Vestments as an Investment in the Legacy of a Catholic Institution or Parish

There is often an assumption at work that believes truly unique, new vestment works are no longer possible. Too much work and too expensive; this would summarize some of the primary reasons behind this idea. It is true that these sorts of vestments, complete with hand executed embroideries and the like, do take skill and time to design and execute. As such, unless they are being executed by a parish guild, apostolate or affiliated monastery, they are going to cost a craftsman's wages if we are to fairly procure them.

There is another contributing factor in this equation as well: the recent balkanization of the liturgy and the corresponding situation of liturgical instability that arose from it. This has significantly disrupted the liturgical arts. What one pastor brings in, another may well choose to dispense with -- or at least that is the fear, and it was a fear that was quite justifiable given the activity that was seen in the 1970's, but less so today thankfully. Because of this, where vestments are concerned, many priests have chosen to focus on acquiring their own personal sets of vestments instead; vestments that they can take with them from parish to parish, thereby also ensuring noble vestments worthy of the dignity of the sacred liturgy are available to them wherever they may find themselves. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this and were I in their situation I would do the very same, however it does at least partially contribute to the present gap where the highest quality commissions are concerned.

The skillsets do indeed still exist to create the kind of work that we have historically seen in the area of vestments, but one of the keys to getting beyond our current limitations in this regard is that we have to start thinking of vestments as an investment -- an investment into a parish liturgical life and legacy, a diocesan or monastic legacy, etc. There is really no reason that furnishing a sacristy with noble vestments should be any less worthy or important a goal than installing new paintings, marble work, stained glass or what not into the fabric of the church.  Part of the problem is that many have come to view vestments as more "throwaway" than the other liturgical arts but that, it seems to me, is more an accident of recent liturgical history than anything else. One look at the sacristies of Europe will demonstrate this; vestments can, and indeed do, last for centuries and can be just as important a contribution as anything else in this realm.

Adopting this approach to vestments as contributions to the legacy of a Catholic organization or institution should help modify at least some of the perceptions around the amount of time or resources that are reasonable to expect to invest -- and, after all, if we do not expect marble works or painted works to come overnight and at low cost, there is no reason why we should expect any differently of vestments with similar levels of craftsmanship. Of course, there may also be a concurrent need for pastors to catechize one's parish committees about the primacy of the liturgy and importance of the liturgical arts.  Here too this concept of a contribution to the parish legacy may be of some assistance, helping people to understand that vestments are not limited to being the private, sartorial property of the sacerdotal class, they can also be part of the public patrimony of the parish -- and a properly catechized, liturgically oriented parish should be as interested as any individual priest in having noble vestments at their disposal.

Another aspect that should give some perspective in this regard is that this should be understood as the ongoing project of generations; it will not happen overnight nor all at once. We are not discussing the foundational task of furnishing a basic sacristy so that basic liturgical needs can be met, what we are speaking about here are the exceptional contributions. These may only amount to only one contribution in any given generation and in the greater scheme of things, the cost compared to the return on investment is rather meagre.

Furnishing one's church with noble vestments is a task that should neither be overlooked nor undervalued. As liturgical arts go, they have the ability to make one of the most significant impacts on people by reason of both their visibility and their variability -- changing from day to day, season to season, feast to feast. In my years of writing about the sacred liturgy, this is no doubt why they are one of the most commented upon subjects in the realm of the liturgy and liturgical arts. Re-thinking how we approach them in our own day is certainly in order, particularly as tradition continues to re-assert itself with each passing generation.

Having spoken with a number of vestment artists, there are any number of them who absolutely desire to have the opportunity to execute such works if they would only be commissioned to do so. Priests should indeed continue to commission their own vestments so that they can ensure that they will have vestments worthy of the sacred liturgy at their disposal, but let's also begin to do what our forebears did, commissioning exceptional works that will contribute to a legacy of fine craftsmanship and artistic excellence -- thereby also contributing to the beauty, dignity and nobility of the sacred rites at the same time.

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