Folded chasubles are the vestments used by the deacon and subdeacon during penitential seasons instead of the dalmatic and tunicle. Their use dates back to the earliest years of the Church, when all the clergy used the chasuble.
HISTORY. The chasuble was originally a civil garment used already by the Etruscans, and became widespread in the Roman Empire beginning in the first century of our era, to the point that it became an elegant article of clothing in common use. It was a round garment with a hole in its centre to pass the head through, and covered the upper body down to the knees. It is known under different names, the principal ones being: pænula, the most common name in ancient Rome; casula, literally “little house” because it was a sort of little tent (this term has resulted in the English “chasuble”); planeta, the term later used by the Roman liturgical books, whereas the rest of Western Europe has always preferred to use casula; and amphibalus, mainly employed by the Fathers of the Church of Gaul.
The chasuble then tended, at the start of our era, to replace the old toga, which was too heavy and less practical, to the point where Roman orators began to insist on using them instead of togas when pleading cases, in order to have more freedom in for oratorical gestures . Under the Emperor Trajan (98-117), the tribunes of the people wore chasubles, and Commodus (180-192) ordered that those assisting public spectacles should do so in a chasuble and no longer in a toga. The chasuble became the senatorial vestment in 382.
Christians naturally used this garment  and at the start of the 3rd century Tertullian chastised the faithful who took off their chasubles during liturgical prayers for reasons that he labelled superstitious . As the chasuble became a vestment of honour for high officers of the Empire, Christians sought to give their own tribunes and senators—bishops, priests, and deacons—a similar mark of honour.
In Christian writings, the first mention of the chasuble as a properly liturgical vestment is relatively late: it is found in the second of the two letters written by St Germain of Paris († 576), which contains a famous description of the mass according to the ancient Gallican rite:
Casula quam amphibalum vocant, quod sacerdos induetur, tota unita per Moysem legiferum instituta primitus demonstratur. Jussit ergo Dominus fieri dissimilatum vestimentum, ut talem sacerdos induerit, quale indui populus non auderetur. Ideo sine manicas, quia sacerdos potius benedicit quam ministrat. Ideo unita prinsecus, non scissa, non aperta ; quia multae sunt Scripturae sacrae secreta mysteria, quae quasi sub sigillo sacerdoti doctus debet abscondere, et unitatem fidei custodire, non in haerese vel schismata declinare.
The chasuble, which is known as amphibalus and which the priest wears, shows the original unity of all that was instituted by Moses the Lawgiver. Now, the Lord commanded that diverse vestments be made, so that the people might not dare wear what the priest wears. Hence it has no sleeves, since the priest’s duty is to bless rather than to minister. Hence from the start it has been of one piece, and not split or opened, since many are the hidden mysteries of Holy Scripture, which the learned priest must conceal under a seal, as it were, and preserve the unity of the faith, nor to fall into heresy or schism.
Nevertheless, well before this first mention, numerous frescoes, mosaics, and miniatures from the 4th century onward show beyond doubt the chasuble was largely adopted during this era as a liturgical vestment, in the East as well as the West.
At this time, the chasuble was the general vestment of all the clergy, not only that of bishops and priests, but also of deacons, subdeacons, and—according to Alcuin (c. 730-804)—in certain circumstances even of acolytes! Amalarius of Metz (775-850) tells us that the chasuble was still worn in his time by all clerics without distinction. He calls it the generale indumentum sacrorum ducum . t was still employed by acolytes in certain regions into the 11th century .
For the celebrating bishop or priest, this vestment did not create any discomfort in carrying out the sacred ceremonies, as St Germain of Paris notes: “Hence it has no sleeves, since the duty of the priest is to bless rather than to minister”. But the ministers—deacons and subdeacons—had to adapt the chasuble for their purposes: they rolled back the front part of the vestment, so that the arms of the ministers would be free to handle the sacred vessels. And thus they were dubbed “folded chasubles”, or planetæ plicatæ ante pectus, as the Latin liturgical books say.
In order to better understand the form taken by this folding, below are some photographs taken from the journal L’Art d’Église (n. 4, 1948), which show a very successful attempt to recreate the ancient shape of the folded chasuble by the monks of the St Andrew’s Abbey in Belgium:
From the singing of the Gospel until the end of the Mass, the deacon, in order to be freer in his movements, rolled up his chasuble and slung it across his shoulders over his stole:
The celebrant’s chasuble did not need to be folded  precisely because the deacon and subdeacon would help him by lifting up its edges at certain times during the incensings and at the elevations. This beautiful gesture was faithfully kept by the Roman liturgy, even when it ceased to be necessary after celebrants’ chasubles began to be clipped and reduced in shape.
In fact, the folded chasubles worn by deacons and subdeacons were a clear symbol of their proper function as sacred ministers, i.e. of their role as servants of the celebrant.
Deacons’ and subdeacons’ folded chasubles were later replaced, beginning in the 5th century, by two new vestments: the dalmatic and the tunicle, vestments endowed with sleeves that it more manageable to carry out their liturgical and ministerial functions.
Still, Rome took a long time to adopt this novelty, and the Ordines Romani that describe the Roman liturgy at the time of St Gregory the Great and a bit thereafter (7th century) still name the chasuble as the vestment worn by the pope, the deacons, and the subdeacons. Moreover, John the Deacon (c. 825-880), the biographer of St Gregory the Great (c. 540-604), in his Vita Gregorii Magni, designates the rest of the clergy that accompanied the Pope on processions with the term planeti (“those wearing planetæ“, i.e. chasubles).
When Rome finally accepted the use of dalmatics and tunicles, she nevertheless kept the use of folded chasubles for the deacon and subdeacon during Lent and penitential seasons, following the generally observed liturgical principle that the seasons considered the most holy are also those that are spared from liturgical innovations.
Furthermore, the dalmatic and tunicle are sumptuous vestments that symbolize joy and innocence. For a long time, their colour had to be white, and ancient dalmatics were also adorned with the two bright purple vertical bands (lati claves) that adorned the senatorial garb of old. During the ordination of a deacon, the bishop imposes the dalmatic upon him with these words: “May the Lord attire thee in the garment of salvation, and the vestment of joy (indumento lætitiæ), and ever surround thee with the dalmatic of justice”. The equivalent prayer for clothing the subdeacon with the tunicle also speaks of a vestimento lætitiæ. The use of the dalmatic and tunicle was consequently entirely inappropriate for penitential seasons, during which the old folded chasuble was hence preserved.
RULES FOR LITURGICAL USE. Folded chasubles are therefore used in the Roman liturgy during penitential seasons. The exact extent of these seasons is described in chapter XIX, §§ 6 and 7 of the rubrics of the Roman Missal of St Pius V (De qualitate paramentorum) :
“In cathedrals and major churches, chasubles are used folded before the breast on fasting days (except on the vigils of the saints), and on the Sundays and ferias of Advent and Lent, and on the Vigil of Pentecost before Mass (except on
- Gaudete Sunday, and when its Mass is repeated during the week,
- on Lætare Sunday,
- on the Vigil of Christmas,
- on Holy Saturday during the blessing of the candle and during Mass, and
- on the Ember Days of Pentecost)
also during the blessing of candles and procession on the day of the Purification of Our Lady, and during the blessing of ashes and the blessing of palms and the procession.
“In smaller churches, however, on the aforesaid fasting days (the deacon and subdeacon) minister only with the alb; the subdeacon with the maniple, and the deacon also with the stole hanging from his left shoulder under his right.”
We shall here explain certain aspects of this rubric in greater detail. Despite its apparent complexity, it follows some simple and logical principles:
1. Folded chasubles were only used on penitential seasons, and hence only in violet or black. They were not used (even if the above rubric does not make it explicit) for the Mass on Maundy Thursday, celebrated in white, but were for the Mass of the Presanctified on Good Friday, celebrated in black. Before the reforms of the 1950s, the Vigil of Pentecost was like a second Paschal Vigil, and comprised six prophecies before the beginning of the Mass. This fore-mass was celebrated in violet and hence folded chasubles were used. The subsequent Mass was in red. Likewise, on Holy Saturday, the deacon blessed the Paschal candle in a white dalmatic, then put on the folded chasuble again for the Fore-Mass in violet (which comprised twelve prophecies and the blessing of the font). The Mass following this Fore-Mass was in white vestments.
2. Sundays of Advent and Lent are not fasting days (one never fasts on Sundays, which always celebrates Christ’s resurrection) but are still included as part of penitential seasons because they are celebrated in violet. Nonetheless, the rubric of the Roman Missal does not mention Sundays of Septuagesima, which are also celebrated in violet. With some exceptions, medieval commentators did not recommend the use of violet chasubles during the season of Fore-Lent. (To follow the rubric rigorously, one should not use them on Sundays during Septuagesima, but one could consider using them on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays on the three weeks of this season, since they were formerly fasting days).
3. The two Sundays of Gaudete and Lætare are breaks in the middle of Advent and of Lent, days of joy when the Church gives the faithful a foretaste of the rejoicing that awaits them at the end of these two penitential seasons: the vestments are rose-coloured instead of violet, altars are adorned with flowers, and the organ and other musical instruments are played. The Mass of Gaudete Sunday can be celebrated again during the week that follows, and is endowed with the same privileges (the Mass of Lætare Sunday cannot be repeated during the following week, since each feria of Lent is provided with a proper mass).
4. The Ember Days of Pentecost are the sole Ember Days without fasting, because they are included in the Octave of Pentecost. Hence, unlike the Ember Days of September, Advent, and Lent, folded chasubles are not used during these masses.
5. By “major churches”, the rubric means cathedrals, collegiate churches, and also parish churches. This was confirmed by a decision of the Sacred Congregation of Rites dated 11 September 1847 addressed to Nicholas Wiseman, bishop of London, who was then reestablishing the Catholic hierarchy in England and whose entirely new parishes were still often bereft of vestments. The same decision counseled him to celebrate Mass in his cathedral without sacred ministers rather than have deacons and subdeacons without folded chasubles. This decision must have seemed a bit inflexible because it was suppressed in later collections of decrees of the S. C. R.: a major church lacking folded chasubles can always have ministers serve without folded chasubles, wearing only with alb, stole, and maniple.
6. Smaller churches seems to have been dispensed from using folded chasubles not so much because they lacked them but because it was more difficult to have three perfectly matching chasubles, two of which were folded.
7. Another response by the Sacred Congregation of Rites (n. 5385, 31 August 1867) specifies that folded chasubles must be used before the exposed Blessed Sacrament during the Forty Hours Prayer taking place in Advent or Lent.
8. The use of folded chasubles was linked to an idea of liturgical time, for they were not used during Requiem masses, which are not tied to any particular season: black dalmatic and tunicle are used instead.
LITURGICAL USE. For the ministers to assist the celebrant, it suffices that the front of their chasubles be folded; but when the deacon or subdeacon must carry out those tasks proper to them, they entirely remove this vestment or fold it still further.
Thus, the subdeacon takes off his folded chasuble before singing the epistle, and puts it on again immediately thereafter .
The proper office of the deacon begins with the singing of the Gospel and continues until the end of communion; during this time, he does not remove his folded chasuble entirely, but wears it folded and strung over his left shoulder, attached under the right arm with thin cords (or even by making a knot), over his stole. After communion, he unrolls the fabric and wears the chasuble folded as before.
To simplify this procedure, the custom arose of folding another chasuble in advance, which the deacon put over his shoulder at the appropriate time. Later on, this folded chasuble was often replaced by a simple band of the same fabric, commonly dubbed a broad stole .
During Pontifical Mass, the assistant deacons put on their vestments—viz. a chasuble folded in front, over a cotta or rochet—towards the end of Terce, before the bishop sings the collect .
The cross-bearer subdeacon also wears a folded chasuble .
EVOLUTION OF THE SHAPE. From the folded chasuble to the cut chasuble.
The use of actually folding the front part of the chasuble and keeping it folded with cords or hooks has persisted to our days.
In the 17th century, Pisacara Castaldo notes that folded chasubles must not be different from that of the celebrant . In the 18th century, Merato, commenting on Gavantus, further specified that the hooks that keep them folded must be removed between ceremonies lest the chasubles be damaged, and in order that priests might comfortably use them in low masses .
A folded chasuble is therefore exactly what its name suggests: a chasuble like any other, worn with the front part folded from within up to the level of the elbows, and often held in place by two steel clips.
Nevertheless, over the centuries, as chasubles for celebrants became clipped on the edges for convenience’s sake, the folds of chasubles for deacons and subdeacons became definitively stitched up, and finally the excess fabric was entirely cut off (one might therefore speak of “cut chasubles”, but common use has kept the term “folded chasubles.)
- Cf. De Oratoribus chap. XXXIX, attributed to Tacitus (58 – c. 120)
- There are many chasubles that are said to have belonged to St Paul.
- Tertullian, De Oratione, chap. XV.
- Amalarius of Metz, De ecclesiasticis officiis, II, 19 (PL 105, 1095).
- A. King, Liturgy of the Roman Church, London-New York-Toronto, Longmans, 1957, p. 130.
- Even if some celebrants’ chasubles sometimes have folds or cords; this was the use in the cathedral of Rheims.
- De qualitate paramentorum tit. XIX, n. 6, 7. “In diebus vero ieiuniorum (præterquam in vigiliis Sanctorum) et in Dominicis et feriis Adventus et Quadragesimæ ac in vigilia Pentecostes ante Missam (exceptis Domi‐ nica Gaudete, si eius Missa infra hebdomadam repetatur, et Dominica Lætare, Vigilia Nativitatis Domini, Sabbato Sancto in benedictione Cerei et in Missa, ac quatuor temporibus Pentecostes) item in benedictione Candelarum et Processione in die Purificationis Beatæ Mariæ, et in benedictione Cinerum ac benedictione Palmarum et Processione, in Cathedralibus et præcipuis Ecclesiis utuntur Planetis plicatis ante pectus ; quam planetam Diaconus dimittit, etc. In minoribus autem Ecclesiis, prædictis diebus ieiuniorum Alba tantum induti ministrant : Subdiaconus cum manipulo, Diaconus etiam cum stola ab humero sinistro pendente sub dextrum.”
- “If the ministers are wearing the folded chasuble, the first acolyte rises during the last collect before the Epistle and takes the folded chasuble from the sub-deacon, then the latter takes the book, chants the Epistle, and kisses the hand of the celebrant. After returning the book, he revests again in the folded chasuble—either by the altar or at the credence—and transfers the Missal from the Gospel side with its cushion or book-stand.” Pio Martinucci, Manuale sacrarum Caerimoniarum, chap. VI, n. 14.
- “After the celebrant has begin reading the Gospel [in a low voice], the deacon descends from the altar by the side, as has been said. At the credence he deposits the folded chasuble and puts on the broad stole; then he takes the Gospel book, carries it to the altar, and completes the rest of his functions.” Pio Martinucci, Manuale sacrarum Caerimoniarum, chap. VI, n. 15.
- Caerimoniale Episcoporum, Book II, chap. XIII, n. 3.
- Pierre Jean Baptiste de Herdt, Pratique de la liturgie selon le rite romain, p. 213.
- A. Pisacara Castaldo, Praxis caeremoniarum, Neapoli, Scoriggium, 1645, p. 178.
- B. Gavantus—G.M. Merato, Thesaurus Sacrorum Rituum, Venetiis, Balleoniana, 1792, I, p. 48.