Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why priests ought to wear black vestments for funerals and for All Souls' Day

Though the New Theological Movement blog rarely enters into matters liturgical or rubrical, preferring to consider the more profound theological foundations, the re-introduction of the use of black vestments in parish life seems to us to be so important to the renewal of the faith of the people (at least in the USA, though most likely throughout the world) that we must devote a post to this cause.
In the Novus Ordo – that is, the ordinary form of the Roman Rite which is celebrated in most parishes in the USA (in English) – there is no reason why black may not be used regularly. In the usus antiquior – the extraordinary form – black vestments remain mandatory for certain Masses. Let us consider the theological points first, and then we will make a few practical conclusions.
[this article is a re-posting from last year (here)]

The meaning of black vestments
Black is, of course, a symbol of death (that is, in Western Civilization). Certainly, other colors have also been used to represent death – even green! Still, for the most part, black is the traditional symbol of death in Western culture, and this still holds today. In the Western world, everybody wears black to a funeral … except the priest, and he often wears white!
Black does not signify despair, not at all. Rather, black is the symbol of mourning, of loss, of death – but this mourning will be turned to joy, the loss is great gain, and death is birth unto true life. The color black is in no way contrary to Christian hope.
Black as a liturgical color
It is worth noting that – although, in the early days of the Church, white seems to have been the color of vestments on every day of the year – black was almost certainly introduced into the liturgy before violet (purple). In fact, it seems that black came to be used as one of the (originally) four principal colors of the Mass: White, green, red, and black.
Considering the antiquity of the color, it is somewhat surprising that black is used far less often today than is violet – while many Catholics have seen violet used (in Advent and Lent), nearly an whole generation has never seen a black vestment (at least in the USA).
Traditionally, black is used at all Masses of the dead and funeral Masses, on All Soul’s Day, and on Good Friday. In the Novus Ordo, black is not to be used on Good Friday, but may still be used at the other Masses (though violet and even white are also permitted, and in practice preferred). There is no reason why a priest could not, in the Novus Ordo begin to use black vestments at least for All Soul’s day – and even for funerals and Requiem Masses.
The theology of a Requiem Mass for the dead
Black signifies mourning, but not simply mourning in general. Rather, black directs us in a particular way to mourn and pray for the dead. While white is a color of festivity and rejoicing, violet is the color which signifies penance and sorrow for sin.
However, violet directs us more to mourning for our own sins, and to performing penance for our own wretchedness. Black, on the other hand, helps to direct us to mourn not for ourselves but for the deceased. This is why black is so fitting for the funeral Mass (as well as Requiems and All Souls’): The color reminds us to pray for the dead.
The funeral Mass is not really about the family – though there are certainly many prayers for the consolation of those who mourn. Rather, the funeral Mass is primarily for him who has died: Nearly every prayer is for the forgiveness of his sin (i.e. of the temporal punishment of sin). Funerals are not primarily for the living, they are for the dead – whatever anyone (even if he be a priest) may tell you! This is why it makes no sense – theologically – to wear either white or even purple for a funeral Mass or Requiem.
A test case: All Saints’ and All Souls’
Consider, as a test case, the feasts of All Saints’ and All Souls’ days. In many (perhaps most) parishes throughout the USA, the faithful see the priest were the very same vestment for All Souls’ day as he did for All Saints’. What sort of theology does this communicate to the people?
On All Saints’, the priest is directed to wear white vestments because the saints are already in heaven and enjoy the vision of God. They are perfectly happy and have no need of our prayers. All Souls’, however, is the Mass offered for the holy souls in purgatory – it is offered as a prayer in their behalf, for the remission of the temporal punishment they bear for their sins.
Now, if the priest wears white vestments on All Souls’ day, can he be the least bit surprised that his faithful have ceased to believe in the reality of purgatory? If the priest wears the color of festivity, rather than the color of prayerful mourning, who will ever believe that there are any souls who suffer purgation after death?
Considering the essential difference in the character of the Masses of All Saints’ and All Souls’, it is a scandal (yes, a scandal) that white is the most common color de facto for All Soul’s day. However, sadly, the use of white is by no means a liturgical or rubrical violation.
The weekly use of black vestments in the Novus Ordo
Even in the typical parish of the USA, there is ample opportunity to re-introduce black into the liturgy. Certainly, parish priests simply must begin to wear black vestments for All Souls’ day – there is no excuse for not wearing black, at least on this day. Further, it would be very good to use black also for all funeral Masses.
Additionally, it would be worthwhile for the parish priest to begin to offer Requiem Masses more often. The Novus Ordo has relatively few memorials and saint days (compared to the Extraordinary Form), thus there are many more opportunities to offer the votive Mass of the dead throughout the week. Certainly, the Requiem can only be offered if the Mass intention is for one of the deceased, but it shouldn’t be too hard for a parish priest to plan his Mass stipends around the liturgical calendar so as to maximize the number of Requiem Masses.
If the typical parish began to celebrate Requiem Masses on all (or most) of the ferial days when there is no saint to be commemorated, then it would be very easy for the parish priest to use black vestments at least once per week in the Novus Ordo parish Mass.
Speaking from my own limited personal experience as a parish priest, I have committed myself to using only black vestments for funeral Masses, and all votive Masses of the dead. So far the response has been very positive.
Still, it will not be particularly helpful to anyone for the laity to begin to harass liberal priests about wearing black. Rather, we must all pray and fast for a restoration of the priesthood to the tradition of Faith.

For further reading, may I suggest two articles from the New Liturgical Movement? - here and here.


Fr Ray Blake said...

I am sure the rubric in the Missal which allows white for funerals was put there to accomodate those cultures in Asia where white is the traditional colour of mourning. It wasn't meant for the West.

Deo volente said...


Thanks for posting this! As one who celebrated the Usus Antiquior as a young man, I vividly recall the black vestments at funerals and on All Soul's Day. We recently had a funeral in my family, and the wise Irish priest spoke (for the first time I can remember) about the soul of the deceased now being in a period of purification and how we should all pray for her soul. That is the first time I had purgatory mentioned in eons!

I love your blog, and thank you especially for this post.

Pax tecum!

Marko Ivančičević said...

I think it is worth noting that in the Ambrosian Rite(the Rite of the See of Milan) black is used during the Lent, and not violet.

Father Mitchell said...

The liturgy, especially the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and its proper celebration, can never be anything but profound. It may not be your usual focus but it can never be less profound for it is the Sacrifice of the Cross.

Anonymous said...

I heard an interesting commentary once that the decline of the Requiem Mass has led to a decline in our popular concept of death which may be reflected in the "holy" cards given out at the funeral home. In the old days, the card had a prayer--frequently from the requiem--praying for the repose of the deceased, not too long ago, the prayer for the dead was replaced with some ambiguous prayer, usually Psalm 23, now that has, in turn, been replaced with some stupid poem like the abominable "afterglow". The obserse of the card went from a picture of our Lord or our Lady to a nature photo, to a picture of the deceased!

Fr. Mark said...

I received a black chasuble and stole as a gift from parishioners in 1999. It is of a modern design. The pastor reported me to the bishop, even though I had not yet worn it!

The bishop, at the time a Cardinal Archbishop in the United States, told me that it was an allowed liturgical color but also would raise questions in the minds of the laity. I told him I hoped so.

He asked me to refrain from wearing it without the permission of the pastor, and of course I assented to his request. I was subsequently transferred and wore it that All Souls Day and ever since.

Eric Nicolai said...

I usually use the black for all votive masses for the dead, but I can imagine it would be awkward to use black if you have concelebrants who join you for a funeral, simply because there are usually more white chasubles available. That's why it would be a good idea to invest in several black chasubles for these occasions, especially for the funeral of a priest. Wearing white for funerals is meant to give hope, but it really seems to suggest that the deceased is already in heaven, as though he were a saint already.

Anonymous said...

I have never seen a priest wear black. I will ask my pastor about it for next year's All Souls. May God grant you many years, Father.

Steven H said...

This evening I was surprised to see the priest wearing a black stole over a white chasuble, all the more so since I naturally expected a mass at 7:00 PM on All Saints' Day to be the mass for All Saints's Day. It was, however, a mass for All Souls' Day.

I am not quite sure what the message of the black stole was, since the priest in his homily assured us that all the parishioners who had died in the last year (he read a list of names) were already in Heaven and left us a model of sanctity. The focus was on our loss and mourning and need to remember the dead, no mention being made that there might be souls of the faithful departed in need of our prayers, especially the prayer of the All Souls' Day mass.

While the re-introduction of black vestments is praiseworthy, it is not necessarily accompanied by sounder theology.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Steven H,
It sounds like that priest made several serious errors in judgment.

CónegoZ+ said...

Fr. Ryan,

You have exceeded yourself. I know that your own blog rules call for comments to "keep it short..., to the point, and civil". May I say that your comment concerning Steven H's parish priest more than fully filled those criteria (as well as being a masterpiece of understatement).

Pax Tecum,

CónegoZ+ said...

Father Erlunbush,

I am glad to see you extending this column into liturgics. The liturgy is, arguably, the way the Church best communicates its theology to the non-theologically-minded world at large (both Catholic and non-), and I'd argue that bad liturgy results in bad belief-- or, if you go to too many folk Masses, your faith turns to mush.

Pax tecum,

Post a Comment

When commenting, please leave a name or pseudonym at the end of your comment so as to facilitate communication and responses.

Comments must be approved by the moderator before being published.