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.