Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Red Theophany

Red Chasuble

It must have been a Saturday morning because I was scheduled (as a young boy) to serve Mass and the sun was high - high enough for it to have been a 9 A.M. Mass. Let me try and get as close to that day as possible. The vestment color the day was red, which meant it was a martyr's feast day. On the old church calendar that would have meant one of these:

Marcellinus, Peter and Erasmus,
Primus and Felician,
Vitus, Modestus and Crescentia,
John and Paul
or the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul
or June 30, The Commemoration of Saint Paul.

I was the first to arrive at the sacristy, which in the 1960s was a rather mysterious room where the priest and servers prepared for the Mass in silence. Sadly, the sacristy has lost that quality and today is a place of chatter, agitation and distraction. If God wanted to speak to a young person's heart (or the priest's) in the sacristy today, God would have hurdles to navigate. 

It was strange for the sacristy door to be closed, but as I entered, I consciously acknowledged that the room was filled with bright sunlight and the casement windows with the amber glass were open. The red chasuble which the priest would wear on that martyr's feast day had been placed on the rack, ready for the priest to put on. Opening the door, a summer breeze went ahead of me, lifting the chasuble very gently, fully, slowly, front and back. Breezes lift kitchen curtains, ladies' skirts, laundry drying on a line. But this was different. The chasuble's dramatic lifting got my attention - that it seemed to be lifting for me. I would even call the moment a little Theophany - a God-showing. To make a point God can employ something as simple as a breeze.

But what was the point? I still can't say. Maybe God was saying something as simple as Stephen, pay attention today. Or maybe, Pay attention to ME and to your life. Or maybe, Some day I would like for you to wear a red chasuble at the altar. Or maybe, Learn from the self-gift of the martyrs. Or maybe all of that or none of that, perhaps something I have yet to discover. Who knows what other questions we'd ask of ourselves or what we'd discover of God and ourselves if we paid attention like that all the time!

This is the prayer the priest prayed as he put on the chasuble:

O Lord, You said: My yoke is easy, and My burden is light: make me so able to bear it, that I may obtain Your favor. Amen

The chasuble has its origins in ancient Rome It is said that the chasuble is the ancient Roman raincoat - voluminous enough to cover even the soldier's horse. That was thoughtful. Over the centuries the chasuble has taken different shapes or cuts, but always it is the image of charity.

The stole, which the priest places around his neck, hidden under the chasuble, is the symbol of a priest's authority to offer the Mass. Some priests deliberately put the stole OUTSIDE and OVER the chasuble. But that's a mistake. The first thing we should encounter in the priest is not his authority, but his love. His authority should be hidden under his love. Actually, the priest putting the stole on top reflects a deeper problem which is the inability to allow for what is secret and hidden. In a way it's a kind of immodesty. Modesty means we don't have to see everything. No we don't.

Some things should be left discreet, hidden and mysterious - like the secret prayers the priest is supposed to offer quietly at Mass. But there are priests who pray those Mass prayers out loud - even very loud. The mysterious intimacy and discreet sense of the holy disappears. Other priests get lost in a perverted, twisted-up sense of mystery and secret as they molest children, and then officials compound it all by keeping that ugliness a further dirty secret. Bizarre, isn't it?

But I will end these thoughts on the happiest of notes. Those few seconds of God-encounter in the sacristy of my boyhood took place almost fifty years ago. And today, when I walk into any sacristy, on any given morning, to prepare for Mass and I see that celebrating the saint of the day requires red vestments, there is a little catch of my interior breath.  God's gift!


  1. Thank you for sharing this poignant memory. How wonderfully beautiful that a vestment can hold so much meaning, in of itself, and for you.

  2. Wonderful story and explanation of the meaning of what a chasuble is and how it is worn. That a childhood memory can grab hold of us so many years later is truly a gift.

  3. Moving story. Great lesson. A pleasure to read.

  4. After reading this, I can't help but think of what kind of young boy could be moved by such a brief encounter with a breeze. Someone sensitive and open to a spiritual presence that you must have carried into adulthood and your vocarion. It is evident in your writing. Thank you so much for passing this gift along, not only in this post but for the past and for what is to come.