Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Modest Proposal to Modern Rite Parish Priests: Use Black Vestments this All Souls Day

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usIt has been a tradition on the NLM these past couple of years to make a post around or on All Souls Day, making a case for the wider reclamation of black vestments in the modern Roman rite for funerals and All Souls Day.

This year, it has been on my mind earlier than usual and I felt it would be a good time to put it out there in the hopes of encouraging our reform of the reform priests (I specify them because in the classical use, it is still the prescribed colour of course) to use black this coming All Souls -- let alone for funerals. Perhaps the extra time will allow people to (kindly) approach their pastors to ask if they might consider it, or for our priestly readers to dig out those black vestments in the backs of their sacristy closets and prepare them for use.

We all know the reality of the past few decades. Black vestments have often 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. This is a shame because I would propose that the use of black as a liturgical colour is representative of some fundamental Christian realities.

While Christians are indeed a people of hope who believe in the resurrection of the dead (an oft cited argument for those wishing to exclude black, as though it, so much a part of our tradition, were somehow inappropriate or misguided) this in no way can be understood as being inimical to the use of black as a liturgical colour. Moreover, 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, is not a foregone conclusion and pretending it is so does no good for anyone. Rather, we are, as St. Paul says, working out our salvation; we are not guaranteed it.

Neglecting to face these realities and presuming the heavenly bliss of the faithful departed is a presumption that is rather lacking in charity in point of fact -- like presuming a sick family member is not so sick as to need care and tending and therefore going merrily along our way without regard for them or their current state.

This presumption has another side effect for us: it potentially causes us to neglect the state of our own soul, for 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 more a life of greater holiness and with more perfect contrition and penance?

Witnessing the somber, reserved, even mournful tone of black vestments on All Souls or at funerals is a powerful reminder to us not only of the prayers we should offer for our dead (and the efficacy of those prayers -- Masses for the Dead in particular are not merely placebos of psychological comfort for the living, but have real supernatural merit in relation to genuine supernatural realities), but of our own need for repentance and conversion, in a way that purple, the colour of penance (but not mourning and death), and white, the colour of joy and celebration, perhaps cannot as readily communicate on both a theological and cultural level. (In a sense, this issue reminds me of that of versus populum and the prudential considerations we must bring to it. In that case, it is not as though a Mass offered versus populum is utterly and absolutely inimical to a proper disposition on the part of the priest and faithful as regards God and the liturgy; but it is an awful lot more difficult to maintain in that situation and it is more fraught with potential mixed messages. On the positive side, ad orientem communicates quite effectively the nature and fundamental purpose of the sacred liturgy while clearly avoiding any horizontalization. Similarly, I would propose that white or purple are also not utterly inimical, but they too may likewise not speak the message as well or as easily, and that message could further be misunderstood. By contrast, black can bear the burden of that message more readily for a variety of reasons. In both of these cases, they have the added benefit of being consonant with our tradition as well.)

The use of black as a liturgical colour in these events 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" (even though they are assured their heavenly bliss) and spiritually realistic given original sin and personal sin.

Beyond this, black, with its association with mourning and somberness also 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 with original sin. There is nothing wrong with this acknowledgement and mourning is a natural thing that even Christ himself did for his loved ones.

Culturally, black is still associated as a colour for mourning; while fashions and rules of etiquette may have indeed loosened, the powerful association is still there. We also associate black with night and sleep, both of which are metaphors for sin, the dead and for death itself. As a symbol then, it yet speaks strongly -- and a pertinent message at that.

There is, of course, also the argument from our tradition. Black has been used as a liturgical colour for sometime. When it was specifically introduced is not known so far as I can tell, but we do know there was a reference to the liturgical colour of black at least as early as the 1100's or 1200's -- which means that its use is no doubt older even than that:

"Benedict XIV (De Sacro Sacrificio Missæ I, VIII, n. 16) says that up to the fourth century white was the only liturgical colour in use. Other colours were introduced soon afterwards. Innocent III (d. 1216) is among the first to emphasize a distinction. He mentions four principal colours, white, red, green, black (De Sac. Alt. Mys., I, lxv)" (Source

About the symbolic meaning of black, the same article says that "black [is] the universal emblem of mourning [and] signifies the sorrow of death and the sombreness of the tomb."

In this regard then, black seems a strong choice from the aspect of our tradition, from the aspect of cultural vocabulary and association, and for theological reasons as pertain to death, judgement, sin and purgatory.

The final issue that might arise is the pastoral issue. However, having heard from various priests who have implemented the use of black, I have yet to hear of any traumatic response to the use of black on the part of the ordinary faithful. Indeed, there will be a few individuals who will oppose it for ideological reasons, but that cannot be helped and becomes a teaching moment. For most, the matter will be received neutrally or as a point of genuine curiousity and become a moment when parish priests will be able to teach about and emphasize 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 in particular, and for funeral liturgies as well. This too is a part of the reform of the reform.

[Priests: if you intend to use, or are considering using, black in the modern Roman liturgy this coming All Souls Day -- or for funerals -- I invite you to please share this with us in the comments of this post that others too might be encouraged.]

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