Black Vestments

An interesting Euro-centric discussion on black vestments for All Souls Day at the NLM site. Shawn Tribe presumes that our parishes naturally have black chasubles tucked away in the back of closets. He also presumes that monochromatic vestments are the best or even the only options available.

If we did have them hidden away, I guess we’d have time to get them dry-cleaned and pressed into service, assuming that this would be an innovation we’d want to spring on parishioners used to the American emphasis on white.

The Roman Catholic funeral rites were reformed after Vatican II. The liturgical and pastoral emphasis was reassessed and redirected. Sorry, that’s the way it is. Even as recently as eleven years ago, I knew a parish that demurred in singing “alleluia” at funerals and had a long practice of using the Lenten Gospel Acclamation, even during Easter.

That said, I could see a white vestment trimmed in purple and black as an appropriate expression for a parish celebrating a funeral or All Souls. The vestment, after all, is for the parish celebrating the Mass, not the priest wearing it. If a parish were attached to black vestments and used them, I’d expect a priest to respect that and adapt accordingly.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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21 Responses to Black Vestments

  1. Liam says:

    Count me as a violet man here. Violet trimmed in white or black as the default vestment; it’s increasing in prevalance. I’ve never seen black in person, wouldn’t choose it for myself or anyone else without asking, but would not refuse a request at all if they could be had. A refusal in that regard (when the vestments were at hand or could be supplied easily) would strike me as priggishly clericalist.

    I’ve argued over at NLM that black is, sadly, not the mourning color it used to be in our culture. Plenty of women wear black in a way that would formerly have indicated deep mourning – were it not for the presence of jewelry inappropriate for mourning. Black is even worn by bridal attendants (ick). Dull dark violets, however – mixed with black or white (IOW, the old half-mourning colors) – are sufficiently unusual in street attire that they could signal the complex set of emotions and hopes that death prompts.

  2. Liam says:

    Btw, I would caution against overemphasizing the so-called “American emphasis on white” and the idea of black as an “innovation”. Black cannot be called an innovation – it was used for many centuries (at least from the 12th) well into living memory; that’s not the stuff of which innovations are made. And the American practice of using white came largely because no one thought they could use anything else – it was not a development entirely chosen, as it were. So it’s not an organic custom, either.

  3. Anne says:

    I don’t see a big deal in letting there be options depending on the parish practice or availability. Make a choice, violet, black or white. I really don’t care but prefer the violet as well. My guess is most parishes don’t have black chasubles. Regarding mourning, society in this country seems to discourage this important part of adjusting to death. I remember in the 50’s my mother wearing black for a year after her mother died.

  4. Liam says:

    I am very much in favor of distinctive mourning clothing (as I alluded to before, I like the old half-mourning colors: combinations of dull violets, grays, white and black – but perhaps old mourning bands would suffice?) – not as a penance on the grieving but as a way to alert strangers that someone has suffered a recent deep and close loss. Our manners have coarsened so much that this reminder is all the more needed to protect the raw feelings of the grieving. I’ve seen *way* too much pain inflicted unintentionally for lack of these useful signals (would it be nice for people to entirely forego any behavior that would possibly trigger such pain? Yes, but that’s even less realistic).

  5. John Heavrin says:

    “…parishioners used to the American emphasis on white….”

    Actually, Todd, what parishioners are used to is not knowing what to expect, and having no firm idea of what they might see from week to week, Mass to Mass, and you know it.

    “…The Roman Catholic funeral rites were reformed after Vatican II. The liturgical and pastoral emphasis was reassessed and redirected. Sorry, that’s the way it is….”

    But is that the way it will be? One would have to be delusional, or at least some sort of VII fundamentalist, to actually believe that the endless flux since the council constitutes a state of affairs that can be pointed to as “the way it is,” as if to say that’s the way it’ll always be.

    That’s the thing about conditions that are inorganic and artifically imposed, Todd: they can disappear as quickly and summarily as they appeared. If black can become white, white can become black.

    That, my friend, is the way it is. Sorry.

  6. I seem to recall that even in the suburban Los Angeles parish where I was an altar boy, there was a set of black vestments lurking in the back of the closet, along with gold (the pastor simply didn’t like them — and they were pretty garish) and pink (the pastor like to use purple for the Gaudete Sunday lest anyone get the wrong idea).

    My dad used to threaten that he’d leave instructions that the priest wear black at his funeral — though in the end the parish they were living in when he died was the sort of place where the request would have been laughed off regardless.

  7. Todd says:

    Thanks for commenting, John. All I can say is that when we get to the Order of Christian Funerals, we’ll see Church teaching on death, mourning, and the final things. We’ll see how the liturgy of the hurch is presently constructed. There actually has been more post-conciliar flux based on individual pastors’ interpretations, either in alignment with church teaching or out of it.

    But reform is undeniable. And since the funeral rites are largely based on Scripture and the saints, it’s a stretch to call it inorganic. Priests making lone ranger determinations outside of the input of a community or uninformed by Scripture or church teaching: over that we have less control.

  8. John Heavrin says:

    “…We’ll see how the liturgy of the hurch is presently constructed….”

    We will? No, we’ll see the words of a document, nothing more. A document that some follow, some ignore, some flout, some laugh at, most know not, virtually all feel free to consider at best some sort of guideline, optional. The liturgy is “presently constructed” from parish to parish, day to day. Requiems, weddings, like all novus ordo Masses, vary wildly from parish to parish, diocese to diocese, Sunday to Sunday. The interesting question is: is that an “abuse” of some sort to be corrected, or did the vaunted and unanimously-minded fathers of VII intend for the ad-hoc nature of “liturgy construction” we currently suffer? Do the documents allow for that? That’s the current state of affairs: ad-hoc chaos. Vatican II unleashed a whirlwind; it blew all the documents all over the place; ain’t it cool? Cool to the point of sterility, oftentimes, alas.

    There’s something quaint about your laborious march through all these documents, documents, documents. When you come to the end, what purpose will you have served?

    You’ve missed my point about “organic.” That which is sudden, drastic, consciously directed and implemented: this is by definition inorganic. You state that the funeral rites are “largely based on Scripture and the saints.” That’s incoherent; but it’s also beside the point. The funeral Mass was transformed utterly overnight; a change from black to white is nicely symbolic of what was done to it. From an exhortation to prayer for the soul of the deceased to a cross between a canonization and a gold watch ceremony, often complete with funny stories and cute reminiscences. That’s not organic. That’s artificial, even if you can cite a Scripture or a “saint.”

    Again: if black can be voted white, overnight; then white must stand for retention at some point, and on it goes, ad infinitum, and the descent into ad-hoc chaos and institutional collapse deepens and worsens.

    This, of course, is not the way of the Church. The Holy Spirit will correct matters; but how or by whose agency it is impossible to say.

  9. Liam says:


    I should note my comment about organic was simply directed to the issue of white: its nearly universal usage was not an organic development in the traditional sense of something freely chosen from below, but was largely practiced because people believed they had no other choice. That doesn’t meant the development was bad (I am not arguing that) – it’s just a caution to avoid making any argument from an “American emphasis on white”, as it were. The phrase implies more than the reality confirms.

  10. John,

    You’re stealing a number of bases in attributing most of the things you talk about to Vatican II or the “novus ordo”.

    Look, I’m an old fashioned and traditional kind of guy, and I wish that not nearly so many changes had been made in the wake of Vatican II, but most of the things you talk about (“From an exhortation to prayer for the soul of the deceased to a cross between a canonization and a gold watch ceremony, often complete with funny stories and cute reminiscences.”) are elements of the sermon or other inserted elements external to the rite. While the sorts of the changes and the way in which they were implemented may have implicitly suggested an allowance for silliness, one certainly cannot imagine that bad or silly sermons (or bad and silly eulogies — which although they still don’t belong in a Catholic funeral mass were probably done on occasion before as well) are somehow the fault of the new missal.

    Further, not even the change from black to white is specifically part of the new missal. Other colors are now specifically allowed (and strongly recommended, perhaps, by some bishops) but to my understanding black is also specifically mentioned as an option.

  11. FrMichael says:

    Any padres out there have recommendations for ordering black vestments? Not as easy as I thought…

    FrMichael… feeling particularly ornery today

  12. Brendan Kelleher SVD says:

    Glad to hear that black vestments are hard to find. My father would have no regrets on that score. Born and bred in Co.Cork, Ireland, he was brought up a traditional Catholic. Thankfully he came in touch with priests who preached Christ crucified and risen: as Christians we are called to be Easter People, and this faith finds its fullest expression in how we remember those who have gone ahead of us.
    And so when, in 1995, we came to bury my mother, his choice for the Gospel was Luke 24:1-12. “Why do you seek the living one among the dead. He is not here but has been raised.” The front page of the pamphlet we prepared said “A Mass of Thanksgiving for the Life of Moira Kelleher”. He refused to use the word “Funeral”, and naturally I used white vestments.
    The same designation went on the cover of the pamphlet for my younger sister, who died the following year from cancer at the age of 35. She was handicapped, but we learnt from her that all life is to be celebrated, both at its beginning and its end. He also emphatically told me to do the same when his time came; so in 2003, in white vestments, I gave thanks for the life of Dermot Kelleher, who had lived fully the 84 years of his life. None of the liturgical texts now used would warrant anything but a thanks for the life of those we commemorate, and a strong proclamation of our faith in the resurrection.
    Here in Japan black has been the traditional color for formal wear, whether for weddings or funerals. If you see someone wearing black you note, in the case of a man, whether the necktie is black or white, and, in the case of a woman, whether the kimono carries the family crest or a simple example of flowers embroidered on it. Funerals are among the few occasions when I wear a “roman” collar.
    In contrast with Buddhist funerals, Shinto funerals are rare, and tend to be reserved for the imperial family,which tend to be very formal and sombre, the witness of a Christian funeral, with white vestments and its message of hope has touched the hearts of many non-Christian Japanese I have got to know over the years. I have even had non-Christians ask to be buried at Church since they feel that the Christian message has something important to say about the meaning of death. To clothe such liturgies in black would be like smothering the Good News, no matter how many years of tradition are evoked to justify it. And as a final note/question, I am sure many were intrigued by the fact that the Mass of the Resurrection at the passing of John PaulII was celebrated using red vestments. Anybody know what the roots of this custom are.

    • Ben says:

      “Mass of Thanksgiving for the Life of Moira Kelleher”

      Seriously? A funeral (really. that’s what it’s called) is meant to be a chance to pray for that person, not in thanksgiving for that’s person’s life.

      You also seem to paint traditional people as the enemy! (“He was traditional, but thankfully he met these priests!!”)

  13. Liam says:

    Funerary red vestments are reserved for the Roman pontiff. It appears to be because (1) the papacy is an apostolic office and red is indicative of the martyrdoms of the APostles, and (2) ancient Roman imperial practice.

  14. Todd says:

    “Any padres out there have recommendations for ordering black vestments?”

    Indeed yes. I have a contact with a vestment company who could have them custom made for you. Just e-mail me at my parish todd(at)stmkc(dot)com and I’ll send you the name and phone number.

  15. sacerdos says:

    Fr. Michael,

    I recommend the House of Hansen – out of Chicago – they do a nice job and they will make whatever you ask for. Gaspard of Milwaukee (there are a couple – one in Ontario – they are cousins of sorts, I think!) will also make Black Vestments.

    If you want TREMENDOUS quality, contact the House of Ephesus – Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles in Kansas City, MO. They do nice work and are trying to build a new monastery!

  16. CarpeNoctem says:

    I would second the shout-out for Jerry and the gang at the House of Hansen in Chicago. They do a world-class job with their vestments at a very reasonable price. They have a website, but the pictures do not do justice to the quality of their work. I do have a black vestment from them in DaVinci fabric with all the, ahem, ‘TLM’ fixin’s.

  17. FrMichael says:

    Thanks for the tips on black vestment makers.

  18. Daniel McGlone says:

    Ah the black verses white dilemma. Must say wearing white at funerals just strikes me as a tad insensitive. Can’t we mourn anymore in this ever so happy and cheerful post conciliar world? Curiously in south east Asia white is commonly associated with death and is the colour regularly used for mourning. It seems this is because it is the colour of ash after the bodies are burned. It would seem, for our fellow Catholic in that part of the world, white does not readily invoke images of the bodily resurrection.

    True a very late comment this. Regardless, can’t we just accept that black looks better?

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