Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

Liturgical Literacy and the Deacon’s Dalmatic

I am always amazed at what I discover when I am not looking for what I find. I know, that sounds ridiculous but these precious nuggets of information are what fill my simple mind with joy. Since ordination, I have been given a few dalmatics (Thanks everyone!)…or what I thought were dalmatics. Turns out, to my delight, I discovered I also own tunicles. Never heard of a tunicle, read on!

Establishing a Lexicon of Vesture


The dalmatic takes its name from its territory of origin, Dalmatia. If it sounds familiar, you probably are recalling those lovely dogs, dalmatians. And, you would be correct. Dalmatics and dalmatians both are from Dalmatia, which is a historic region of Croatia along the Adriatic Sea. In antiquity, the dalmatic was the clothing of rank and prestige worn by only the most privileged and outstanding members in society.


Related to the dalmatic is the tunicle which was

developed in the same design in ancient Rome, where it is was worn within the villa, never to be seen outdoors. Ancient graffiti illustrate the tunicle as something akin to a lounging suit or caftan, showing it being worn during meals.[1]

The tunicle and dalmatic were almost identical save the difference in weight and “later on, in degree of ornamentation.”[2]

From Secular to the Sacred

Both garments entered the Church liturgy, though the dalmatic was first adopted five centuries earlier during the fourth century. Most historians agree that Pope St. Sylvester in A.D. 332 committed the dalmatic to the Sacred Order of Deacons. Some historians argue that Pope Symmachus of Sardo granted the privilege in A.D. 506, but it is impossible to verify the truth with certainty. Regardless, what is important is that the dalmatic was universally accepted by the early Church as a distinct vestment of importance for the Church.

The tunicle on the other hand, was not as a liturgical vestment until A.D. 829. It was assigned to the rank of Subdeacon once the minor orders were uniformly established. It is to Pope Gregory IV that the firm establishment of the tunicle is credited.

Bishops used the dalmatic and tunicle as part of their required vesture underneath the chasuble from the thirteenth to the twentieth century. With the 1969 liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, came a change in vesture. The tunicle was abolished for Bishops and the minor orders were suppressed; therefore, the tunicle was abandoned to liturgical history books. Bishops may, to this day, wear the dalmatic under the chasuble. It has become something of a tradition for many of them to wear the dalmatic during diaconal ordinations. Thus, the Bishop illustrates the relationship of the Deacon to the Bishop – close to his heart.


As previously mentioned, the dalamatic and tunicle are of similar design. So, what is the essential difference between the two?

The dalmatic is a vestment open on each side with wide sleeves and marked with two stripes. It is rich in ornamentation and during the liturgy always matches the color of the celebrant’s chasuble in color.[3]

Additionally, the tunicle was always lightweight and of little ornamentation. Since the Order of Subdeacon has been suppressed, it is no longer used except during the Extraordinary Rite of the Divine Liturgy.

Interestingly enough, most deacons today actually wear a tunicle and not a dalmatic. In fact, among the gifts I received for ordination, I actually only received three dalmatics while the other three are properly tunicles. I would have never known the difference but for the research I was committed to last night.

For the most part, at least on the diocesan level, Priests and Deacons neither know the difference nor do they care. As a rule, probably more by way of local custom, the tunicle and dalmatic have become one and the same in liturgical use. Most clergy define a dalmatic in the most general sense, sleeves and open on the sides.

Rubrics and Usage

When is the dalmatic to be worn? The 2002 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) in paragraph 338 instructs:

The vestment proper to the deacon is the dalmatic, worn over the alb and stole. The dalmatic may, however, be omitted out of necessity or on account of a lesser degree of solemnity.[4]

To date, many Deacons use the alb and stole as their primary vesture during the Divine Liturgy. Others use the Principal of Progressive Solemnity in accordance with GIRM 119b as their rule of thumb for usage of the dalmatic. Practically speaking, this means that the dalmatic is used (if one owns one or the parish provides it) on Sundays and Solemnities. And, this is a noble and worthy practice.

New Considerations

While I am not opposed to the Principle of Progressive Solemnity, I have begun to rethink it after re-reading the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacrament 19 March 2004 Instruction: Remptionis Sacramentum. In particular, paragraph 125 which instructs:

The proper vestment of the Deacon is the dalmatic, to be worn over an alb and stole. In order that the beautiful tradition of the Church may be preserved, it is praiseworthy to refrain from exercising the option of omitting the dalmatic.[5]

This instruction was a follow-up to Servant of God Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia that aimed at correcting abuses and fostering a greater understating of the Blessed Sacrament’s essential centrality in the life of the Church. The instruction is also linked to his Apostolic Letter Spiritus et Sponsa where in paragraph 16, he earnestly desires that a

“liturgical spirituality” be developed that makes people conscious that Christ is the first “liturgist” who never ceases to act in the Church and in the world through the Paschal Mystery continuously celebrated, and who associates the Church with himself, in praise of the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

This new instruction (six years old at this point) seems to indicate, when possible, that the Deacon is to always wear the dalmatic during the Divine Liturgy. I believe as the Western Church continues to reflect and deepens its theology of the Deacon, we will see that just as the chasuble is to the Priest and Bishop, the dalmatic is to the Deacon.


For a number of really good reasons, I would venture to guess that most churches in my diocese do not have a full set of dalmatics for Deacons to wear. Transitional deacons are ordained usually a year after ordination to the diaconate making the cost prohibitive. And let’s be honest, not every church gets a Transitional deacon for their pastoral year. Why should they make such expensive purchases during a recession (I wouldn’t)?

Additionally, in our diocese, the first Permanent deacons in twenty-two years were just ordained. It is less likely that they will be buying a full set of dalmatics. Why? Well, simply because they have families and cannot afford to purchase a full set in the array of liturgical colors. Also, let’s be honest. Pastors realize that clergy are picky about their vestments. On the other hand, beggars cannot be choosers.

Noble Simplicity

After my research, I am convinced that Deacons should be in a dalmatic at every liturgy. That being said, we really need to raise the bar on our vestments (I will only speak to my brothers). The liturgy is our chief catechetical tool and it should engage the entire human person. We are designed to desire the good, true and beautiful.

I think that some have confused noble simplicity with simply ugly. The New Liturgical Movement blog dispels erroneous ideas of noble simplicity by quoting Liturgiologist Edmund Bishop who says,

Ritus nobili simplicitate fulgeant…” Nobili simplicitate. Noble simplicity. It is a concept that, like participatio actuosa, is oft quoted, but it is also one that often comes laden with certain assumptions as to its meaning and expression; assumptions which are sometimes expressed by a kind of rigid minimalism, or other times misunderstood in a rupturous sense of a rejection of the past and past expressions, and still again often equated with a kind of sterility, as though being bereft of ceremony, colour, warmth or ornament was of necessity for its pursuit.

On the contrary, Shawn Tribe in the same article entitled, Noble Simplicity and the Liturgiologist Edmund Bishop, reminds us that noble simplicity should be understood in the context of how Sacrosanctum Concilum speaks of the “sacred arts being characterized by a ‘noble beauty’.” We are Catholics not Quakers. Our understanding of simplicity is that it is not ostentatious but of ornamental beauty in fabric and design that befits the dignity and beauty of the Sacred Liturgy.

Final Thought(s)

The Western Church is still adjusting to the re-instituted order of Permanent Deacons. We are also still recovering from an ecumenical council. Change is never easy but the Lord continues to bend our wills that they may be united to the heart of the Church.

And lastly, we also might consider purchasing dalmatics and not tunicles. The Extraordinary Rite is here to stay and is becoming more and more popular. Let’s try not to confuse the faithful with our vestments as well, we owe them noble simplicity without having to think hard.

[1] James-Charles Noonan, The Church Visible: The Ceremonial Life and Protocol of the Roman Catholic Church (New York: Viking Adult, 1996), 343-44.

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Walsh, Mass and Vestments of the Catholic Church, Reprint ed. (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1916), page 343

[4] cf. 119b, 336

[5] Cf. Missale Romanum, Institutio Generalis, n. 338

2 Responses to Liturgical Literacy and the Deacon’s Dalmatic

  1. Deacon Richard Caporiccio says:

    This is an excellent article. I also have/have access to and wear what are described here as dalmatics and tunicles, although I did not know the difference. I would prefer to call them all dalmatics to simplify things. Your conclusion that Deacons should wear a dalmatic at every liturgy is well founded. Just as a priest should celebrate mass in a chasuble and not only an alb and stole. And I agree we should be careful not to cause our deacons to have to outlay an expense that would detract from their providing for their families. Hopefully, over time, parishes will be able to assist in this matter by acquiring sets that match. I remember the liturgy prior to Vatican II where our parish had matched sets that were worn at “High Mass” (now the Extraordinary Rite). The dalmatics worn usually by other priests of the parish who served the role of deacon and sub-deacon. The only difference the dalmatics was horizontal bars like your illustration. I believe the subdeacon had one bar and the deacon two.

  2. The second last picture shows really a great design of the cloth. Thanks for introducing with the difference of dalamatic and tunicle.

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