QUAERITUR: small shoulder capes on altar boys

I had this question from e-mail:

Thank you for all your hard work with WDTPRS. Your posts and podcasts have educated me. I have a question I’m sure you can answer. This past Wed. I was at St. John Cantius in Chicago for the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. (What a fabulous place to assist at Mass!) One of the servers; there were two, was wearing a black cape over his surplice. This cape came down only to about the bottom of his shoulder blades. What is this garment and what is it’s significance?


I think the significance of the little shoulder cape on altar boys is that it makes them look cool.

Actually, that might be pretty important.  It is good to build some hierarchy and distinctive signs and badges into a corps of altar boys.  They respond well to this.  It also contributes to the solemnity of the ceremonies.

I suspect that if there were only two who wore that should cape, they probably had specific tasks.  They may have been the first and second Masters of Ceremony, etc.   Without a photo, it is hard to know.  But I am guessing that one of our well-informed readers from Cub Nation will let us know.

The shoulder or elbow length cape is a common feature of clerical dress, for various roles and reasons.

For example, since the little cape was once a symbol of jurisdiction, bishops and pastors used it.  It is still a common feature of cassocks of bishops. 

Bishops and canons also wear another kind of small cape, a mozzetta, over their choir dress, which includes a rochet or surplice over their cassock.  Rectors of minor basilicas and, I think, cathedrals could use one as well. 

In any event, there are all sorts of distinctive capes and drapes for clerical dress, and they have their meanings.

But sticking to your question, I suspect that the small cape simply makes the altar boys look and feel sharp in the execution of their duties.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Tim W says:

    Fr. Z,

    The black shoulder capes are worn only by the religious brothers at St. John Cantius. [Good point. As I mentioned, above, canons use capes. But I thought the question about about altar boys. – Fr. Z]

  2. Good topic. I would love to get some history on this, as well.

    Short shoulder capes have been in use at Assumption Grotto, I think going all the way back to it’s earliest days in the 1800’s. I have to get a picture of this old painting, depicting the first pastor with altar boys. If memory serves, they short shoulder capes back then too, but they did not have a straight cutline at the bottom. Rather, then were a series of rounded cuts. I’ll get a pic of it when I think of it and post it.

    Today, during certain seasons, Grotto altar boys wear white cassocks and then red shoulder capes (Christmas) and gold ones (Easter season, and again for Corpus Christi. I think the red ones might be back in use for Pentecost, but I’m not sure.

  3. Brian Kemple says:

    Feeling sharp does make a big difference. I think I’m always a little more crisp when serving at Mass if I’m wearing a Florentine surplice as opposed to a classical one, which, to me, feels like a more feminine garment. Pleats are much manlier!

  4. I wanted to say that I agree with this statement, as well:

    Actually, that might be pretty important. It is good to build some hierarchy and distinctive signs and badges into a corps of altar boys. They respond well to this. It also contributes to the solemnity of the ceremonies.

    ….It is good to build some hierarchy and distinctive signs and badges into a corps of altar boys. They respond well to this. It also contributes to the solemnity of the ceremonies.

    But, I also like the look of uniformity among them. I suppose they could be styled so that they don’t lose the uniformity, but also communicate a certain rank among those who have worked hard, and by the grace of God reached a high level of knowledge, dedication, and competency.

    Very few know the entire protocol for every situation that can be encountered. Our Master of Ceremonies at the more festive Masses really does his homework, and I’m sure has help. But, it is also good when the boys learn these ropes.

    Some boys are just very dedicated too, serving at more than one Mass each weekend and showing up for weekday Masses where they put in more time. This is really helpful, especially for learning the usus antiquior.

    Some might argue that it would create an unchristian type of competition and hurt the self-esteem of other boys. My response to that is that in life, and in any vocation, they have to get use to it. A boy who enters the priesthood will spend a life time watching others get promoted to higher ranks or appointments, perhaps positions for which he felt more qualified. But, this is where the grace of humility is honed.

  5. sigil7 says:

    I believe rectors of major seminaries may sport the (black) cape as well.

  6. Oops – got the first quote mark in the wrong place in my last comment – sorry Fr. Z.

    What’s the difference between a classicl and florentine surplice? Anyone got pics?

  7. Me2 says:

    A few weeks ago I wondered myself about these capes. I saw them during a Tridentine Mass in Germany. Here is a photo:

  8. Tim W says:

    Fr. Z,

    Sorry, to clarify my previous comment…the black capes are not worn by the altar boys at SJC. When the canons serve, they wear them. However, I believe the altar boys there wear a different colored cape on special occasions (Christmas for example).

  9. Martin_B says:

    Just guessing, because we don’t have a Photo:

    First: If the shoulder-cape is buttoned in front, it’s a mozetta and as such part of bishop’s, certain prelates, cannons and basilica-rectors choir-vestments.

    However it was often used to “dress up” certain altar-servers with special tasks. But things like this should be a thing of the past. Altar-servers have a role of their own and, as such, vestment of their own. If there is a need to discern some of them, like an MC, it would be better, to vest him in cassock+surplice (if the other servers wear albs) or a “fancier” surplice (if all the servers wear cassock+surplice).

    Second: If the shoulder-cape is open in front, it’s probably because the servers aren’t (or haven’t in former times) wearing “full cassocks”, but “cassock-skirts” with adjustable suspenders instead. These had the advantage of a nearly “one-size fits all”, but would, of course, show the “lacking” of a cassock at the top of the surplice. To camouflage this, the servers would wear matching soulder-capes under, or over their surplices.

    This, too, should tried to be avoided today, because, as said above, servers have a “real” role and as such should wear “real” cassocks and not something, that only pretends to be. The only exception would be parishes, that just don’t have the money to vest all their servers with matching cassocks or albs.

  10. Brian Kemple says:

    In general I prefer square yoke to round yoke, but the square yoke surplices we have at Southern Catholic are Florentines.

  11. Steve Skojec says:

    When I was an altar boy in the early 1990s, our parish had nothing for us to wear but a basic sort of alb, made out of what might as well have been old bedsheets.

    The only mark of distinction was the cincture – the younger boys all wore a white one, but the most senior boys wore red. Even this small symbolism meant a lot to me when I finally reached red-cincture status.

    I would love to have had the option of cassock and surplus. I think Fr. is right – to the extent that there is “some hierarchy and distinctive signs and badges” in the altar boy corps, it will be a more engaging experience for them. Something in boys reacts positively to this.

  12. Thanks Brian for the link. I see the Florentine, but what’s classical?

    If that refers to those with lots of lace, I don’t think they look feminine at all.

    I say this much, I have a tough time these days, seeing altar boys in those hooded albs anymore. They look too casual to me.

  13. Romulus says:

    Just after Vatican II, I was a 10 year old altar boy. It hardly ever gets really cold in New Orleans, but one bitter winter day when we were serving a funeral the sacristan fitted us up in short woolen capes (midnight blue, I think) for the trip to the cemetery. I can still recall how it felt standing outside the church as the body went past us: the heavy overcast sky, the tolling tower bell, the biting cold wind whipping up the ends of my cape. Yeah, you could say it was cool, but what made it cool was far more than just the fashion accessory: it was the full immersion in reality, it was authenticity, a sense of my own participation in a solemn ritual. It was the Church taking her role seriously and by virtue of the performance of my small part, my knowing that she took me seriously as well. Funny that a little thing like a cape should have made that so much more memorable, but there it is.

  14. Fr. Z is quite correct, tokens and marks of hierarchy amongst the Altar boys is an excellent idea. I am also very supportive of any confraternities or guilds of Altar servers at a parish. These things help the boys realize that their work is less of a chore and more of an honor, and will certainly help foster vocations.

    I am not sure if there is any specific set of rules for this. I have seen various differances, such as the younger “junior” servers in red cassocks with the older boys who take a more active role in black; I have seen only the torchbearers in red; I have seen red, black and green shoulder capes worn over the surplice.

    And then in some places the schola- especially if composed of males and sits in the area between the sanctuary and nave properly called the ‘choir’- will wear cassocks and surplices and might also have marks of distinction.

    In the old days in various churches in Europe one might see the servers in albs and tunicles.

    One thing I am curious about though- in Europe I noticed it is common for the servers to wear the Roman collar with their cassock, but I have never seen this in North America.

  15. Brian Kemple says:

    Diane, by classical I just mean, for lack of a better term, the typical rounded yoke style, like the Old English or American on the link I posted. I think, only having those growing up makes them older in my mind. I have no idea which is actually the older style.

  16. There’s a lot of objection to the use of albs, when I see from photos that they are rather common in Australia. We are accustomed to seeing cheap ones in the average parish, worn by kids who don’t have the presence of mind to check themselves in the mirror before stepping out. Albs of good quality do exist, and last longer, so you don’t really save anything in the long run by getting cheap ones.

    That’s assuming the choice is going to be in that direction. Personally, and for the Traditional Mass in particular, I would much rather have the gentlemen in cassocks and surplices.

  17. Charlie says:


    The internet is a small world. You were my sponsor when I was confirmed and received into the Church in 2005, at St. Anthony’s. Hope you’re doing well.

  18. joan says:

    Does this really concern JESUS? I think that we should only have capes that would look “COOL” on JESUS… i think we should consider His preference. Has anyone asked?

  19. Larry says:

    Hierarchy of altar boys! Okay fine if you mean they can wear badges on their coats; but, lets not get started on a whole new round of “I’m more important than you are!” There is a reason Pope Paul VI got rid of some of these items and it is not because he was “wrong”. Young men or boys serve at the altar to serve the Lord, and not to earn a merit badge. Grace, gentlemen and ladies is what his is all about, not some trinket that distracts one from serving the Lord. I mean just read Pope Benedict’s homily at WYD final Mass. Even these little trappings can ultimately become idols if they serve to distract from serving Jesus and His priest.

  20. Patrick A says:

    Hey, is that Sr. Joan Chittister on wdtprs? What an honor…

  21. Brian Kemple says:

    Charles, indeed the internet makes the world small. Hope you are doing well.

    David, I concur; cassocks and surplices are far better.

    Joan, have you asked Jesus why He created sunsets, clouds, the arch, the Grand Canyon, glaciers, fjords, and why He created us in His image and likeness? I think aesthetic quality was one of the key elements in God’s creating the universe; and I think He likewise wants us to continue in and aspire to His image and likeness in our own works and adornments.

    Larry, yes, they can become a distraction, but anything can. “I’m more important than you!” can be assumed by lectors, Eucharistic Minotaurs (intentional), deacons, and priests; it doesn’t require particular clothing. Distinguishing the office performed by a particular person by giving them particular clothing, however, makes perfect sense. Hierarchy is not about self-importance, it is about recognition of what one’s place is within a structure, always and especially with the notions in mind that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and that the master must serve his servants.

  22. G says:

    The servers were not “altar boys” but
    members of the Canons Regular, at
    various stages in their journey toward
    Incidentally, there is a profession
    being made the afternoon of the Assumption,
    I believe.
    It will, I’m sure, like everything there
    be exquisite, and more importantly, prayerful.
    (Save the Liturgy, Save the World)

  23. Seminarian says:

    Amen Brian, fine post.

  24. Patrick said, “Hey, is that Sr. Joan Chittister on wdtprs? What an honor…”

    Awww – you beat me to it.

    Actually, I was thinking that Joan could go hold a dialogue with JESUS and if she should actually hear an answer, take it to the bishop and let him discern that spirit. If he says it was the “Spirit of Vatican II”, then we can run the other way.

  25. Actually, the capes are there for a very practical reason. In Southern Germany, Austria and some other countries, the cassock was not worn by altar servers, it being considered the province of the clergy. Instead, to this day, the servers wear things like skirts, often red or green, held up by braces (suspenders), with the cotta or surplice on top, and then the cape to cover the shoulders.
    In some places, the cape then got worn with a cassock, but I think that originally it was simply because a server ought not, according to some views, to wear the cassock.
    This is also done in parts of Poland, where is also to be found another custom, that of wearing the cotta without cassock. You often see tough young men wearing little wisps of lace over their jeans; it looks very strange to our eyes.

  26. Matt says:

    Thanks for the great discussions. I posted the original question to Fr. Z. I believe “G” is right. If you look at my question carefully I did not say “altar boys” I said altar servers. I should have made it clear that they were young men, in their twenties. The picture provided by Me2 is close, except that the cape was closed at the front.

  27. patrick f says:

    I like the idea of hierarchy..we need more of that in the church, on the altar. There is hierarchy among the heavenly choirs, why should the earthly realization of the heavenly mass be any different.

    When I was young, the more “senior servers” wore surplices that were like that of a priests. A little longer, a squared opening. The younger servers wore the poofier, more “one size fits all”, with a rounded opening. Of course, I am a part of the generation that was introduced to girl servers, so once that happened, atleast at the school I was at (which ironically was an all boys school until about 5 years prior, a grade school at that) we got privy to the unisex albs that you see with the little hoods. Atleast thats better then my current parish, which, I will say is a good parish, save for female servers, who wear the cassocks and surplices we have always had. Looks pretty silly too.

  28. Luke says:

    As the above discussion shows the question of this particular situation seems to be resolved already. Although, out of interest I have come across various places in Britain and Australia that also maintain the practice of some altar boys wearing shoulder capes (almost but not quite mozzetta like garments). Upon enquiring why at the time, the answer was that these capes distinguish those servers who have made their first Holy Communion and those who haven’t. The majority of servers (who had made their first Communion) went without, but as a way of distinguishing those few who hadn’t (so the priest would know not to give them Communion) they were vested with this additional garment to make them stand out.

    Fr Z. (or anyone else who may know)…. I have an additional question slightly related to this topic…. What are the rules regulating a cleric’s use of the black simar (which I believe is a cassock with an open shoulder cape attached – like what the pope wears)? I’ve heard many conflicting accounts of this. Apparently when in Rome, only certain clergy are allowed to wear it (namely the locals)…is that true? Similarly is it also true that any priest within his own diocese may make use of it also? These are are some of the things I have heard but I’m still not quite sure yet.

  29. Bruce says:

    In addition to Brian’s excellent comment:

    Originally, due to a lack of clergy/seminarians to serve Mass, Altar Servers were instituted to serve Mass, and were thus permitted to wear cassock, surplice, shoulder cape, etc. These garments reflect the duty the person is doing for the Church according to his level (Priests dress differently than Monsignors, who dress differently than Bishops, etc.) So these people who are in an extension of the office that they are serving in place of (altar Servers instead of clergy/seminarians) can still wear the vesture of the office. It’s the same kind of thing when Bishops dress down (tab shirts instead of cassock) in an attempt at humility…well it’s a misguided outward humility. The proper thing to do in that case would be to wear the vesture of his appointed office and wear a hair shirt or something to that effect underneath.

    On a side note…I hope Joan doesn’t serve Mass…does she?

  30. California Girl says:

    C’mon, people. Do you all really think that Joan was serious? Looks like she just forgot to put the ;) at the end of her comment.

  31. Martin_B says:


    you are right about the simar (from the italian “zimarra”) ist the cassock with attached short shoulder cape. It’s use is today reserved to those with episcopal rank.
    The over-sleeves, wich were in former times part of the simar, have been abolished for evera cleric except the pope himselve.

    If you have further questions about this topic, this: http://catholicsites.org/clericaldress/ excellent site will give you all the answers and the sources.
    There is only one addition for me to make: The black mozetta (with red piping) is also granted to the rectors of basilicas (see http://www.adoremus.org/DomusEcclesiae.html).

  32. Kradcliffe says:

    I love the idea of a guild or confraternity of altar servers, maybe on a national scale, sort of similar to the Boy Scouts. Instead of learning about knots and building fires, the boys learn about the liturgy as they work their way up into higher levels of responsibility. There could be other activities, including community service and sports/fun. Unlike the scouts, though, earned insignia of rank would be subtle modifications to their vestments, recognizable to those who know them.

  33. Larry says:

    In spite of my earlier post regarding badges etc. I wish to note that in my earlier years our parish had established a chapter of the “Knights of the Altar” and yes indeed there were small pins denoting the individual’s advancement. I still have my pins. I noted some time back that there is a similar group involved with one the the TLM groups though I forget which. I think that such groups are a good idea in promoting this ministry in the Church not only in the TLM but also in the NO. Heaven knows something needs to be done to encourage real devotion to serving at Mass in the NO. The one point that disagrees a bit with the general direction of this thread is that the membership in this group was not reflected in any form at the altar. The pins etc. were to be worn on jackets or shirts for secular display.

    Serving our Lord at Mass must be seen as a great honor and privilege and one should be eager to participate and not act as though it is a chore. Servers at TLM’s are far better in this regard than NO. But that is the fault of those who teach servers and the general feeling that servers were no longer needed since the prayer responses are now said by the congregation at large. Happily this situation is one that can be easily remedied but it does require that the adults who teach have some idea of what serving at the Altar is all about. Sadly, just because the teacher is a deacon or religious is no guarantee they know what is proper.

  34. attende says:

    Capes on cassocks worn by servers? My impression is that this is a custom with national variations. I have never seen a cape on a server at mass in the UK but they seem to be universal (assuming no dreaded cass-alb) in Germany and Austria.

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