QUAERITUR: Colored cassocks for servers

I got a question via e-mail:

Hi Fr Z,

I have a liturgical question. What are the rules/customs regarding the different coloured soutanes worn by altar servers. A discussion (revolving around my upcoming nuptials) I am having at the moment is regarding the use of red and black, but also deep purple, maroon and violet for the altar servers of bishops and cardinal’s etc  Do you know any answers to this, or know where any ‘rules’ are spelt out?

Many Thanks for the fine blog- a great service to the Church and an inspiration ot many.

There is no real rule for the color of the cassocks for altar boys or men.  Of course women and girls should never under any circumstances wear anything resembling a cassock… even remotely resembling.  Ugh… sometimes we see such ridiculous things in those church goods catalogues that cater also to non-Catholic parishes.   It just seems… grrrr…. nearly pornographic.  Hideous.  But I digress.

Servers cassock can be any color.  Commonly they are black or red, though I have also seen dark blue.

In St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the servers wear paonazza, the same violet color that monsignors, canons and bishops get.  Also, the MC for a bishop or cardinal often wears paonazza, by custom.  Though I have a faint memory of this being spelled out in some book. 

The most important thing, no matter what color you choose for the boys, or men, make sure they treat the cassock respectfully.  Help tme to understand that it is a priviledge to server at the altar, not a right.  The cassock can help them establish a good esprit de corps, important for boys and very helpful.  If the priests wear their cassocks, that can be a great help.

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36 Responses to QUAERITUR: Colored cassocks for servers

  1. The Pledger says:

    I agree in the matter of women/girls in cassocks. However, say a parish is moving back from some hideous “servers albs” to cassocks and surplices, but does not feel ready (yet) to end the practice of female servers. How could this be handled pastorally? Cassocks and surplices for males, albs for girls? Perhaps cassocks without any roman collar?

    Help!

  2. freddy says:

    Hear, hear!
    I’ve watched my own boys transform from the rowdy youngsters I know to something else when they don the cassock & surplice. Suddenly they are Official, quiet, respectful. Extra appendages to the priest. It creates quite a brotherly bond of respect and accomplishment that exists even outside of Mass. This is something certainly possible and desirable in the N.O. Mass, but the E.F. seems more ordered to this end, with the more exacting requirements.

  3. John Enright says:

    I became an Altarboy in 1963 or 1964 (I’m not really that old; I was young to be selected because they needed a small kid to lead Church processions!), and I had a black cassock. Our Pastor was a Priest, and he subsequently moved to another parish. In his place, our new Pastor was a Monseigneur, and all of the Altarboys were issued scarlet cassocks. I asked why we were given new cassocks, and Fr. McCloskey, who was CIC (retired career U.S. Navy Chaplin), told us that Altarboys traditionally wear cassocks of the color associated with the Pastor. I know that after the Monseigneur left the parish, long afterwards, the Altarboys reverted to black cassocks. Of course, we still wore black cassocks for funerals. I still have both of them.

  4. Dan O says:

    Fr. Z writes, \”it is a priviledge to server at the altar, not a rite.\”

    A Freudian slip, maybe?

  5. Justin says:

    Ahh. So paonazza is the name of the colour the Vatican Basilica uses. Interesting because the privillege of using that particular colour was extended to the Chapter and Choir of Westminster Cathedral since it’s inception.

  6. Mac McLernon says:

    We had cassocks and cottas introduced for the boys who serve at the TLM. At the other Masses, where we sometimes have serviettes, they wear the dressing-gown albs (hideous)… but if one of the boys who usually serves at the TLM comes to another Mass, he invariably gravitates towards the cassock & cotta… the boys HATE wearing the same stuff as the girls!!
    ;-)

  7. Justin says:

    What should girl choristers wear then? Presumably the alb is the garment common for all baptized Christians, but what if the choir is a mixed choir – do the boys wear cassock/cotta and the girls wear albs?

  8. Ken says:

    “What should girl choristers wear then?”

    How about a lovely dress and chapel veil as they’re escorted into a pew while a male schola sings for Mass?

  9. cheyan says:

    I can understand (and accept, if unhappily) the reasons behind only having men/boys as altar servers.

    I don’t have any idea what’s perceived as bad about women in a choir. Can someone explain it to me? (An explanation that avoids mention of what women, in general, should wear to Mass would be appreciated as well.)

  10. Matt says:

    A couple of questions re: cassocks and surplices on servers:

    1) Historically, has the cassock been truly an exclusively ecclesial garment? In other words, is there officially any privilege of wearing the cassock which belongs only to the clergy, or is the cassock simply a garment of utility?

    2) Historically, the surplice is a modified form of the alb, the garment which is supposed to represent the “white garment of our baptism.” This means that anyone in liturgical ministry (who we must assume has been at the least baptized, if not also confirmed) is entitled to wear one while engaging in the rites of the liturgy. That being said, what real difference is there between wearing an alb and wearing a surplice?

    Taken together these arguments (the cassock is not historically an ecclesial garment, and the surplice is nothing more than a modified alb) must lead one to the conclusion that cassock and surplice is the most common and therefore most appropriate garment for anyone engaging in liturgical ministry to wear, be they a choir member, a lector, a “server”, etc. I’d even go to the ropes on permitting women to wear surplice (in light of no. 2 above). Otherwise, If these are exclusively clerical, then everyone who wears them, altar boys included, should not be permitted to wear them, unless they are duly “ordained” to the order of acolyte or lector (which I believe are minor orders reserved to those who are in priestly formation).

    Thoughts?

  11. Matthew says:

    Matt:
    Congratulations on giving a great example of what Pius XII referred to in Mediator Dei as “archaeologism”. This term referred to those liturgists of the period who were not merely digging into the historical origins of various liturgical acts and vesture but were then using this historical information to re-define in the present time what these gestures and vesture should mean.
    Regardless of the origins of cassock and surplice (cotta) these have, over the past 1500yrs, come to be exclusively associated with the clergy. Servers at the altar wear them insofar as they are, by their work, assisting the priest in his ministry at the altar.
    Matthew

  12. LCB says:

    I hate to bring this up… but it sounds like the groom/bride-to-be is interested in modifying liturgical garments for color-matching at a wedding. I’m not sure that is appropriate…

  13. IS says:

    The Pledger, Interesting question. Get rid of the girls is the only answer! As to without roman collars,
    I would hope none of the servers are wearing them, unless of course they are smeinarians.

  14. The Pledger says:

    I appreciate everyone’s comments. In a perfect world, I would just stop using girls. However, that just isn’t an option. So, I need to figure out what to do with girl servers when I switch to cassocks/surplices.

  15. IS says:

    LCB – no, they aren’t! The Cardinal is likely to be present & it’s probably the biggest Novus Ordo in
    years in Australia. The groom just loves good liturgy but hasn’t grasped the TLM just yet.

    I personally think pink soutanes would be most appropriate for a wedding – so match the bridesmaids!

  16. Daniel Hill says:

    No LCB, it has nothing to do with what you have assumed (and, of course assumed the worse).
    We happen to be most likely having a Cardinal at the wedding and would like to do things properly for once. How stupid do you think I am?

    The cassocks will NOT be matching bridesmaid dresses, or flowers, or flowergirls or anything else except, perhaps, the Cardinal’s rank.

  17. Cornbread Creg says:

    IS!

    Thank you for clearing that up for me. But I must say pink is out- I was considering rainbow cassocks. For the crucifer, however, I will be arranging an aparelled alb.

    But I protest! The groom has clearly grasped the EF, but the bride hasn’t!

    The next step is getting the nuns, who own the chapel, to be distracted while I move their coffee table that is, for some reason, in front of the high altar!

  18. Cornbread Creg says:

    http://www.danielmitsui.com/hieronymus/index.blog/1739053/blessings-of-liturgical-things/

    the \’alb\’ of baptism is not the \’alb\’ of the liturgy.

    literally \’alb\’ means white garment. The \’Albs\’ of the newly baptized are simply that, white garments, whether veils, scarves or ponchos.

    The \’liturgical alb\’ which is more well known, has developed over time and has deep theological symbolism. Its symbolism is strictly masculine and clerical.

    Also, the surplice developed FROM the alb. So to get upset about women wearing surplices but not albs does not make symbolic or historical sense.

    Unfortunatley, if the correct traditions of the Roman rite are followed, there is no reason why they cannot.

    The problem with the surplice id the fright people get when they see a woman wearing the black \’priests\’ garment.

    But the alb is the vestment \’common\’ to clerics, and is a classical male piece of clothing.

    likewise, though often ignored, it is tradition in the roman rite to wear the cassock UNDER the alb as well.

    There is no tradition to follow in the roman rite regarding altar girls. So an argument based on tradition will always fail.

    So the dilemma is- what, if they are to exist, should an altar girl wear?

    I say a veil at least- thats what Nuns wear when assisting in a monastery.

  19. M Kr says:

    Cheyan:

    There is nothing wrong with women singing in a choir, so long as they are not part of a true liturgical choir, which is seated in stalls facing each other in the sanctuary. The choir is truly a liturgical ministry and so its members should be men who, together with other ministers during services, wear appropriate dress, which is cassock and surplice. Such choirs of men and boys sitting in choir stalls in the chancel were the usual arrangement until recent centuries when mixed choirs of men and woman became common, especially to sing polyphony (and for other reasons). Such mixed choirs came to sing in a choir loft in the back of the church and since they don’t form a liturgical choir, they do not cassock and surplice.

  20. cheyan says:

    M Kr, thank you for your patient answer. I wasn’t aware there was any such thing as a “liturgical choir”.

    Cornbread Creg, maybe if altar girls wore veils, and were told they’d be allowed to do so when they attended Masses they weren’t serving, we’d see more girls and women wearing veils. It’s an interesting idea.

  21. David O'Rourke says:

    Matt isn’t being an archaeologist when he delves into the history of liturgical items to help to understand their use better. As noted by Cornbread Greg, however, Matt is wrong about the alb.

    In fact one needn’t go back all that far. In the pre-Vatican II liturgy servers wore a cassock and surplice. The alb was reserved to the celebrant, deacon and subdeacon and in Pontifical Mass to the honorary deacons if these happened to be prelates of the Papal household (Monsignors). Exceptions to this were found in some monastic Orders. The cassock for servers was only to be black but this rule was honoured more in the breach. Red cassocks in particular were common for servers. Those who wore albs i.e. the sacred ministers, always wore them over the cassock and amice and they were girded with the cinture.

    In the Novus Ordo cassocks became optional as did amices and cinctures. Traditinal albs worn without these items looked silly so the liturgical haberdashers hastened to fill the gap by inventing the cassock/alb (known by some of us who hate them as “calbs”. Since these consisted of only one item they quickly caught on with priests and servers. For servers, cinctures were usually added as well as monastic/like hoods which are merely an affectation.

    So, the rule for severs according to the 1962 Missal is black cassock with surplice although no one would likely get upset if the rule about black was again honoured only in the breach and red cassocks were worn.

  22. LCB says:

    I recall reading somewhere that, in Germany, there was once a long history of seminarians wearing red cassocks almost exclusively. Not sure where I picked that up at.

    As for any posters or readers who were upset by my previous comments, please forgive me and accept my apology. I did not mean to cause waves.

  23. Cornbread Creg says:

    Of course, something abandoned in many parts but not abrogated, is the different coloured cassocks worn at the various colleges/seminaries in Rome. They were quite spectacular.

    the Scots, for instance, wore blue cassocks with orange fachia!

  24. Martin_B says:

    Sorry to oppose most of you, but I think Cassock and Cotta is fine for female altar-servers, too.

    The point about female servers has been settled: They’re okay, as soon as the bishop has said so. And most Bishops have done this. Let’s just stick to the rulings of the church!

    The cassock has always been worn by non-ordained (Sacristans, for example), so it’s not exclusively an clerical garment, but one associated with a liturgical role. And such a role (if it’s not reserved for an ordination) might as well be filled by a female.

    Same job – same vestment !!

    I’m leading the altar-servers (about 50/50 boys and girls) in a small german parish, and all of them are wearing red cassocks and cottas.

    Concerning the colours:
    The mentioned red cassocks belonging exclusively to german seminarians, is probably only a reference to the also beforementioned coloured cassocks of the roman national seminaries.

    The violet (or paonazzo) cassocks of bishop’s altar-servers is due to violet being the colour of the Bishop’s household.

    Beside these all-year-round-colours there is also a tradition (at least in germany) of servers wearing cassocks according to the liturgical colour of the day.

  25. I am not Spartacus says:

    The point about female servers has been settled:

    I don’t think so. I’d be surprised if most readers of this great site were ignorant of the circumstances leading to the VERY reluctant approval of altar girls.

    Well, it took a long time to stop the inertia in a particular direction but it is becoming ever clearer that inertia has been stopped and the Barque of Peter is being turned around.

    I remember the grief I got when I told my Daughter she could not be an altar server, even though our Diocese was recruiting girls.

    Altar girls settled?

    Not even close. The reformers better act quickly to petition to have female altar servers put on the Ecclesiastical Endangered Species List because you don’t have to be a weatherman to see which way the wind is blowing.

  26. Kieran says:

    Very interestind discussion. So first of all its perfectely ok for male altar boys to wear a roman collar with their soutanne. This is don at the extraordinary form where I MC. Since servers are (or where)fulfilling the office of a seminarian who had received the minor order of Acolyte I they probably should wear black. Though the servers at the Mass I go to wear red soutannes I\’d prefer to stick to red.

    So why nothave the servers wear black soutannes? If you are the M.C of a cardinal you wear the violet soutanne.Not any bishop has the privaledge of his M.C wearing violet. . oinly those who are the Ordinary in there own diocese and cardinals everywhere. Also applies to train-bearer of the Capp Magna. In some place all the servers of the cathedral wore violet cassock.

    Hope it is a joyful day and goes great!

  27. Kieran says:

    Very interestind discussion. So first of all its perfectely ok for male altar boys to wear a roman collar with their soutanne. This is don at the extraordinary form where I MC. Since servers are (or where)fulfilling the office of a seminarian who had received the minor order of Acolyte I they probably should wear black. Though the servers at the Mass I go to wear red soutannes I\’d prefer to stick to red.

    So why nothave the servers wear black soutannes? If you are the M.C of a cardinal you wear the violet soutanne.Not any bishop has the privaledge of his M.C wearing violet. . oinly those who are the Ordinary in there own diocese and cardinals everywhere. Also applies to train-bearer of the Capp Magna. In some place all the servers of the cathedral wore violet cassock.

    Hope it is a joyful day and goes great!

  28. Anonymous says:

    What is the answer, then, about choir boys and girls wearing what appear to be maroon casocks? This seems to be a long-standing and widespread tradition.

  29. IS says:

    I am not Spartacus,

    You are right. I think the day is near when Altar girls will be cut down. Rome will have to rule on altar girls in the extraordinary form so problem like what happened in the UK recently don’t occur again AND at the same time, won’t be able to have two standards – forcing a clarification of altar girls in the OF. I can’t imagine B16 being soft on half of this issue – so BANG! GONE!!!

    Beers on me when they go…

  30. Jill of the Amazing Wolverine Tribe says:

    [Just Plain SOUR Comment Alert – Fr. Z]

    Dear “I am not spartacus” let us know if your daughter whom you didn’t think good enough to serve Mass remains a catholic…much less any grandchildren she produces for you. Yes, I’m sure she’d have embarrassed you and God. Good call.

    And “Ken”..sure…why not escort all the women down the aisle out of the little boy’s club? Sooner than later. Please don’t be surprised if some of them keep right on walking outside the church.

    Let the boys have all the fun in the lace. Some of you like to play “dress up” just a little too much in a Liberace way. Sartoral questions are one thing, but some of you guys seem to get overly excited by such things in a not-so-healty way. Either misogynistic sounding, or pardon the expression “a little queenier than the queen.” It’s off putting. Keep your little toys for the boys then. A woman should never go out with a man who wears nicer lace or earrings than she does.

    For being seriously sour and for not having thought much before posting.

  31. I am not Spartacus says:

    Dear “I am not spartacus” let us know if your daughter whom you didn’t think good enough to serve Mass remains a catholic…much less any grandchildren she produces for you. Yes, I’m sure she’d have embarrassed you and God. Good call.

    It wasn’t that I thought she was not “good enough” to serve at the altar anymore than I thought my son was not good enough to give birth, it was just that, ontologically, I recognised she had been prepared by Our Lord and Saviour for a different vocation.

    As an Irish-Algonquin Catholic, I am hopelessly atavistic I’m afraid.

  32. D.S. says:

    laudetur JS CHS!

    Only btw: Like Martin_B wrote, the red COLOUR is probably a custom in analogy to the colour of the German seminarians in Rome: at the GRMANICUM they used to wear RED cassocs.
    See the famous book of H Ex Isidor Markus Emanuel: Sieben Jahre im roten Talar. Römische Erinerungen eines Germanikers.

    Best greetings from Germany
    in CHristus durch Maria

  33. D.S. says:

    only btw: like Martin_B wrote the RED COLOUR is probably a custom in analogy to the coloures of the seminarian-cassocs. In Rome at the GERMANICUM they used to wear RED cassocks.
    Cf. the famouse book of H.Ex Isidor Markus Emanuel: Sieben Jahre im roten Talar. Römische Erinnerungen eines Germanikers.

    With the best greetings from Germany
    in CHristus durch Maria

  34. Royce says:

    A parish in my hometown that I am rather fond of has boys serving wear the traditional black cassocks and surplices and the girls wear albs with a large black scapular over them. I’ve never seen any other parish do this. They have very few girls serving, though.

    I recently attended Mass at a parish where the only servers were girls and they were wearing red cassocks with surplices. I appreciate the attempt to be traditional here (many other things seemed to be in this vain as well, such as the vessels and plate used for the Eucharist), but I was personally taken aback (if not downright scandalized) to see girls in cassocks. It just isn’t appropriate. Lex oriandi lex crendi — Catholic theology teaches that there are separate roles for men and women in public (and private) life; our liturgy should reflect this.

  35. Jill of the Amazing Wolverine Tribe says:

    Well, really Fr. Z., even Howard Crabtree would have found some of the comments over the top. A belated Tony Award in the exotic costume design category.

  36. I have seen white (cream sort of) cassocks underneath surplices on servers in the Phillipines. They looked fantastic and dignified.