Wednesday, November 23, 2005

On the Use of Black Vestments

Many out there are likely aware that there has been these past 40 years or so an aversion to black vestments for times such as funerals, or for the Feast of All Souls and so on. (Thankfully this is decreasing with the newer generations of clergy.)

Often black vestments have been excluded in practice (though not necessarily in law) -- enough so that there are entire generations who will have never seen a black vestment worn, let alone know of its existence as a liturgical colour. For example, red is now worn on Good Friday instead of black in the modern rite -- it is still used in the classical rite of course. White will typically be worn for funerals. Sometimes purple will be used.

Now let us get it straight: this is not a liturgical abuse as these are options which the Church has given, or in the case of Good Friday, changes that have been made. There are some, however, for whom this is not simply aesthetic (nor should it be), nor a question of common practice in a diocese, but is actually an ideological opposition aimed at the perceived "negativity" of black. This latter idea is a problem. I wish to address in a roundabout way both the problem with the former way of thinking, but also I want to make a case for why I believe the effective disappearance of black is not desireable, even when we are just exercising another legitimate liturgical option as a norm.

The use of black is representative of some fundamental Christian realities. While Christians are a people of hope (the oft used argument for those wishing to exclude black), we are also a people aware of the reality of sin and judgement. We do not presume to know the state of our loved one's soul. Too often even some parish priests themselves acquiesce to this idea that our achieving of our heavenly reward is a fait accompli. While we indeed hope and pray that our loved one has attained his or her heavenly reward, it is not a hope that is without reservations or loving concern. As Christians we are hopeful and yet also have a humble realism. We know that we are sinful creatures and we do not always meet the mark, nor necessarily repent of our sins. As such, we both hope and pray. Black, with its echoes of mourning and reserve, both acknowledges our own emotional response to the loss of a loved one, and is further representative of our need to pray for the repose of our loved one's soul. It also is a reminder and symbol of our belief in purgatory wherein the suffering souls require our prayers and especially Masses. After all, Requiem masses are not merely memorials made for the living -- tools for our psychological and emotional comfort -- but are first and foremost powerful prayers and graces for the repose of our dearly beloved. If we approach the afterlife of heaven as "automatic" or as a given, whom will take seriously the need to pray for the souls of purgatory or our departed loved one? Eventually, who will see the need to have a funeral Mass? Black represents our mourning and also that there is work yet to be done -- the work of prayer; the graces of the Mass. The gold or silver which adorns the decoration of a black vestment gives us that silver-lining of Christian hope which we have for the resurrection of our loved one, and eventually ourselves, into Our Father's House.

From a cultural perspective, this lack represents a divide from the common cultural sentiment expressed at death which has been informed by religious principles for generations -- one cannot help but notice that black is still the colour of mourning amongst most at a funeral; if we are truly interested in speaking to people in symbols and language they can understand and relate to, the use of black at a funeral cannot be surpassed in this regard. (Note: I am not suggesting that culture must inform liturgical practice; in this case, I think the Faith has informed the culture and the culture still retains this formation on a deep level.)

There really is nothing to stop a priest from re-introducing black vestments into the sacred liturgy when the rubrics allow for it -- and this I would heartily recommend to parish priests who read this weblog.

That being said, I receive many emails from readers on this weblog asking advice on how to approach such questions in there parishes. Often they are facing situations where there is little interest in the liturgy, or at least, little interest in the goals of the reform of the reform -- which may go in an opposite direction from where their parish is heading.

In such instances, getting black vestments re-instituted may be a non-starter with their parish clergy -- but as I say, there is a surprising openness to them from many of the younger clergy. If you don't have that situation, don't worry, there may yet be hope. While you may not get black vestments instituted in your parish, there is another option that comes halfway at least, and may be more acceptable in such a situation and would help begin to restore this balance of hope, mourning and prayers for the dead.

Here is my proposal for a pastor that can't yet (or won't) re-institute black vestments: a white (or preferably off-white cream colour) vestment, with a large, substantial band of black brocade going up the centre of the vestment -- or also with the traditional Y-orphrey. (Imagine a vestment such as this one but where the red colour is replaced by black instead.) The key is making the black noticeable.

One vestment company has taken up this idea already. Again, I do think a more substantial band of black, as in the Holy Rood Guild vestment style above, would be better to make it less an ornamental feature and more substantial, and that off-white would be better as it can again symbolize that while we have hope, this is not strictly an occasion of jubilation, nor festivity.

(Footnote: In looking for an image of a nice black vestment, I stumbled across the following vestment site in the U.K. which has particularly fine quality vestments, both new and antique, in both the Gothic and Roman styles: Luzar Vestments)

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: