ViewpointWhy lay liturgical ministers should wear albs at Mass

In my status as a retired-but-still-working priest, I have the opportunity to fill in for Sunday Masses in a variety of parishes.

I am always curious to view the art and architecture of the church, to ascertain the musical program, to see whether the chalice is given to the people, to note how ushers conduct themselves, and to see how well the people respond and sing.

One of the larger bees in my liturgical bonnet has to do with how extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion (EMs) conduct themselves and carry out their roles. Practice ranges from dignified to sloppy.

Sometimes, ministers are well trained and conduct their ministry in a dignified manner. They process in at the beginning at Mass, sit together, and follow a pre-planned system of going to the altar, distributing Holy Communion, returning to the sanctuary, and processing out at the end.

In other places, ministers pop up mysteriously from the congregation, and time and time again the priest has to call on any unscheduled ministers present, since those assigned didn't show. And casual dress is the order of the day. 

I have a firm conviction that EMs should wear albs when serving at Mass. The protocol for this is the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which states: "In the Dioceses of the United States, acolytes, altar servers, readers, and other lay ministers may wear the alb or other appropriate and dignified clothing" (No.339).           

There are, in my opinion, a number of reasons why EMs should wear albs.

First, since the clergy and altar assistants are vested, why not the EMs-and the lector? Surely there should be some consistency regarding dress. 

Second, the fear that liturgical ministers will be clericalized is not in my experience borne out. Besides, a clericalist attitude is a matter of how one thinks and acts, not how one dresses. I have never found EMs regarding themselves as superior to the congregation. Indeed, most approach their ministry with humility.

Third, the alb is not primarily a clerical robe; it is a baptismal garment. As the basic baptismal garment, the alb is the normative vesture for all liturgies. Thus EMs wearing robes at Mass are manifesting their baptismal status.

Fourth, the alb brings a sense of dignity to the Mass, which is meant to be glorious, splendid, and beautiful. While this aim will never be fully expressed this side of heaven, we are nevertheless called to prepare and celebrate the liturgy in a way that already points to heaven. As we reach toward the heavenly, all ministers should appear to have a great sense of reverence for their ministry. Wearing an alb will assist with this.

Fifth, the alb covers a multitude of sartorial sins. In parishes that do not vest their EMs (only about 40% do), there seem to be no rules of dress at all. At the parishes at which I have served, I have observed EMs wearing tennis shoes, jeans, shorts, and flip-flops. At one parish an EM was wearing a Bryce Canyon sweat shirt. In most non-alb wearing parishes, the majority of ministers were not dressed professionally or as if for an important occasion. Wearing an alb would solve this problem.

We live in an age in which everything is viewed in a functionalist, utilitarian, and pragmatic fashion. We shy away from the formal and the ritualized. It is natural in this environment for the liturgy to be celebrated in a manner that manifests these qualities.

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