps those who were born after that era and whose experience of vestments has been the often uninspired, sometimes hideous products of the major Church suppliers find the beautiful damasks and ornamentation of the Roman chasuble quite attractive in their richness and in their differentness. There is also a certain fascination with this style of vestment. And there is the concept that is once again becoming most important: using vestments of magnificence for the worship of God.

The photograph I have attached shews the Benedictine Abbot of Le Barroux offering Mass in the Monastery church of Sainte-Marie de la Garde (Saint Perre De Clairac, France) a foundation of Le Barroux. The vestments are very rich and, although obviously inspired by ancient forms, are nevertheless modern in presentation. They were made for and only used for the Old Mass.

In future articles, I hope to discuss what the essence of a vestment is and why it is desirable to strike a balance between the form of the vestment and its ornament. I will also discuss various misconceptions about past statements of the Congregation of Rites on the use of "Gothic" versus "Roman" vestments. And, I will tackle thorny questions such as why these issues are not just a question of taste and why the "organic development" assertion is a not an adequate argument in discussing styles of vestments.