ASK FATHER: Why should we use black vestments for All Souls Day or funerals?

14_11_03_Requiem_01From a priest:

My pastor said to me, “if you give me a good enough reason why I should wear black vestments on All Souls’ Day, I will do it.”

What, exactly, would you recommend I tell him?

My mind is spinning a bit.

Black does not have to be defended. It has been the use of the Church for a thousand years.

Liturgical colors have their meanings.

The use of black, reminds us of how we must die to the things of this world.

It reminds us to pray for the deceased rather than assume that they have automatically entered the bliss of heaven. Masses are for the dead more than they are for some emotional need we might have (or want to avoid).

It reminds us of the reserve and dignity we should have in the moment of a funeral, Requiem.

It reminds us that we, too, must pass through death.

They are beautiful.

13_10_26_requiem_01Ven. Pius XII wrote in Mediator Dei:

62. Assuredly it is a wise and most laudable thing to return in spirit and affection to the sources of the sacred liturgy. For research in this field of study, by tracing it back to its origins, contributes valuable assistance towards a more thorough and careful investigation of the significance of feast-days, and of the meaning of the texts and sacred ceremonies employed on their occasion. But it is neither wise nor laudable to reduce everything to antiquity by every possible device. Thus, to cite some instances, one would be straying from the straight path were he to wish the altar restored to its primitive tableform; were he to want black excluded as a color for the liturgical vestments; were he to forbid the use of sacred images and statues in Churches; were he to order the crucifix so designed that the divine Redeemer’s body shows no trace of His cruel sufferings; and lastly were he to disdain and reject polyphonic music or singing in parts, even where it conforms to regulations issued by the Holy See.

I urge priests to use black.

I urge laypeople to request the use of black.

I urge laypeople to rally together and purchase beautiful black vestments for their parishes.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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38 Responses to ASK FATHER: Why should we use black vestments for All Souls Day or funerals?

  1. The Egyptian says:

    WOW oh WOW

    that excerpt from Pius VII is loaded, so much more there than just Black vestments.
    And if I brought it up all I’d hear is, But Spirit of Vatican II etc etc etc, the mass is now focused on the horizontal we no longer accentuate the vertical, blather blah blah


  2. FL_Catholic says:

    Couldn’t agree with Pius XII more, except for the part about polyphony. There are few things more distracting and annoying in Church than a 30 min chant with people talking over each other and saying the same line 17x before they can move on. I would take a silent Low Mass over that noise any day.

  3. Austin says:

    Cranmer felt the same way about polyphony. “One note per syllable” was the guideline. Pretty much destroyed church music outside the cathedrals until the Catholic revival of the Oxford Movement.

    I think the Catholic disposition should be “If it’s worth saying, it’s worth repeating,” and “He who sings prays twice.” Silence is all very well, but heaven is filled with music.

  4. TWF says:

    FL Catholic- you can have your personal preferences, of course, but the low mass was never the ideal and certainly is far from ideal on sundays and solemn feasts where the greater solemnity of a high mass is fitting.

  5. vandalia says:

    Interestingly enough, I have seen the quote from Ven. Pius XII used as a justification AGAINST using anything pre-Vatican II, by the means of defining antiquity as “anything prior to 1960.”

    Digging through my email archive to find something sent to all of us by one of the … older… priests in our diocese at the time of Summorum Pontificum:

    But it is neither wise nor laudable to reduce everything to pre-Vatican II usage by every possible device. Thus, to cite some instances, one would be straying from the straight path were he to wish the altar to be changed form its primitive tableform; were he to want to include black as a color for the liturgical vestments; where he to forbid the reduction of sacred images and statues in Churches; were he to order the crucifix so designed that the divine Redeemer’s body shows no trace of His Resurrection; and lastly were he to disdain and reject modern music, even where it has been used in the Holy Father’s presence.

  6. SpesUnica says:

    One of the best apologies for black that I have heard is that no such vestments are ever (anecdotally) only black. Most have exquisite silver and/or gold embroidery. Is this not a much better vivual expression of the emotions of Catholic grief? Black sorrow tinged with the hope and promise of glory? It acknowledges the pain, says it is permissible, even appropriate, rather than subtly suggesting that it is already time to “get over it” the way the white does. Jesus wept. We can too. I think the white comes from a desire to skip grief, and is a Protestantization if the funeral rites, borrowed from those with an impoverished theology.

  7. Imrahil says:

    Why should we use black?

    I’m assuming here that the question is “black vs. violet”. White is, according to its meaning in the Western tradition, an abuse – if it is against the law, it is disobedient, and where the law allows it by way of dispensation, that rule itself is an abuse (I’ll be so bold). The deceased person is not a holy confessor. (An exception seems legitimate, on precisely these grounds, for the baptized infance before reaching use-of-reason.)

    Now as for black vs. violet, I’ll spin a bit against the tide here and say that…

    violet is, in the liturgy, the color representing penitence, right?

    So, a funeral is partially about penitence, which is why Rome allows violet (and which is why, when Masses were allowed in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed where black was deemed inappropriate, violet was the color even traditionally). So far so good.

    But: a funeral is not only about penitence. Is it? Do you think it is? Don’t we somewhat, also, remember our beloved departed brother in love – wishing to pray for him to get over Purgatory – in the manner of earnest festivity?

    That’s emotion enough for a specific color. This color, in the Western tradition, is black; this is what black is associated with even today; this is why (did someone mention that clergy and laity must stick together?) the guests happen to wear black.

    And this is why the priest should wear black.

    And the hope for the resurrection, the reason some abusively wear white? – That’s what the golden embroidery, or, maybe, white tones on the black chasuble are there for.

  8. Imrahil says:

    And of course – though this is, in my view, a pladoyer for the cassock rather than the black chasuble -:

    Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
    Why you never see bright colors on my back,
    And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone:
    Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on:

    I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
    Living in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
    I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
    But is there because he’s a victim of the times.

    I wear the black for those who never read,
    Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
    About the road to happiness through love and charity –
    Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.

    Well, we’re doing mighty fine, I do suppose,
    In our streak of lightning cars and fancy clothes,
    But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,
    Up front there ought to be a man in black.

    (Johnny Cash)

  9. mburn16 says:

    What’s standard practice for the pall in the “black or violet” parishes? And how far does the explanation of the white pall as a bookend to the white baptismal garments get a person?

  10. kekeak2008 says:

    Such a response by a priest is alarming, especially since the priest wears black clerical garb daily. A priest wears black in order to illustrate, among other things, that he is dead to the world. I would think that the parallels between the color of clerical attire and black vestments would be obvious…

  11. Thomas Sweeney says:

    Since the advent of the Novus Ordo I have been to many funeral Masses where the solemnity of the event is missing. As a young boy in the 1940s I served many funeral Masses, some with crowds and some with just a few people. Our parish priest said each one like he was preparing the deceased and us for the next world. What we did in this world was over and in many ways forgotten, it was for eternity that he was preparing us. Our funeral Mass is grave day, for we are awaiting judgement. Black is the fitting color, for who knows what sins we may have committed and what the final verdict may be.

  12. tzabiega says:

    Thank you for the explanation. Our adult minds are often mixed up with new innovations, unlike those of children. My family doesn’t usually go to Tridentine Mass, but we did this All Souls’ Day and my oldest 8 year old son saw the black vestments. A couple weeks later a dear priest friend of ours died and my son was serving in his funeral Mass as altar server. He was baffled by the celebrating priest wearing white, because it made no sense to him (my son said, “why not black? Does that mean he is already in Heaven? How do we know that? What if he is in purgatory?”), so he asked the priest, who responded with some, pardon me, dumb explanation about baptism and its link to death and the white signifying baptism. Funny how children often understand things naturally before we muddy their cognitive waters with ridiculous explanations. My son also always receives Communion kneeling down and only from priests (and we are not traditionalists)–because, according to his innocent logic, it is the Body of Christ which should only be held by consecrated hands, duh! Though my wife and I will receive standing and from lay people as much as priests–but we certainly like our son’s logic–which is better than that of our Church hierarchy. Therefore the reason the Church did a lot of things in the past like black vestments or Communion on the tongue and kneeling is because of shear common sense, something our sophisticated modern society has lost altogether.

  13. Geoffrey says:

    Since the average parish is without black vestments, I’ll settle for violet in the meantime.

  14. Augustine Thompson O.P. says:

    Imrahil, Use of white at funerals and Requiem Masses is not a rubrical infraction in the New Rite in the United States. The current General Instruction on the Roman Missal reads:

    346 e) Besides the color violet, the colors white or black may be used at funeral services and at other Offices and Masses for the Dead in the Dioceses of the United States of America.

    Although I personally prefer the *permitted* black, most places only have violet. As in the middle ages in the Dominican Rite black and purple were considered the same color (i.e. purple was then very dark and black had a hit of purple), I see both as good for symbolizing the penitential aspect of the Masses for the Dead, lest they seem to be the Mass of a Saint (non-martyr). The logic for the request for permission to use white, which is actually not a bad one, is that the Funeral Mass is not only penitential, it is also a Mass said in light of our hope of the Resurrection.

    As to Fr. Z’s inquirer, I would say to the priest, “My reason for asking for violet is that you just said the Mass of All Saints wearing white. Obviously we are not treating the deceased remembered on All Souls as already saints, which would make this a duplicate of yesterday’s feast. So using violet, the normal color assigned in the GIRM for the Mass of All Souls, makes the difference clear.”

  15. JerrytheYTPer says:

    *this comment; thumbs up!

  16. JerrytheYTPer says:

    This assumes the priest wears clerical black regularly. I am lucky when my college chaplain wears a black t shirt and dress pants under his obnoxious concelebration alb (with no chasuble most of the time). He only ever wears a collar for dinners, diocese events, and large school events.

  17. Alan22 says:

    I have a personal interest here.

    My beloved mother went to her eternal reward just a year ago and it fell to me to organise her Requiem Mass with her parish priest, We were both converts from the Church of England so my mother, a very organised woman, had in mind her experience of the many funerals she had taken part in as a churchwarden. And so, she left a list of the hymns and music she would like to be sung at her funeral, if it were possible.

    I discussed these with her parish priest, a good and holy pastor, who ministered to my mother devotedly week after week, even when her dementia rendered her incapable of receiving Holy Communion. It was a great solace to us to know that Father had visited her the day before she died and administered the Apostolic Pardon.

    In my days as an Anglican clergyman, my grandmother bought me a set of black vestments; these had lain in store for twenty years or more after I became a Catholic. But I brought them to my mother’s church and offered them as a gift to the parish. The pastor received them with great gratitude and wore them at her Requiem Mass.

    The coffin was covered with a black pall and flanked by six hearse lights, complete with unbleached candles. The congregation and choir sang the plainsong Missa Pro Defunctis and the whole funeral rite was just as my mother would have wanted. She had a strong sense of decorum and disapproved strongly of the notion that you can wear anything in any situation. For her, the way you dressed expressed the solemnity of the occasion.

    Was this Mass an occasion of sadness? Yes, of course it was and rightly so. We, as her family, were finally able to express our grief, four years after my mother received the awful diagnosis that she had Alzheimer’s. But the sad, solemn ceremony, which allowed us to shed our tears unhindered, also assured us of the hope of resurrection.

    As a family, we were very fortunate in having a priest to deal with who was imbued with sanctified common sense. He strongly emphasised the fact that my mother’s funeral was an occasion for the Church to give back to her Father a sinner, confident in His mercy. I will confess that I cried throughout the Mass but I am glad that I did so. I cried, not in despair, but in sadness, hoping through faith that she will come to see the face of the One she worshipped daily at the altar of God.

  18. Frank H says:

    Do you ever see the mourners wearing white? Never. They wear dark, usually black.

  19. Laura R. says:

    Imrahil said above that the guests wear black. At the funerals I have attended at our parish in the recent past, at all of which I have seen the celebrant wearing white vestments, I have noticed that fewer of the guests seem to be wearing black; this seems to be true even of close relatives of the deceased. It makes me more determined to wear black myself (or at least dark gray or navy), out of respect for the deceased and recognition of the gravity of the occasion.

  20. Imrahil says:

    Well, dear hon. Brother (or is it rev. Father ? ^^) Augustine Thompson,

    I was aware that some regions (read: the United States) have official permission to use white for requiems.

    Which is why I said with some admitted boldness that this dispensation is itself an abuse. (Though not, of course, in the sense of a rubrical infraction.)

    The logic for the request for permission to use white, which is actually not a bad one, is that the Funeral Mass is not only penitential, it is also a Mass said in light of our hope of the Resurrection.

    Er, yes. This is my reason, actually, why black (in the general Roman Rite obviously a separate color from violet) is preferable to violet. This is, also, why the Eastern Churches legitimately do have their white color for the requiems; this is why the black chasuble, leastways if it is Roman-style, has a golden embroidery (and if it is one of the longer, more modern chasubles – yes these exist in black – it often has a huge display of white within it). All this is quite legitimate.

    What was not legitimate was to introduce white into Western use, where it had previously not been known, and that at precisely a time when false conceptions of “immediate resurrection” [*] abounded and at the same time where people are on the point of losing the concept of a proper Christian grief. And rendering an entire liturgical color (black) devoid of meaning is at least no plus point.

    [* After all, even the Saints in Heaven, exceptions excepted, are still waiting for the reunion with their body.]

  21. Kathleen10 says:

    Too bad there isn’t a hard and fast rubric that all must follow, with no exception, priests who adhere to it, and Bishops that require it. Then, if the people are taught accordingly and often, the WHY, they will come to know that rubric and expect it, instead of wandering around accepting innovations and not realizing what they are missing, and what their beloved dead are missing.

  22. The Masked Chicken says:

    “Cranmer felt the same way about polyphony. “One note per syllable” was the guideline. Pretty much destroyed church music outside the cathedrals until the Catholic revival of the Oxford Movement.”

    Polyphonic = many voices
    Syllabic = one note per syllable

    A polyphonic Mass may be syllabic, while a chant may be some notes (neumatic) or many notes (melismatic) per syllable.

    Polyphony has a long and venerable history in liturgical music, going back to at least the mid 800 A. D., because the, Musica Enchiriadis (ca. 895 A. D.) records the practice or at least the theory, in the form of two-part organum. In organum, one voice ( usually the higher) sings the plainchant, while the second voice sings at a fourth below (this is called the discant). The earliest organum may have arisen simply by having mixed men and boy choirs, where there would have been an octave displacement. The original discants were not continuous, but interpolated in certain sections to reinforce the chant. During the High Medieval period, both harmonic and rhythmic theory developed leading to the development of the more complex organum duplum, which could contain extensive melismatic overlay on a static chant. Later, the isorhythmic motet and Mass settings would occur. Perotin was known for his organum and early isorhythmic settings. The first truly polyphonic (as opposed to heterophonic) Mass settings was due to Machaut, who included an isorhythmic section in the Agnus Dei.

    All of this occurred before Trent and while there were abuses, polyphony has a natural place in Mass settings, as it is an organic development in chant techniques.

    The Chicken

  23. Pastor Bonus says:

    You should invite your priest to look at the Ordo or General Instruction of the Roman Missal where it outlines the different colours of vestments that can be used (n. 346 I believe).

  24. petrus69 says:

    The only time white should be use at a funeral is when a baptize child dies before the age of reason, and if its High Mass, Mass VIII should be sung, without the Gloria. I can only assume Catholics know this. I’m I wrong Father?

  25. Father P says:

    I something think that often times discussions like this can fall into an “all or nothing” thinking. What I like in the Ordinary Form is to use all the options at my disposal. Where I like the option for White vestments at funerals is that it provides an option for the joyful seasons in which a funeral can take place. (This can also be a good way to introduce the various colors for funerals, especially if one prefers to use the darker colors all year).

    In Advent/Lent/Ordinary Time – Violet or Black
    In Christmas/Easter – White

  26. arrowsmith says:

    I agree with Fr. Augustine Thompson in that the best response the questioner could give their priest would be to show the distinct and profound difference between All Saints and All Souls. Of course it’s disappointing that a priest would need a reason beyond the rubrics and tradition but I think the common sense in this response could win over a cleric who is ambivalent as this one seems to be.

  27. John Nolan says:

    In the Middle Ages a fast black was very difficult to produce and so violet, black and dark blue were interchangeable. Vestments originally black would fade to blue or brown over time.
    The later Sarum Use had black for Advent and Lent and red for Passiontide and for most Sundays of the year.

    Violet for funerals became fashionable in the 1960s and when black was changed for red on Good Friday a lot of parishes threw out their black vestments.

    There is a photograph of Benedict XVI wearing black on All Souls’ Day. Traditionally popes wore only white, red and violet, black being replaced by red.

  28. edm says:

    I have always liked that illustration of a Requiem Mass that was printed by the Confraternity of All Souls. The details are amazing, especially if one begins to look at what initially appears to be only background but turns out to be images of the deceased. We have a framed copy of it hanging in the foyer of our Episcopal parish.

  29. Tony Phillips says:

    Re polyphony: A couple years ago I was in the US and drove up the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate in Rhode Island–before the, uh, intervention. I’m not being catty–it was charming, honest–when I say that the plainchant they were singing wasn’t entirely on-key. And I remember thinking, this is probably how polyphony started. (Alas, next time I went back they’d been compelled to adopt the NO. I listened at the door for a moment, got back in the rental car and drove up to Providence.)

    I’m no hearse-chaser, but I’ve been to my share of NO funerals, including those of my parents and of my in-laws, in both the US and the UK. I’ve never seen anything but white, and I was astounded when, only a year or 2 ago, I realised that black was actually permitted in that rite.

  30. Nan says:

    I went to the funeral of a priests mother. She had her manuturgium in hand. Isn’t that her ticket to heaven?

  31. mburn16 says:

    “There is a photograph of Benedict XVI wearing black on All Souls’ Day”

    Unfortunately, I think not. I can only find a single photograph that matches this description, and a close look makes it appear that someone modified a photo of BXVI in red. I believe this is the photo you reference:

  32. John Nolan says:

    ‘The plainchant … wasn’t entirely on-key.’ I’m not sure what this means, since chant doesn’t have a key as such. It can of course be out of tune. Unless you have a cantor with the rare gift (or curse) of absolute pitch there is a tendency for unaccompanied chant to get progressively flatter.

    It has been suggested that singing chant in a reverberant acoustic produced harmonies and this was the origin of polyphony. Chant and polyphony complement one another. I once heard a Solemn Mass sung entirely in polyphony (including the Propers) and the cumulative effect was somewhat tiresome. This is not the case in a Mass sung entirely in chant. Chant has greater variety. For all its defects, the Novus Ordo preserved the musical structure of the Mass, and Paul VI’s famous remarks in November 1969 that his new Mass sacrificed Gregorian Chant (along with much else) remain some of the oddest from this enigmatic Pontiff.

  33. frjim4321 says:

    White would be my preference for funerals however I would allow that adopting the retro [There is nothing “retro” about it. It is the current legislation.] look of black or violet would probably have the effect of muting some of the mindless celebratory claptrap that we often see. For example if a more sober tone was set we might see fewer jokes, funny stories and laugh lines in the “Words of Remembrance.” We might see the communion procession for what it is, and not a standby “receiving line” with communicants stopping to hug the significant mourners in the front pew. We might not have as many requests for crappy popular music (e.g., “Over the Rainbow” for the final song. We might not have “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” for the communion reflection.

    I’m really not into throwback for throwback’s sake, [You are trying to be provocative. We see what you did there.] but I can see that using the retro color scheme could have some beneficial effects.

  34. Volanges says:

    Our parish owns neither black nor rose vestments and there is no will of the Pastor to buy any. No violet for funerals in this parish either, it’s white all the way. The only pall we have is white.

    As for black being the clothes of mourning, I think that is slowly disappearing at least in my area. Even at Mom’s funeral in the mid 80s there were family members dressed in colourful clothes. I often help at funerals in my parish and we see fewer and fewer people dressing in black for these. I’ve seen everything from the widow in jeans to the pallbearers in hockey jerseys. Many times I’m wearing more black than any of the family members.

  35. Michael says:

    Seeing black vestments in a Novus Ordo – in my experience – has been about as rare as seeing a bearable Collect according to the 1973 ICEL translation. That being said, I would specifically request black for my funeral Mass.

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  37. mrd__Catholic says:

    Hello Fr. Z,

    I agree that black vestments are perfect for All Souls Day. However, I think white is at least equally appropriate for a Catholic funeral. Catholic funerals are full of Baptismal imagery: the Paschal candle, the white pall, the sprinkling of holy water, and many of the prayers. Baptism itself symbolizes dying with Christ and “the things of this world.” I think wearing white at a funeral represents the faith and hope we place in our Baptism.

    Now granted, many Catholics have failed to live out their Baptism, and we do not have the knowledge to fully determine who’s who, but for a devout Catholic, the white as a reminder of Baptism seems like the perfect vestment color.

    Please respond.

    [You are wrong.]

  38. mrd__Catholic says:

    How/why? I understand that funerals are somber occasions emotionally and times to offer prayers and supplications of behalf of the deceased, but why exactly is it wrong to use white vestments? Is not the color of the Baptismal garment a reminder that a Christian death is different because Christ has conquered death? Again, not that all Christians are automatically saved, and many or even most must pass through purgation first, but it is Baptism which, as St. Peter together with his successors says quite empathetically, now saves us. It is quite significant, after all, that the Paschal candle is only lit at baptism Easter, and funerals. Many of the lectionary readings for funerals are about the resurrection. “If we have died with Him, then we shall live with Him.”