Saint Joseph altar servers are sporting new apparel on weekend and holy day Masses. For a couple of years, the Altar Society, which oversees the care and purchase of items needed for worship, has wanted to replace our oldest set of albs, which had little hoods and were worn on weekday Masses.
The word “alb” comes from the Latin word for white. Priests have always worn albs underneath their outer Mass vestment, the colorful chasuble. Originally, when diocesan priests were not vested for Mass, they did not wear civilian clothing of any kind. In most countries, they wore the black cassock. Religious order priests wore the habit of their order. When they celebrated Mass, the alb went over the cassock or habit, and then the chasuble. Imagine all of this before air conditioning! That may be why many of the older albs were quite lacey.
The surplice, the white overlay of the cassock, was essentially a mini-alb, which the priest tended to wear when he did something sacred that was not a Mass, which normally requires a chasuble. So baptisms, some weddings, confessions, and blessings would have seen priests in cassock and surplice, with the stole, the long yoke that goes over the neck of the priest, and the symbol of priestly office, on top of these two garments.
Older Catholics remember servers wearing cassock and surplice, typically, just like priest, a white surplice going over a black cassock. After the Second Vatican Council, fewer priests were wearing cassocks for work. When most priests celebrate Mass today, they tend to put the alb over whatever they might be wearing. Eventually, more and more altar servers began wearing albs, which in its white color is a reminder of baptism. Now, as cassock and surplice make a return among priests, they do as well among altar servers, though our new cassocks are red rather than black.
Keep in mind that this is simply a question of taste or fashion. It doesn’t make the Mass better or worse, though some would argue that one style or another is more beautiful, and therefore more fitting. Everyone at least agrees that Mass should be a beautiful experience.
At both parishes, I’ve also begun asking the servers to hold their hands in a folded position, when they are not being used. The servers have been very gracious in responding, though sometimes it is hard to remember to do. It’s new for us although those who have been travelling have probably noticed it more and more. It’s simply an attempt to highlight the holiness and reverence that should be part of the Mass.