QUAERITUR: Priests crossing their stoles… not

From a reader:

I’ve noticed that there seems to be a trend where priests don’t cross their stole anymore. If some do, they are ridiculed. Why has this happened?

Where to begin.

Really?  Ridiculed?  I have never heard or seen that happen.  If someone should be such a rube as to do that, he should be gently kicked or, alternatively, ejected from the sacristy using a firehose.

Yet, it is true that priests in general aren’t crossing their stoles when vesting for Mass or in cope.  And, given what I will include below, it seems as if they have a justification for wearing them uncrossed when using the Novus Ordo.  The Roman tradition, however, is that priests cross their stoles, right over left.  This has been the custom since about the 7th century.

Priests cross the stole.  Bishops or abbots do not.  They, instead, wear a pectoral cross and wear the stole hanging straight without crossing.

In the older form of ordination of a priest the ordaining bishop takes the stole, which till now has been worn on the left shoulder as befits a (former) deacon, draws it over the new priest’s right shoulder, and arranges it in the form of a cross over his chest, his heart (in the manner of a priest), saying: Take the yoke of the Lord, for His yoke is sweet and His burden light.

For the Novus Ordo, the Ordinary Form, the General Instruction/Institution of the Roman Missal 340 says:

340. The stole is worn by the priest around his neck and hanging down in front. It is worn by the deacon over his left shoulder and drawn diagonally across the chest to the right side, where it is fastened.

priest's vestmentsThat suggests that the priest is not to cross the stole, as he was directed to do before the reforms.  However, the paragraph is a bit vague.  When the priest crosses the stole, it still hangs down in front.   It doesn’t hang down the side, as a deacon wears it.  So, priests can still cross the stole in harmony with this paragraph.  And in doing so they maintain a tradition over a millennium old.  Also, in reading that paragraph, there is not indication that the deacon crosses the stole at his side.

I recommend, as a matter of fact, that when wearing the pianeta, the Roman chasuble, that priests cross the stole.  The crossed stole serves also to “fill in” part of the square opening in front.  That is a practical reason, an aesthetic reason, but a good reason nonetheless.

That said, if we are to interpret that GIRM 340 as to mean that the priest is to wear the stole in the traditional manner of a bishop, then we have to ask why.  Off the top of my head, the reason could be to symbolize the difference between, on the one hand, deacons and, on the other sacerdotes (priests and bishops).  Deacons cross their stoles, but the cross is not over their hearts.  Rather, they cross the stole on their side.  But it is nevertheless crossed.  If I am right, then the idea is that the straight uncrossed stole may be intended as the power to offer the Sacrifice.  I am theorizing.

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  1. Andy Milam says:

    Father Z,

    I understand that you’re theorizing, but here is the conundrum on your point as I see it. If the theology of the levels of priesthood have changed (ie. the bishop is also ordained and not consecrated), then it would stand to reason that the need for a crossed stole would be more.

    However, I see as a much bigger concern the idea that the liturgical law (rubrics) have been relegated to ambiguous instructions or directives. There is no weight or consistency behind them any longer. As you rightly assert, prior to the reforms after the Council, the priest was to cross his stole regardless of style of vestment. This certainly isn’t a law any longer, but rather it has been turned into a suggestion (?) that he leave them hang…at least that is how it has been interpreted.

    I think that the bigger question which is developed from this is….why have the rubrics (which had force of law) been relegated to mere suggestion, to the point where they are absolutely unenforceable.

  2. William says:

    “Deacons cross their stoles, but the cross is not over their hearts. Rather, they cross the stole on their side. But it is nevertheless crossed”

    I presented a newly ordained deacon with what all agree is a very beautiful stole. It was designed to be crossed at the hip. He prefers to wear it attached but not crossed as that is what everybody else is doing. “Deacon,” I said, “you’re now an ordained clergyman and your commitment has been sealed with a cross–cross your stole please.”

  3. apagano says:

    Could it also be to put the Bishop and the Priest at the same level?? If they no longer vest for Mass differently they might not see that there is much of a difference in their authority level. I have heard Priests say that they have the same level of authority as a Bishop. Could this have been one way to break down the authority of Bishops?? I’m not sure I’m voicing this right….

  4. aarmstrong says:

    I think its rather deplorable that this tradition has fallen out. I agree that priests who cross their stole are not ridiculed, but rather called out for “standing out.” @Andy Milam has it correct—why are the rubrics so vague? Rules without consequences are just suggestions.

  5. frival says:

    This is particularly interesting as I’ve never seen a Deacon cross his stole – they’ve always been attached by a small chain near the bottom. Of course this is purely OF experience as we have no EF Masses remotely close.

  6. I’ve never not seen a deacon wear his stole diagonally. How else do you tell he’s a deacon and not wearing a serape?

    Re: priests wearing stole crossed, Jewish priests are often shown in art with some kind of garment crossed across their chest. I assume there’s some Biblical truth to this, or that readings were interpreted that way at some point. So presumably, not wearing a priestly stole crossed is a rejection of any continuity with the Jewish past, in favor of looking groovy. Or there’s some kind of academic justification theory behind it about how Jewish priests didn’t really dress that way, so Catholic priests shouldn’t either, even though it’s tradition to do so; and whether or not the theory was true, they taught in seminary and the poor education victims there believed it. Or there’s some stupid Sixties reason that nobody even remembers anymore, but which is still spreading its influence around the world.

    Yes, yes, I’m terribly cynical.

  7. Speravi says:

    First, could the adoption of the straight stole be for an ecumenical motive? The stole hanging straight bears a greater similarity to Epitrachil of the Eastern Churches, which is worn by both priests and bishops.
    Secondly, while the paragraph is ambiguous, there must have been a reason for it to be interpreted as a change. Otherwise, wouldn’t priests be inclined to do what they had always done? Surely the change would not have become universal unless there was as least the impression that it was actually a change. If it had been a case of priests using an ambiguity to dress up like bishops, wouldn’t the bishops have put a stop to it?

  8. Ohhhhh, I get it. You’re talking about deacons crossing over the free ends of their stoles, at their waists. Huh. Gotta say I never really paid any attention to how they’re attached there. I’ll have to see what our deacon’s doing.

    I would presume that it would be a lot more practical to cross and pin/attach a stole rather than just hang the ends out to get caught on stuff. (Speaking as someone who bumps into things a lot.)

  9. Andy Milam says:


    “Otherwise, wouldn’t priests be inclined to do what they had always done? Surely the change would not have become universal unless there was as least the impression that it was actually a change. If it had been a case of priests using an ambiguity to dress up like bishops, wouldn’t the bishops have put a stop to it?”

    To be blunt, no. Priests have not been inclined to do what priests have always done, since the social upheaval after the reforms of the 1960s. The idea was change and it was “Katy bar the door.”

    As far as universal goes, it’s like dominoes…when the first one falls, everything else goes. With no liturgical law to stop the effect, it kept going. A mere suggestion or directive won’t work, no matter how strongly worded.

    I don’t think that priests were dressing up like bishops, I think that it was a change in theology. I think that the lines were blurred intentionally and I think that the bishops at the time had no problem with the deregulation of the liturgical action or the liturgical law. Now, as with everything that has been deregulated, it is hard to re-apply a law to it. It can be done, but it is immensely difficult AND it will take more than an encyclical to do it.

    That’s my take on your questions.

  10. Random Friar says:

    A lot of the current vestments have stoles that are very thick, almost a low carpet-like thickness. Crossing them means you have this awkward point behind your head, that’s hard to put down. Many stoles are designed for front hanging, not crossing, unfortunately.

  11. Gail F says:

    I would like to know who ridicules priests for crossing their stoles. Who is even around to see them do it? Altar boys? Sacristans? I know they can be pretty nasty…

  12. Andy Milam says:

    @Gail F;

    Other priests and deacons, mainly.

  13. Supertradmum says:

    Dare I say this? The NO priests mostly do not cross their stoles because they are men. Fifty percent of my students who were male did not tie their shoes, even in university and college classes. I think it is laziness and not a statement. It may also be the modern desire for being “laid back” and less formal, as has been the case in the NO presentation in some cases, as we all know too well.

  14. St. Epaphras says:

    Our priest wears his [wide and…interesting] stoles on the outside of his chasuble. At least if the stole is under the chasuble, crossed or not, one can concentrate on Holy Mass without redirecting for the umpteenth time the thought “Why, oh why does he do that??” Is this a common practice? (I am a recent convert.)

  15. Father K says:

    I have seen it sometimes – but I don’t know if it all that common. When I do see it I am reminded of Superman – wearing his underpants over his tights…

  16. James Joseph says:

    At St. James Church in Ogden, Utah… the deacon wears a Dalmatic.
    Huzzah! And the priest wears a biretta…. in the Ordinary Form.

    (Which is the church I attend some 30 to 40 miles away depending on the mountain weather, which is a longway to travel considering I live less than 500-feet from a Catholic chapel… but let’s not get into how horrible things are here… I am here to celebrate.)

  17. Random Friar says:

    @Gail F: I think in the event of concelebration. A crossed stole would definitely “stand out.”

  18. papaefidelis says:

    If some waggish rogue should wish to use an “overlay” stole AND cross the “overlay”, he must also wear the cincture on the outside of the chasuable, as well, in order to hold the stole in place. Yet, the IGMR seems to suggest that the cincture is worn directly over the alb. Hence, chasuable and the overlay stole must be worn UNDER the alb and cincture. The chasuable, however, must be the outermost vestment. Therefore, the waggish cleric must either wear a second set of vestments atop the alb and cincture or toss out the “overlay” stoles altogether and purchase tasteful vestments. QED

  19. uptoncp says:

    I don’t know if this holds true in Roman Catholic circles, but many Anglican priests, in my experience, opt to wear their cassock albs ungirded, which of course makes it quite impossible to cross the stole.

  20. Centristian says:

    I think the matter is that overlay stoles–a modern form of the pastoral stole–came about, worn over an alb or even over the chasuble (typically during concelebrated Masses), and so priests began to wear their under-stoles the same way they wore their overlay stoles, hanging straight down and not crossed.

    It should be borne in mind that traditional pastoral stoles and reconciliation stoles, when worn over the surplice and cassock, are not crossed, but hang straight down. Only the stole worn under the chasuble is crossed, which modern clergy have most likely just forgotten about (or never were aquainted with).

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