Whensoever October rolls around, my mind turns toward All Souls Day and what has become an annual appeal upon the New Liturgical Movement: the call for parish priests to pull out (or find if need be) black vestments for this day.
This year, All Souls Day falls upon a Sunday, which means that in the calendar of the usus antiquior the day will be transferred to the following day, Monday, November 3rd. In the modern Roman calendar however, it falls on the Sunday.
The question will no doubt arise, may black vestments be worn on a Sunday? Looking at the GIRM for the modern Roman missal, I see nothing that would prevent it. Given that black is one of the colours for this feast day, and given that this feast day may happen on a Sunday in the modern liturgy, and, further, given that there is no instruction that I can yet find otherwise, it would seem that black is permitted on All Souls Day in the modern liturgy, even if it falls upon a Sunday.
So we return to the more fundamental question of the use of black as a liturgical colour. It must be pointed out that in the modern Roman liturgy, there are various options that can be used in place of black, but I wish to propose that there are prudential, cultural and theological reasons for recovering our liturgical use of black -- not only on All Souls Day it must be noted, but also for Requiem Masses, and hopefully, one day, again for Good Friday (I say, "one day" for in the case of Good Friday, this will require rubrical change since the modern use only permits red on that day).
We all know the reality of the past few decades. Black vestments, while an option on All Souls (and for requiems) in the modern Roman liturgy, have more often than not been excluded to the point that there are entire generations who will have never seen a black vestment worn in the course of the liturgy. In point of fact, it is not only that the option is often not employed, it is also that there is a strong current of opposition to its use -- though this is fading with the younger generations. All of this is a terrible shame because I would propose that the use of black as a liturgical colour is representative of some fundamental Christian realities. Let us explore this.
Heaven, Hell and Purgatory: the Reality of Sin
At times, the argument is made that the use of black is contrary to our Christian belief in the resurrection. While Christians are indeed a people of hope who believe in the resurrection of the dead this should in no way be understood as contrary to the use of black. While we are a people of hope, we are also called to be a people aware of the reality of sin, death and judgement. Our salvation, and that of our loved one's, while we hope for it -- and in our own case, work to attain it -- is not a foregone conclusion. Pretending it is so does neither us nor our loved one's any substantial good. If we obscure these realities, or presume the heavenly bliss of the faithful departed (what some refer to as "instant canonizations"), we really are being rather devoid of charity in point of fact -- like presuming a sick family member is not so sick as to need care and tending and therefore go merrily along our way without regard for them or their current state.
This presumption has another side effect for us: what we presume for others we may well also presume for ourselves and therefore we potentially neglect the state of our own soul. If we neglect the reality of sin and judgement by presuming salvation for the dead -- not facing any other reality or possibility, including the possibility of purgatory -- why should we think any differently for ourselves or strive to live a life of greater holiness and with more perfect contrition and penance?
The somber, reserved, mournful tone of black vestments on All Souls (or at Requiems) can be a powerful reminder then, not only of the prayers (and particularly the Masses) we should offer for our dead, but also of the need to care for the state of our own soul.
Christ too Mourns and Grieves
The use of black as a liturgical colour represents a kind of holy and prudent reserve. This reserve is not negative but is in fact spiritually healthy for the living, beneficial for the "suffering souls" and spiritually realistic given original sin and personal sin. Beyond this, black acknowledges our own emotional response to the loss of a loved one and the sorrow of the death and toil that entered into the world through original sin. There is nothing wrong, hopeless or un-Christian in this acknowledgement. Further, mourning is a natural, even healthy process. Let us recall a very pertinent image in this regard. At the death of Lazarus, before Christ raised him from the dead, Christ himself, in response to the mourning of Mary and Martha at the death of their brother, himself wept and grieved with them -- and all this even despite the fact he was about to resurrect him from the dead. (John 11:35)
On a cultural level, black has a particularly strong association as the colour for mourning and for the dead. We also associate black with night and sleep, both of which are metaphors for sin and for death itself. As a symbol then, it yet speaks strongly on a variety of levels, and is therefore powerful and relevant liturgically as well.
The Pastoral Question
Pastorally, there seems little reason to not employ black vestments. The opposition we have been speaking of does not tend to come from the faithful. It rather comes from certain schools of theological thought found mainly with clerical and religious circles. Having heard from various priests who have re-implemented the liturgical use of black, I have yet to hear of any traumatic response on the part of the ordinary faithful. For most, the matter will be received neutrally. For other, it might be a point of genuine curiousity and will become a teaching moment when parish priests will be able to teach about these sacred realities.
I therefore invite and encourage our priests who use the modern Roman liturgy to consider using black vestments this All Souls Day and whenever other opportunities present themselves.
On a final note, another manifestation of this somber, reserved tone would find unbleached beeswax candles used. Similar to the use of black vestments, this is another aspect of our liturgical rites for the dead that merits recovery where possible.
Image Credits and Context: The first image comes from a Mass in the usus antiquior from All Souls Day last year, taken at Kenrick Glennon Seminary, by a seminarian.
The last two photos were taken by the NLM's own Bro. Lawrence Lew, O.P., also in the context of the usus antiquior, on the occasion of the Requiem Mass of Dr. Mary Berry.